Intellectual relativism

This is a very peculiar article at Politico, arguing that in a pandemic, everyone is a "moral relativist," because if you're honest with yourself, you're willing to let someone die in order to open the economy back up.

If you've ever wondered why it's so hard to talk to a moral relativist about moral relativism, the article sheds a little light.  The author, at least, thinks that moral relativism means being willing to accept the idea that a policy might not be effective in producing 100% safety.  It doesn't occur to him to wonder, on the other hand, whether the policy he would prefer--keeping the economy shut down--would produce 100% safety.  Has he asked himself whether he's willing to let someone die in order to prevent the economy from opening back up?  I suspect he operates entirely on emotion, which makes these questions meaningless.

A standard definition would be that moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. What would be the moral judgment here? That saving a life is, on the whole, a worthy objective? That's the one area where there's no particular disagreement in the current pandemic policy debate. We're not even arguing about whether one probable saved life is more worthy than another, or how to weigh non-fatal damage against fatal damage. It's not moral relativism to consider whether a cure is more damaging than a disease. A truly morally relativist approach to the COVID-19 policy dilemma would be to question the assumption that saving lives is a moral imperative at all, and to criticize a would-be life-saver as privileging his pro-life fetish over some other value, such as community sacrifice, or extreme personal liberty, or strengthening the genome by Darwinian ruthlessness, or making more room in over-crowded nursing homes, or fattening the profit margins of Big Pharma. Alternatively, a moral relativist might argue that there was no infallible basis for preferring sacrifice, liberty, profits, etc., over longevity.

But if someone merely argues that he can tolerate the possibility that someone will die after a policy is implemented, you don't learn much about his view of moral relativism. He might think the body county is inevitable, or no greater than is likely in the context of some competing policy, or frankly unknowable at this point. He might come to all these conclusions despite entirely agreeing with his critic on the relevant moral judgments. He might equally well disagree on all the relevant moral judgments, without that's having any effect on his policy preference. The big difference would be that he openly acknowledges a belief that his moral judgments are based on a standard independent of his historical or cultural standpoint or personal preferences, and are "privileged" over moral judgments he considers wrong. His critic, on the other hand, is just as strident and inflexible in his moral judgments, but thinks he escapes the error of believing they are "privileged" simply because he can't articulate a reason for adopting them, clinging to them, or imposing them on skeptics--though he will certainly go on doing so.


Grim said...

While he's wrong to call that 'relativism,' in general he's right about his major conclusion:

"An honest brand of politics, which we urgently need, admits the tension and tries in good faith—with reference to evolving evidence and with acknowledgment of uncertainty—to resolve it in the public interest. A dishonest brand of politics, of which we are wearily familiar, assumes a pose of superiority and certitude, and cares about evidence mostly as it can be deployed as weapon or shield in a partisan argument that began long before the issue at hand and will continue long after."

That's right. Of course he's also wrong to limit his view as he does to the safety vs. economics frame. That's a bad frame, as the essay I posted above explains.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Some deaths count - the Real Deaths - and some deaths don't.