Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Morally Relative Right

Gen. David Petraeus argued against the use of torture today on Meet The Press:
 I have always been on the record, in fact, since 2003, with the concept of living our values.  And I think that whenever we have, perhaps, taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside.  We decided early on in the 101st Airborne Division we're just going to--look, we just said we'd decide to obey the Geneva Convention, to, to move forward with that.  That has, I think, stood elements in good stead....  Because in the cases where that is not true, we end up paying a price for it ultimately.  Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are nonbiodegradables.  They don't go away.  The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick in the Central Command area of responsibility.  Beyond that, frankly, we have found that the use of the interrogation methods in the Army Field Manual that was given, the force of law by Congress, that that works.
Sounds reasonable to me, especially given the great likelihood it simply doesn't work anyway.  Unfortunately, modern conservatism has embraced the Cheney model on torture.  A long-standing critique on the right has been the left's supposed moral relativism.  I think that accusation is actually wrong, but I'll get to that in a minute.   What's really bizarre to me is that contemporary conservatism gets about as close to moral relativism as you'd find.  I know very few people who would agree with the premise: different people have different morals and so it is wrong to criticize someone else's behavior, even if you disagree with it. 

Many liberals are sensitive to the fact that those with power have often taken advantage of other peoples in the name of righteous moral authority when in reality all they were doing is justifying their own sick fantasies of domination and exploitation.  But you'd be hard-pressed to find any liberal who actually believes that it is OK for someone else to do something that he himself considers wrong.  He may not want to start a war over it, but he'll still oppose it on principle.

The right, especially in its Christianist form, has often confused this proper definition of moral relativism with the empirical fact that human morality is relative to human thought; i.e. we decide our own morality.  While the general universality of human cultural morality is indicative of common biological and cultural structures, the existence of many nuanced moral beliefs is a testament to a relativity.  I think the confusion lies in the fundamentalist belief in absolute moral truths as handed down from God, specifically via biblical teaching. 

And yet here we find the purest example of people who could truly be considered relativists in the proper sense: because American superiority is ordained by God, then basically whatever we can claim to do in the name of America is morally correct.  The bible doesn't specifically forbid using "enhanced interrogation" on your enemies, and because doing so could be rationalized as good for America, then it is perfectly acceptable.  The moral has become entirely subjective to the interpretive whims of he who acts in God's name. 

This was always the problem with the fundamentalist argument for absolute morality.  Even if an absolute existed, it would still have to be revealed somehow to man.  And yet we end up right back at the beginning: stuck trying to decide which interpretation of the divine is correct.  And aside from actually experiencing some clairvoyant direct line to God, we're forced to use reason. 

Karen Armstrong refers to fundamentalists being left to "practice poor reason & poor religion", in that the one inevitably interferes with the other.  In this way, those who take a fundamentalist approach to American identity and morality will essentially be practicing poor reason and poor patriotism.


  1. "Even if an absolute existed..." you mean like the absolute nature of death?

    Also if a loved one of yourse was being held by someone you were near, would you use any means possible to free that love one?

    Maybe harsh language, maybe moderation?

  2. No, actually. There are absolutely things that happen absolutely - well, at least to an incredibly high degree of certitude. We call these things laws. Your comment seems to reflect what I was trying to describe as the misunderstanding of the difference between morals being relative to human thought and true moral relativism, which is people acting as if "anything goes" because "everything is relative". And I've yet to meet anyone who abides by the latter.

    Morality, however, deals with what we OUGHT to do, not what happens. So you certainly feel an emotional response when a loved one is threatened. That is real, can be described and measured. But how one acts in response is based on a set of beliefs or life experiences that guides one this or that direction.

    So you or I might punch them in the face, someone else might run, or try and talk them out of it. There can be absolute results of each of our actions (although often times we won't have enough information for a reliable prediction), and action will produce a specific set of reactions.

    But whatever course we determine best will always be based on a definite set of optimal outcomes, not on any sort of absolute morality. In my view, religions evolved out of man's attempt to create an absolute morality out of his own innate and culturally derived human expectations. This would account for why, in the world religions, you see general agreement on the big moral issues, and tremendous diversity in the particulars.