As a young conservative, I was taught to despise something we were taught to call “moral relativism.” The moral relativism of the time was a particular Cold War variant: The United States and the Soviet Union were, relativism’s partisans insisted, more or less equivalent enterprises, each ruthlessly and cynically seeking its own advantage vis-à-vis the other, while liberalism and Communism were simply two different ways of trying to organize economic and political affairs, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. There were differences, to be sure, but only the truly naïve believed that there were good guys in this fight or that we — the West — were them.
We young conservatives found that proposition repugnant. The Soviet Union was a place of gulags and political prisoners, unnecessary privation, suppression, and — above all — lies. It was an empire of lies, and in such an empire no man is safe — no chess master, no novelist, no composer. The United States had its problems, as did the United Kingdom and the rest of our allies, but you could mock Ronald Reagan day and night and never fear hearing the sound of someone’s standard-issue boot kicking down your door in the dead of night. That was a moral truth, not a point of view.
But point of view, all the best people insisted, was all there was. From a few overstuffed truisms originating in the field of linguistics arose an entire philosophy — and an intellectual movement — oriented toward radical indeterminacy. Nothing was truly knowable. Texts — poems, history, laws, scientific theories, whatever — said, if they said anything at all, only that which they were given permission to say by shadowy and vague forces: capitalism, patriarchy, the omnipresent “power” of Michel Foucault and his disciples. The Bill of Rights could mean whatever anybody with enough power wanted it to mean, but Discipline and Punish had to be closely read, studied down to the semicolon, even venerated. Reading Foucault is why you learned French. De la démocratie en Amérique? Irrelevant.
The thing about reactionaries is, we react. William F. Buckley Jr. dedicated an episode of Firing Line to the question of “moral absolutes,” and denunciations of “moral relativism” came fast and thick. And they did not stop. Our friend Ben Shapiro warns of the West abandoning its moral heritage and “favoring moral subjectivism.” Mark Sunwall, a Mises Institute contributor who teaches English in the College of Nursing Art and Science in Hyogo, Japan (those always-angry Mises guys are spread far and wide, like syphilis), indicts Buckley (they are always on the hunt for phony conservatives!) as a man with a “secret contempt for moral absolutes.”
And so the intellectual battle lines were drawn.
But few if any of us were standing on the side we said we were.
The Right has always been comfortable with moral ambiguity, most plainly in the matter of foreign policy. That was especially true in the Cold War, when conservatives went to great lengths — often too far, and sometimes far too far — defending such characters as Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet as bulwarks against Communism. F. A. Hayek’s overwhelming admiration for the Chilean dictator was sufficient to inspire a chiding letter from Margaret Thatcher, who described the general’s methods as “quite unacceptable.” Nelson Mandela was the leader of a revolutionary Communist movement and refused to foreswear political violence, but what he was up against was not a Madisonian republic. Perhaps it was the demands of political rhetoric, but conservatives have from time to time failed to cleave to the knowledge that necessary evil is evil.
And these calculations were not limited to foreign affairs. Consider the watershed moment that was the debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Buckley had opposed the 1964 law, but there were few more trenchant critics of George Wallace’s racial record when the segregationist ran for president in 1968. There were — and are — legitimate concerns that the federal approach to civil rights, particularly in the matter of “public accommodations,” invited invasive micromanagement and created real constitutional problems. (It is the reason we are still having a debate over outlaw bakers.) There were political calculations at work, too, to be sure: Barry Goldwater, who had been an important civil-rights advocate in Arizona and in federal office, pronounced himself eager to “hunt where the ducks are.” But the fact was, and is, that the question is morally and politically complicated, and that there are good-faith reasons for disagreement about the legal particulars.
The political party and political tendency that were closely allied with the moral relativists of the Cold War era were in fact much more eager for moral absolutism. In the matter of the United States vs. the Soviet Union, they saw no moral equivalency: They saw the United States as the principal force for evil in the world and wanted it knocked down a peg or two, and any adversary would do: Lenin and his heirs, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh. Noam Chomsky spent years insisting that the Cambodian genocide was an invention of American intelligence operatives hoping to discredit the authentic people’s movement of Pol Pot even as that maniac installed his throne on top of a giant pile of skulls.
The same is more or less true today: The great alternative was, for a hot minute, Venezuela, and now it is smashing capitalism in the name of the Green New Deal or, because nothing is ever really in the past, Communism once more, albeit the “fully automated luxury communism” Aaron Bastani recently described in the New York Times. (And shame on Bastani and the Times both for bowdlerizing “fully automated luxury gay space Communism.” Pansies.) There’s a new spin on things — Bastani wants to use robots to mine synthetic meat asteroids, or something — but the fundamentals are always the same. Critics have sometimes knocked John le Carré for his alleged practice of moral equivocation in the Cold War, but those critics should reread him: They are being too generous. Le Carré is about as subtle as an episode of Captain Planet, for those of you old enough to remember.
The American Left is not only comfortable with moral absolutism, it is, at the moment, in the grip of a moral hysteria. Taylor Swift is injecting pro-gay messages into the pop charts, but the progressives are convulsed over whether she is spreading her message of (slightly snide) tolerance in a morally acceptable way. Lena Dunham, Elton John, the Whitney Museum’s tribute to the 1960s — no one and nothing is ever pure enough for these puritans. Joe Biden? “Misogynistic.” Camille Paglia? A pariah. Professor Rebecca Tuvel was denounced as a perpetrator of “violence” for using the phrase “biological sex.” Liberal book editors are so terrorized that they do not know what to publish, and even some young progressive authors have been bullied into suppressing their own books.
Conservatives took a mature attitude toward moral ambiguity in the matter of foreign policy, and to some extent still do. Our relations with the Gulf states, for example, is a reminder that while the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” school of thought is not always right, it is not always wrong, either. Our insistence on “moral absolutes” is very often to be rhetorical when challenged. You can take the conservatives out of Protestantism, but you can’t take the Protestantism out of conservatives.
Progressives, on the other hand, took a relativistic “Who are we to judge?” attitude toward questions of sexual ethics and a few thorny cultural questions, for about five minutes, and then they abandoned that single-serving libertarianism the moment they achieved enough power to demand conformity and punish dissent. “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views,” as Bill Buckley famously put it. And now those shocked and offended partisans are out to root out and punish those other views — with prison time, in the case of global warming and the infinitely plastic offense of “hate speech.”
Which leaves us where, exactly? To the extent that the conservative movement is for the moment dominated by Republican™-branded entertainment figures, the question of moral relativism is . . . morally relative. Our populist friends, for example, presented the Donald Trump phenomenon as a classical case of moral relativism (“But Hillary!”) and at the same time argued that this relativistic calculation produced as its outcome a moral absolute, the applicable scope of which has been steadily enlarged. One suspects that they are not thinking too very hard about it.
What we can and should acknowledge is that there is a difference between moral confidence and moral certitude, and that in both moral and political matters there is always a place for prudence and humility, for the facts of the case and the particulars of the time. A conservatism that fails to account for these is no conservatism at all.