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Friday, September 10, 2021

Why social liberals are not moral relativists

Thomas Hurka
The New Statesman
Originally published 3 March 21

Here is an excerpt:

We tend to think of morality as issuing commands and prohibitions – Moses didn’t give his people the Ten Permissions – but morality also allows things. Trivially, it lets you choose your hairstyle; there’s nothing morally wrong about having a mullet. More seriously, if you could save two strangers’ lives by sacrificing your own, morality permits you to do that, but it also permits you not to. In cases like this morality allows you to care more about your own life and so again frees you to make either of two choices. A progressive private morality simply grants more of these permissions.

And a progressive morality can perfectly well ground public duties, though of a distinctively liberal kind. It can say that whenever someone is permitted to make a choice, others are forbidden to interfere with that choice or prevent them from making it.

Thus rape is wrong in part because it prevents the other person from deciding, as they’re morally permitted to, not to have sex with someone. By the same token, though, if a state criminalises gay sex, that too prevents people from doing something morally permitted and is wrong – hence liberals’ opposition to such laws.

For liberals, everyone has the right to make certain choices in their private lives, and others are required, as a matter of public morality, to respect that right. It’s wrong to force someone to do what they’re permitted not to do. In the liberal view, just as in the conservative view, a universal public duty rests on a universal truth about private morality. But this truth is now one that permits rather than forbids things.

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If all this is true, why do some progressives say relativist-sounding things that invite a charge like Barr’s? They may be making, in a slightly misleading way, several claims that aren’t relativist but can sound as though they are.

By “values are relative”, for example, liberals may mean only to emphasise that people’s beliefs about morality differ, both between cultures and within a single one, and that we should take account of this in our moral thinking. Recognising this plurality can make us less prone to assume, dogmatically, that our particular moral convictions capture the whole of universal moral truth. Maybe some other culture or person has insights we lack; maybe the most adequate moral view combines some elements from ours with some from theirs.

Sometimes the differences between cultures are simply a matter of the conventional ways they express a shared moral value. In one culture people show respect for each other by taking off their hats, while in another they do so by keeping their heads covered. Here it may be true that the “right” thing to do with headgear differs between these cultures, but that’s not a relativist claim because it concerns only the arbitrary specification of a universal value of respect.