Moral relativism is at first glance the easiest of all philosophical positions to defend. The defense consists of a single tactic, remorselessly and impartially applied to any and all ethical precepts: deny their truth and insist that the proponent show the logical contradiction that arises from that denial. The consistent skeptic does not have the unpleasant obligation of showing how one moral precept ties into another; nor does he face the difficult task of squaring moral principles that seem to be individually attractive but mutually repellent (i.e. a defense of individual autonomy with duties of benevolence for those in need). Instead the skeptic need respond only with a dismissive wave of the hand, and move on to other business capable of greater logical precision or empirical verification. Ethical discourse remains an empty vessel into which no content can be poured.
At the most abstract level, countless people consider themselves to be moral skeptics, and rejoice in seeing through a form of discourse that all should regard as empty and uninformative. But here the professions of faith, or rather the lack of it, are in most cases, only skin deep. No one lives by that skeptical precept in practice; nor could they and hope to make decisions that involve punishment, blame, credit, commendation or disapproval. The moment that something, anything, in our daily lives turns on an appeal to principle, the most determined skeptic is transformed, as if on cue, into a traditional moral practitioner, lacking only the candor of his new found enterprise.
The transformation is most apparent in efforts to deal with children. No moral skeptic can raise children. To be sure, it is possible to bend them to your will by beating them when they resist your commands. As a parent you possess the power, why then show any reluctance to use it? Indeed why care for your children at all in the first place? But few parents are willing to either maim or disclaim their offspring, and fewer still are willing to argue that they are within their rights in so doing. Most people think that being a parent imposes special obligations to restrain the use of physical power, and that in turn requires the acceptance of principles of right and wrong to guide conduct. No skepticism here.
From the other side of the relationship, the power of moral argument is even more pronounced. Many children are unable to read or add, but there are few who do not know how to appeal to moral principle, especially when its proper application cuts to their advantage. How many children cannot say, like Jimmy, to their parents, “but you promised to take me to the ballgame;” or, like Margaret, “Johnny took my toy from me, and he won’t give it back;” or like Sam, “it’s not fair that you allowed Susie to have a cookie when you won’t let me have one.” It is not clear whether children learn their lessons by imitation from their parents, or whether some inborn imperative leads them to an early mastery of moral principles. But doubts as to causation should not lead to any about the power and precision of moral thought. Children develop an unerring moral vocabulary and an advanced moral sense at a very early age.
What is important to note, moreover, is that the ordinary expressions they use (like those mentioned above) in daily discourse implicate some of the most fundamental principles of human justice. The first refers to the obligation to keep promises. On it rests the vast edifice of the law of contract, the system that regulates both exchanges and gifts, and which lies at the base of both a market economy and institutions of family and charitable giving. The second example shows the power of the principle of private property, which normally one person cannot take from its owner without consent. The third illustration shows the importance of equal treatment for persons who are similarly situated.
Oh, but it will be said in reply, how can any of these principles be regarded as moral absolutes? After all, it is always possible to think of suitable counterexamples for each of them. It may well be that the parents did promise to take Jimmy to the ballgame, but he may have misbehaved badly the night before, or a family emergency may have arisen. Must this promise be kept, and if not, then why keep any others? And perhaps Johnny didn’t give back the toy because he knew that Margaret was about to break it, or use it in a way forbidden by her parents. And maybe Susie could have the cookie which Sam could not because he was allergic to some of its ingredients when she was not.
But the use of counterexamples to sow the seeds of moral skepticism has exactly the opposite effect. The tactic only shows the complexity of certain forms of moral discourse, not their incoherence. The first point is that all of these arguments are cast as exceptions to a general rule. Yet think of how the world would be if we inverted our principles and began with the assumption that it was normally all right to break promises, to keep the property owned by others, or to deny, when in a position of guardianship or trust, equal treatment to those similarly situated. How would any one craft sensible exceptions to such silly and counterproductive rules?
In addition, the reasons offered to deflect these general rules, all fall into certain predictable patterns. Not just any reason will count, and some will sound laughable even to the confirmed skeptic. Thus could any parent say with a straight face that he needn’t take Jimmy to the ball game because he excelled in his studies or because the price of the tickets had dropped? Nor could Johnny justify keeping Margaret’s toy because he wanted to break it or tease her. Nor would it be appropriate to create an exception to the norm of equal treatment when Susie had the allergic reaction and Sam did not.
The important thing to recognize is that moral discourse has to account for the easy cases as well as the more difficult ones. It has to recognize that there are right answers in some cases even if there are unclear answers in others. And this the skeptic cannot do precisely because his consistent denial of moral principles does not allow for any differentiation between hard and easy cases. Worse still, for the skeptic at least, the careful selection of counterexamples thus leads the skeptic into the normative moral web that he sought to avoid. We do have strong moral principles, and also recognize that these moral principles are not absolute, but only in this restricted sense: there is a set of excuses and justifications for the noncompliance with a moral norm. The very fact that ordinary language is rich with terms that respond to these impulses is powerful evidence that some conduct does need excusing or justifying, and that recognition quickly and typically brings us back to the breach of promise, the taking (or destroying) of the property of others, or the failure to follow a norm of equal treatment when a fiduciary to a class of individuals. (No, it is not a breach of this duty to treat one’s own children with greater affection than those of a stranger.)
By degrees, therefore, the simple moral discourse can be enriched to take into account problems of self-defense, problems of changed circumstances, problems of diminished capacity, problems of mistake and fraud. The language that is used between children, moreover, carries over instructively to disputes between strangers. The way we speak to our children, and the way they speak to us, offers us a microcosm of a moral universe in which all participate on a daily and uneventful basis. Institutionally, the concern with bias means that both parties have to present their arguments to a neutral third party, but the content of their arguments often involves only an elaboration and extension of the same principles that are grasped and applied by children. While the difficulties in reaching a consensus in the hard cases become ever more pronounced, grappling with these cases tends to increase the consensus over the easy cases that in practice are the most frequent and important in our day to day lives. Any disagreements over the proper use of deadly force in self-defense only strengthens our belief in the fundamental prohibition against aggression. The scope of the network thus expands from the core cases to the more difficult issues that lie at the edge.
But it will be said that there are some questions on which it turns out that no agreement is possible. If I like chocolate ice cream and you like vanilla, no amount of argumentation will lead either of us to change our views. So there are matters, both great and small, on which disagreements do persist after all. But many of these are matters not of moral conviction, but of taste taken quite literally in the ice cream case. Yet we can extract from these cases a moral principle that links skepticism on matters of taste with conviction on matters of moral substance. The strongest defense of the common law rules of individual liberty, private property and voluntary exchange is that they set mutually exclusive and mutually exhaustive domains of action in which each person can exercise choice with those who share his views without having to persuade the doubters to go along with them. Any rival system that requires all persons to have either chocolate or vanilla requires at best complicated systems of voting that always leaves someone aggrieved precisely because there is no way to persuade the loser that he held wrong beliefs, for indeed he does not.
It is therefore our limited and principled skepticism about the ability to reach collective choices on all issues that make the preservation of liberty, property and contract so critical from a moral and social perspective. But it is only our awareness of the power of moral principles that allow us to formulate suitable defenses of these institutions against the collectivist who knows which flavor of ice cream we should really prefer. And that examination can proceed along rational and profitable lines only after we have distanced ourselves as rapidly as possible from the corrosive effects of moral skepticism.
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