Those are two words I hear applied to Liberalism a lot, usually by people who mean to cast it in an unfavorable light, and as such people are prone to do, calling liberals “moral relativists” is a wild exaggeration at best. If you can find a liberal who thinks armed robbery is okay, then you've found a moral relativist. (Stupid comments about taxation as stealing will be deleted, so don't waste your breath.) So what is moral relativism? Read on…
Moral Relativism is a system of morality that holds that there are no absolute or universal morals. All morals are personal and/or cultural. An example would be an American thinking it is okay to stick your tongue out in public, versus a Middle Easterner who thinks it sinful. Thus a moral relativist would never expect anyone other than himself to adhere to his set of morals.
A *true* moral relativist therefore, would never say “murder is wrong”, for example. He would only say that it is up for you to decide for yourself if it was wrong. In fact a true moral relativist wouldn't even say whether moral relativism itself was right or wrong. I've yet to meet a liberal this describes, and I know a lot of liberals.
The moral absolutist on the other hand only sees the world in black and white. There are absolutely no shades of gray, and no such thing as “mitigating factors”. Further, the moral absolutist does not distinguish between personal and absolute values… all values are absolute. If a moral absolutist thought that wearing yellow was offensive to God, then anyone wearing yellow is a sinner, even if they belong to another religion and only wear yellow in the privacy of their own homes on the other side of the world. Further if asked whether or not moral absolutism was right or wrong, an absolutist would immediately say that it was appropriate. I've yet to meet a conservative who fits this description, though I've seen some that come disturbingly close.
If you step outside of the realm of humanity, then the Moral Relativist position is probably correct. Alien beings from another world could not be counted on to adhere to any values we hold, even if we hold them as universal. (This doesn't mean if a martian landed and started killing people, it would not be immoral, but that it might not be immoral from the martian's perspective.) A universal value then, is held to be universal only with respect to humanity. As I am a member of the human race, and so are all the liberals and conservatives I know, I'm not prepared to hold a purely moral relativist position.
Therefore when conservatives start calling liberals moral relativists, they're really only objecting to the size and shape of the core set of “universal values” that the liberals have. Why? Because it is differently sized and shaped than their own core set. This is simply the age old conflict of Intolerance versus Tolerance. In fact most liberals and conservatives in America share a pretty similar set of core values: it's not okay to murder, it's not okay to steal, it's not okay to rape, it's not okay to kidnap, etc, etc, etc.
Many liberals have a fairly simple formula for defining the boundary of universal values:
- If it doesn't hurt anybody, it's not immoral.
This covers most of the basics, and there are of course refinements. Is it immoral to smoke a cigarette in the privacy of your own home when nobody else is present? I think most liberals would say no, even though clearly it hurts someone, the smoker himself. But this basic definition will suffice. Thus while a conservative may say that gay marriage is wrong, and give a whole host of reasons other than the real one, most liberals I know would retort that it hurts nobody and is none of the conservative's business. This is where the charge of moral relativism would come in, which is silly, since both sides adhere to moral relativism in different areas.
So pay attention, you are about to hear a liberal taking a clear moral stand:
- It is right and good for two consenting adults of the same gender to marry.
- And, for the record, it is immoral to impose personal religious values on others.
The latter point flies in the face of both true moral relativism and true moral absolutism. So there.