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April 27, 2005

Moral Relativism

Matthew Yglesias writes:

Matthew Yglesias: Relativism and Beyond: David Vellemen's gone and written a useful primer on what 'moral relativism' is and isn't that people interested in the Pope's anti-relativist campaign ought to check out.... My best guess is that Benedict XVI is mostly concerned about moral authoritarianism rather than relativism and anti-relativism... thinking it very important to get all the Bishops on more-or-less the same doctrinal page.... The only kind of real relativism that I hear anyone seriously endorsing (as opposed to sloppily seeming to endorse when they're not really thinking through what they're trying to say) is agent-relativism about the past... a relaxed attitude to, say... Abraham Lincoln's racism on the grounds that they were 'men of their times.'... Probably the best interpretation of that practice is to steer it away from relativism and say it's an effort to try and avoid a wrongful self-righteousness... it would be pointless to get too up in arms about the fact that Lincoln reflected to a large extent the bad ideas that prevailed during his lifetime. But in an abstract sense, racism wasn't 'more okay' in the 1860s than it is today.

I find myself thinking that something like Alasdair Macintyre's argument in After Virtue is a relativist argument. Macintyre begins by saying that in modern society there is no agreed-upon set of virtues and hierarchy of goods to guide our moral decisions and to settle our moral arguments--and he says that our collective lack of a consensus moral framework is a very bad thing. It would be better, he seems to say, if we had a consensus moral framework--whether of not that consensus moral framework were in some sense the right one. Better to have a collective consensus moral compass that says that east is north than not to have a collective consensus moral compass at all...

At the end of After Virtue, after all, Macintyre appears to be praying for the Second Coming of Someone--but not to greatly care whether it is Nietzsche or Aristotle, Trotsky or St. Benedict who shows up. (Admittedly, in later work Macintyre revises his position and says that only St. Benedict--or is that Benedict XVI?--will do...)

Posted by DeLong at April 27, 2005 06:56 PM