A woman who was a grad assistant in a class I once took confessed to us that she’d burst out laughing in the previous section when, in the midst of a dialogue about the source of ethics, she queried a student: “So you’re a relativist, then?” To which he replied: “Absolutely!”
I mention this because a review in the new Weekly Standard of the new book Neoconservatism: Why We Need It devotes both its title and a significant chunk of the review itself to inveighing “Against Relativism.” As I’ve probably said in this space before, this is a somewhat befuddling straw man for conservatives to take up precisely because it’s so rare on the ground. In fact, because it’s arguably a self-undermining doctrine, even the relatively few folks who self-describe as relativists usually aren’t. The more common sort, I think, really just believe in an excessively strong meta-principle of extreme toleration, such that a variety of conflicting local norms should all be accepted. Everyone is this sort of relativist in at least some areas. Most of us think, for example, that it’s right to punish someone for driving on the left side of the road in the United States, but not in Britain, because each local norm in context satisfies the higher-order norm “minimize unnecessary fatalities.” After all, “tolerate differences in norms,” at least up to a point, is itself a norm being offered up as universally desirable. The other sort of self-described “relativist” is actually just a moral skeptic, who doesn’t so much think all moral codes are “equally valid,” but rather just denies that there are any genuinely moral codes: There are only just local taboos. Describing these as “equally valid” would be a kind of category error, like describing turnips as “equally true” or sonatas as “equally viscous.” This sort of view is held by a tiny, tiny minority of highly educated people, and sociopaths.
Anyway, most of the people conservatives want to describe as relativists are neither of these. It’s just that if you take the position that, say, gay people ought not to be stigmatized, people convinced they have a monopoly on morality will jump to the conclusion you reject any universal morality, when you’re actually advancing the affirmative, first-order moral proposition: “There is, in fact, nothing morally wrong with homosexuality.” In cross-cultural contexts, I think what they often mean (though here I suspect they’re more apt to be mistaken) is something like: “People should have the institutions that will, on the whole, make them happy—and these might be different for people raised in different cultures, which cultivate different psychological dispositions, varying degrees of need for autonomy or connectedness, and so on.”
So, to paraphrase Tim Curry in Clue, relativism is just a red herring. In more ways than one, come to think of it, since the harping on relativism flows out of a discussion of Leo Strauss, and the link sometimes made between his influence on neocon intellectuals and the march to war in Iraq. All the reviewer has to say on this front is that Strauss “did not promulgate a political program or advocate particular policies.” Which is true: Nowhere in Natural Right and History is there a plan for invading Iraq, nor (as far as I know) had anyone suggested as much. But this dodges the point. A lot of neocons do seem to have extracted from Strauss the doctrine that, as Irving Kristol has put it on the subject of evolution:
There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy.
It became glaringly obvious a while back that the administration’s brain trust became committed to a war in Iraq as part of a geostrategic campaign of political transformation in the Middle East; that they determined the public would not back a war on these grounds: and that it was decided to sell the war on the strength of the WMD rationale instead, with intelligence operating like a debater’s research, gathering points to make a case. Would Strauss personally have endorsed this? Who knows? But his soi-disant intellectual heirs seem to have glommed on to a version of his ideas that licenses artfully deceiving a citizenry for its own long-term good. It’s interesting that the reviewer doesn’t seem to want to rebut this charge so much as avoid it. One glimmer of hope, though, emerges from the suggestion that the next step for neoconservatism is to consider “what lessons from the neoconservative critique of social engineering at home can be applied to the program for promoting liberty and democracy abroad?” Good question. Not, alas, one neocons seem eager to take up yet if Bill Kristol’s flat-out insane editorial in the same issue is any indication. If anything, alas, it seems more likely that their optimism about social engineering abroad has made them more sanguine about its domestic prospects.