Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who achieved fame through his observations about early American democracy, noted that American political rhetoric is so abstract and imprecise that it both “exaggerates and hides any true thought.” He would have loved neocon warhawk Ralph Peters, who, in his many rhetorical screeds published by the New York Post, is calling for a preemptive nuclear attack on North Korea.
After the usual spiel about North Korea being the new Nazi Germany, a meme repeated by John Bolton in his latest call to arms, Peters gets down to our real moral problem. What we suffer from in the U.S. is “moral relativism” and it’s getting in the way of solving our problems through nuclear aggression. Although this charge exemplifies the empty rhetoric that Tocqueville associates with politics in a democracy, according to Tocqueville, imprecise language also “possesses a secret charm” that makes the user and perhaps the listener “reluctant to part from it.”
Complaints that one’s opponents are “moral relativists” have punctuated conservative and neoconservative discourse since the 1950s. The fact that it’s still pulled out for debating purposes, together with nutty comparisons of every adversary faced by this country as Hitler, indicates that the rhetoric in question still (unfortunately) works.
I too was accused of moral relativism at a conference I attended in New York City about five years ago, sponsored by Telos magazine. The organizer, who was associated with the Hoover Institution, leveled this accusation against me when I expressed reservations about making “our democracy mission” the centerpiece of American foreign policy. Despite my insistence that my ability to distinguish between right and wrong had nothing to do with my distaste for American crusades for democracy, it was impossible to change my accuser’s mind. The litmus test for not being a moral relativist, I learned, was accepting the call for an American world mission.
Back in the 1950s, when adherents of the conservative movement spoke about moral relativism, there was at least a philosophical context for their complaint. After all, those on the Left whom they took on sometimes referred to themselves as moral relativists. This of course was a standard ploy for the intellectual Left when they argued against those who assumed divinely revealed moral truths. These would-be children of the Enlightenment also described themselves as “positivists and “agnostics,” but they especially liked the term “relativists.” It suggested that the users, unlike their conservative acquaintances, were broadminded and took the claims of science seriously. Conservatives who debated with them fell into the trap of contesting relativism in the name of “permanent things” or “values,” or in the case of West Coast Straussians, “natural rights.” The serious response would have been to point out that the “relativists” misrepresented themselves. Like their opponents, these advocates absolutized their own moral values. Why is someone who tries to convert the world to atheism, or who believes his “scientific method” can solve all social problems, less of a value-zealot than the one he’s debating with? Those engaged in such a debate may differ about their highest value, but both sides believe equally in such a value. Moral relativists are about as real as unicorns.
The crusade against “relativists” took another form, particularly among the disciples of the political thinker Leo Strauss, who was a towering presence on the intellectual Right after the Second World War. It referred to those who tried to keep moral judgment out of their scholarship and who labored to treat their work as “value-free.” Since I devoted most of a very abstruse book to this subject, I won’t trot out my full argument here. Suffice it to say that by Straussian standards, I am a moral relativist—that is, I don’t believe in writing history as moral diatribes, although being a frail mortal I sometimes stray into this practice. Moreover, by analyzing and contextualizing social and moral attitudes, I don’t have to express approval or disapproval. For example, an historian can show the dramatic transformation of social morality in the U.S. since the 1950s and do so while relating it to political, cultural and economic changes occurring in the the period. This exercise can and should be carried out without moralizing, to the extent that one is being a professional scholar. That doesn’t mean that the person engaged in this exercise has no “values” or moral beliefs. Rather he is methodologically suspending them in describing and analyzing the object of his study.
By now, however, “moral relativist” has about the same linguistic specificity as branding someone a “fascist” or “racist.” It signifies disapproval and the charge that the person to whom the term is being applied is a scumbag. It is astonishing that the Republican echo chamber can still swallow such utterly meaningless expressions of contempt. The only comforting thought is that most of those who do this are seventy or older. These devotees of the conservative movement are fond of a certain kind of invective that they’ve enjoyed for decades. One can only hope that a younger generation of intellectuals on the Right will apply more demanding rhetorical standards. If not, they will sound (God help us!) like Ralph Peters and his friends.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.