Some thoughts from a Conservative, on Thought.

There is a problem with certain liberal thinkers. The problem is simple and easy to explain. Moral relativism means seeing all sides of a problem. Clearly, if the US was invaded by China, many people would see nothing wrong in vanishing into the bush and striking at the hated invaders. Thus, there is nothing wrong in doing so for the Iraqis. In fact, Iraqi resistance fighters may be heroic figures. (Ignoring the civilian target issues for the sake of this straw man.)

On the other hand, they’re killing our troops.

There is a problem with certain conservative thinkers. The problem is simple and easy to explain. Moral absolutism means seeing your side of a problem. People who attack you are trying to kill you. Kill them, first. On the other hand, just killing people rarely solves problems, unless you Carthago Delenda Est their sorry asses and root them out, root and branch.

Moral relativism is a more flexible means of thought, supple like the bamboo, and quick to react. But it can be paralyzed.
Moral absolutism is a stronger, more direct means of thought. But it can also be blind to root causes of a problem.
Myself, I simply have one final message that I stick to. I learned it from a book, but it’s not a bad rule of thumb. And that is, “These are my people.” I may not agree with what the president says, but I will back him against someone from outside the country. I may work to replace him from inside. These troops being shot at may be invaders… which we are, in Iraq. We have done a bad thing there, in my opinion, but we are there, and we must bear responsibility for what is done. These Iraqis shooting at our troops may be heroic, and I may respect them, but that will not stop me from doing my best to make sure our troops stay safe.

Where do you stand on the two poles? How do you stop from being paralyzed? I’d peg Diogenes at the far left of relativism, and Sam Stone at the far right of absolutism, on here. Myself… I bias towards Sam, but I accept that other people think differently.

ES: *These Iraqis shooting at our troops may be heroic, and I may respect them, but that will not stop me from doing my best to make sure our troops stay safe. *

I’m not sure there’s much to debate here. Surely not even the most rabidly anti-Bush leftist opponent of the war is suggesting that we’re obligated to put our troops into unnecessary danger just to give the “heroic” insurgents a better shot at them.

As long as the soldiers are abiding by the Geneva Conventions and all that (and I presume that honorable observance of the laws of war is not an issue that only liberals care about), and are obeying their orders in general, I think liberals and conservatives alike would agree that they’re entitled to do everything they can to protect themselves.

So I don’t quite see how your “absolutist” vs. “relativist” dichotomy really applies here. Nor do I see any “paralysis” problem.

I’m no “relativist.” I have a very consistent set of ethics. I believe you should refrain from hurting people unless you have to defend yourself or somebody else. Even then you inflict the minimum harm necessary and you don’t hurt innocent bystanders.

The invasion of Iraq served no defensive purpose. Iraq did not attack us.

I also don’t divide the world into “us” and “them.” All people are “my” people and I don’t want to hurt any of them.

You say “they’re killing our troops,” but our troops were killing them first, and for no good reason. They are the ones who are defending themselves, not us. They are the ones who have seen their children blown apart in order to “liberate” them.

Call me absolutist but I think it’s wrong to kill children and there’s nothing relative about it.

BTW, the first best way to “keep the troops safe” is not to send them off to war for no reason. The second best way is to get them out as soon as possible.

I think the Iraqis have just as much right to be safe as our troops do and they also have right not to have to live in terror of US troops.

My first patriotic responsibility as an American is to come to the defense of American liberties when they are threatened by their perennial adversary: our own government. (There are plenty of governments out there that are far worse, but they aren’t in a position to represent much of a threat to us).

My next patriotic responsibility is in keeping with the adage “my country, right or wrong”. I need to keep it right and take responsibility for fixing it if and when it goes wrong.

My third (last but not least) patriotic responsibility is to take those things I most value and laud as quintessentially American in the best possible sense of the word, and do what I can to extend those benefits to other countries. To me that means that we treat other countries with the same respect that we insist on being accorded ourselves, that in our dealings with other nations and their peoples we extend the principles of fair and equal representation and democratic inclusion in matters that affect them.

Justice is rendered as a blind woman with scales for a reason. We should not have to highlight our position with red white and blue underlines and say “this is us, so these activities are good activities because they are our activities”. We should instead look at activities and judge them on their merits without regard to who it is who is engaging in them. If it is wrong to invade other countries and depose their leaders without a damn good reason, it remains wrong (and becomes our responsibility to fix) when it turns out that the invading country is our own.

I don’t think that’s moral relativism. I’m not condemning moral relativism, mind you, but this seems to more more like an appeal to universal and consistent rules for everyone.

To borrow just a little bit from your own words, it is possible to fight your enemy and still respect him. If at war, it expected that you try to defeat or kill the enemy. That does not take away the responsibility to make sure the war is for a valid and necessary reason, such as to repel an invader, defend your territory, or to ensure the very survival of your people.

To me, in no way does this constitute a “problem.” Actions should be carefully thought out, debated, studied and weighed before deciding what to do. I’ve often said that a true leader should never be able to sleep peacefully-- it’s the price of making life and death decisions for millions, and it should never be easy.

Nor do I see a problem with a leader (or potential leader) who changes his mind. When did it become a unspeakable shame to be able to say, “This is what I thought back then, but I’ve changed my mind, and this is my position now. Here is why . . .” Decisiveness is not all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes it’s just plain stubborness.

I think that this perspective has caused most of the world’s woes throughout history, and still is causing troubles today. Hell, it’s the cause of mot personal interaction problems, as well.

But sometimes the best action is to do nothing. Some problems have no easy solutions which can be achieved through “decisive action.”

Elizabeth I was often accused of paralytic indecision, but I think that the real motivation was politicial astuteness-- Elizabeth realized that a lot of problems will solve themselves, given enough time, or that the correct course of action would reveal itself eventually, if she just had the patience to wait for it.

I think that some confuse caution with paralyzation. We’re an impatient people who want something done and we want it done NOW! We’ve often seen the results of rush to action-- the problem is worsened because the “solution” was the wrong one.

I tend to see absolutism as a bull rushing bellowing toward an obstacle, trying to bash it down with brute strength, whereas the “relativist” raccoon pauses to think out a way to get around it stealthily.

Some of the bombing in Iraq is way over the acceptable to root out “insurgents”… absolutists aren’t only into defending US troops… but to show that they were not wrong. If that costs many lives doesn’t matter. Fighting “evil” means not considering your actions much.

Diogenes is a textbook believer in moral relativism. However, you won’t get him or anyone else to actually admit it I bet.

I understand moral relitivism. It makes sense from an academic standpoint, and I can see how some people think that way. It’s not that I don’t “get it”. However, I realize that this type of thinking prevents decisive action and doesn’t belong in the real world.

It is necessary to devide the world into “us” and “them” in many cases. The US needs to act to protect “our” interests, not the interests of everyone else in the world. If it means protecting “my” people, then I absolutely am willing to hurt “them”. This is true whether we are talking about a terrorist in Iraq or an intruder breaking into my home.

The terrorist or the intruder’s life does have value and I’m perfectly willing to understand that and discuss it. But that is an academic discussion. In the real world I want my family or our troops to be safe and they come first. There isn’t time to care for everyone equally as if I were a god-like impartial observer. I’m in the game, so it simply makes sense for me to be rooting for my team to win.

As a utilitarian who thinks that national interest ought never outweigh moral principle and that patriotism is for morons, I suggest that we must ask how suffering might be minimised for everyone, overall, in the long run, without weighing “my” people (whoever they are) greater than “them” (whoever they are).

In Iraq, specifically, I believe that a well planned, carefully executed, UN sanctioned intervention on behalf of the Iraqi people might have caused less suffering overall than allowing Saddam to remain in power. The poorly conceived hegemonistic tantrum we actually got was, IMO, the worst of all worlds. The question now is whether staying or leaving will ultimately cause more suffering. I tend very slightly towards staying, but apologising for the unnecessary imbroglio.

I largely agree with the OP. Indeed a year ago I made a similar comment:

However, yet again I must complain a little about the misrepresentation of moral relativism. Moral relativism is an acknowledgement that the truth is subjective. It should not disable one’s own moral framework. In my opinion it gives you a greater perspective and comprehension for why stuff happens, and allows a more nuanced approach to problem solving. Clearly some people can take it too far (see my empathy comment above [My post is my cite! ;)], but not everyone who calls themselves a moral relativist is ethically crippled; indeed I’d hazard that this kind of person is in a shrinking minority. You won’t find anyone on the SDMB sticking up for stoning or female genital mutilation, for example.

Back to the OP, I give you a quote from a surprising source:

Mao Zedong, in conversation with Nixon. Nixon responded: "Those on the right can do what those on the left talk about.
Quoted in Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French

There’s no such animal. There’s no “my people” and “your people.” There’s just people.


We have, in the past, had people sticking up for FGM, actually. I can’t recall whom, but I seem to recall it, and the defense was that it was part of their culture. I believe it was in the general discussion of objective versus relative evil. Or possibly the conversation turned that way. The point remains, to tie it into this electoral cycle, that many of the things people bash ‘conservatives’ for, are issues with moral absolutists. And the entire use of the term ‘liberal’ as an insult seems to stem entirely from moral relativsm. I was prodded to start this thread by a post calling for intelligent conservatives to tell… was it bricker? to shut the hell up. And the realization I came to was this issue needed to be discussed.

The question remains, while both extremes are paralyzing… and few, saving Dio (Yes, Dio. You’re an extremist. Remember the soldier issue? Sorry, man, I can symphasize, but disagree), and, say, Sam, peg those extremes, how can you define a rational restraining point before you hit them? Can you?

Perhaps 'cuz it ain’t true.

I used to think I was a moral relativist, but I’m not. I (and, from reading his posts in this tread, I think Diogenes) have a very clear ethical standard. It just isn’t yours.

Relativism is accepting all moral schemes as equal. I don’t do that. For instance, there are many cultures that don’t put the individual over the group and see no moral failing in causing one member of the group great pain in order to advance the interests of the whole (a radical utilitarianism, if you will, although SentientMeat’s going to take me to task for that). This view is wrong. People have instrinsic worth beyond their identity as a group, and any community which disagrees is, in my opinion, morally incorrect, and their actions will lead to sub-optimal outcomes. Were I “in charge,” I wouldn’t let people in authority in those cultures behave according to the dictates of their culture if it harmed others in significant ways. That’s not any sort of relativism at all – it’s very much an imperative moral absolute, no different than yours or anyone else’s. (Except, of course, that it’s right.)


Cliffy? There certainly are my people. It’s basic set theory. This is the set of all people. This is the set of people in my country. This is the set of my family. This is the set of people I like. This is the set of people I respect. Note that those various sets are at least partially disjunct, excepting the set of all people.

Now, does this make any of them less of a person? No. Does this mean that I will react differently to some, and some will react differently to me, and to each other? Sure.

This is nice. Hopelessly naive that borders on insanity, but nice.

Why is it naive?


How about a cite, dude? If you can’t back this up then please refrain from making factual pronouncements about my personal morality.

“Moral relativism” is not something that really exists much in acadamia. Where you find it, you find it on a theoretical level. Sometimes it is necessary to suspend cultual bias and moral judgement in order to make accurate observations about the world (especially in anthropololog), but for the most part “moral relativism,” like “secular humanism” is an imaginary philosophical bugbear devised by religious conservatives and slobbering war hawks to manipulate public opinion.

You don’t have any people. Sorry. You don’t. The value of human life cannot be quantified by its mere proximity to the mighty Debaser, Center of the Universe. “My people” is an excuse at best.
[quotre]The terrorist or the intruder’s life does have value and I’m perfectly willing to understand that and discuss it. But that is an academic discussion. In the real world I want my family or our troops to be safe and they come first. There isn’t time to care for everyone equally as if I were a god-like impartial observer. I’m in the game, so it simply makes sense for me to be rooting for my team to win.

We’re not talking about straw terrorists or “intruders” in Iraq. We’re talking about ordinary civilians- women, children and old people- who did nothing to us.

WE are the aggressor in Iraq. WE attacked THEM. If you’re NOT a moral relativist, then a consistent ethical standard requires that you condemn unnecessary violence and unprovoked attacks.

In the case of Iraq, it’s the hawks that are being relativists, not the peaceniks.

No it isn’t.

Relativism is merely the ability to realise that almost all people think that their own particular moral scheme is the right one. And they tend to stand by their scheme as vehemently as you or I would stand by ours, and are as mystified as you our I are when they encounter a different moral scheme that puts forward ideas that are contradictory - immoral - to their own. Relativism the ability to attempt understanding of a different moral framework, and to question the basis of one’s own fundamental moral beliefs. But this does not mean abandoning one’s morals!

Here you go:

Like I said: I knew you’d deny it. But, it’s this sort of thinking that I consider to be moral relavitism.

It exists or doesn’t exist depending on how strict of a definition you want to use. The meaning that IMO is most commonly used for moral relativism is the exact attitude that you and others are illustrating quite nicely in this very thread.

The value of human life to me certainly can be quantified by it’s proximity to me. The life of my friends and loved ones is more important to me than the life of a stranger.

I was referring to a theoretical “intruder” in my home, not Iraq. Also, when I say “terrorist” it’s obvious that I’m talking about those killing our troops. It’s silly for you to try and twist that into women children and the elderly.

It’s funny that you deny the existence of relativism, calling it an imaginary bugbear and at the same time accuse others of it.