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April 23, 2005

On Moral Relativism

Over at my friends’ Live Free or Die, there’s been a bit of a debate about moral relativism, as they put it. I’ve been thinking a lot about and posted the following comment:

“I think you’re right. I think idealism is far too idealistic to work beyond itself, and when people like you dare to condone violence under a certain set of circumstances, take a stand on culturally sensitive issues and hold opinions that don’t look so good on t-shirts, it’s brave and profound.

But I also believe that violence is always inherently the wrong course of action. I believe that war, death, and violence are issues that require a blanket generalisation with no exceptions. It’s wrong to kill people. Perhaps with some regimes, violence is the only language they will understand but personally I would be ashamed to speak that language. We must raise our personal standards, morally, politically and diplomatically. Fire versus fire is a rather predictable fight.

I realise I am saying nothing new or altogether helpful, but you can’t just dismiss my opinion because you find it irritating.

You’re right that sometimes the only really impactful response to genocide and human rights abuses is war, but I think input from people who disagree with this is essential if these missions are going to be carried out well. Because the thing is they usually aren’t carried out well. Liberators have a knack of inflicting human rights atrocities of their own, fuelled by self-righteousness and supposed moral superiority. Further, war-mongering is a reflex with too many people in powerful places, and they have to be kept in check. Also, which countries deserve or require liberation? I, like you, believe in a universal moral standard for humanity, but this is as deeply problematic and simplistic as cultural relativism, because who determines it? Are you really that sure of yourself?

You can’t just stake a claim and stay there. Ideas have to be ever-evolving and dialogue must continue from people on all-sides. Everyone must be willing to be proven wrong and you can’t always be anti-anti. You have to listen to the Noam Chomskys, and Michael Moores, because they have something worthwhile to say. I know you’re both more open-minded than you sometimes let on, and that indeed you do this, hence the balance of sites on your links page that started this debate in the first place.

So does it make me the ultimate relativist to say that you’re right, but sometimes the people whose opinions you disagree with are just as right as you are?”

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