Relative Moralism

Via Lee McCracken, here’s a particularly pungent example of how right-wing moralists like to abuse the term “moral relativism.” Our author, Gene Callahan, thinks that this is an example of the moral relativist position:

The Rush Limbaughs of the world don’t get to define the boundaries of appropriate sexual or moral behavior. But something is happening: Women are defining those boundaries for themselves, with many men alongside them, and they’re being reminded that there’s a concerted movement to take that right of self-definition away. And we’re mad.

That’s Irin Carmon, writing in Salon, and making the perfectly reasonable point that women have better knowledge of their own sexual behavior than Rush Limbaugh, and are entitled to regulate their own behavior without having to conform it to Limbaugh’s mouth-breathy demands. Callahan seems to think this is roughly analogous to arguing that serial killers are entitled to regulate their own behavior without having to conform to the demands of God, society, or the criminal justice system. In other words, he reads Irin’s position as being, “Moral truth is whatever I, personally, want it to be.”

Evidently, Callahan only read the very last paragraph of Irin’s column, and, lacking any real context, filled in the gaps with the stupidest and least charitable reading of her position that he could concoct. In fact, I don’t know how anyone who read the rest of the column could characterize Irin’s position as anything but a moral realist position: women have a right to autonomy and sovereignty over their own bodies, because they are full and equal persons to men in every respect. I suspect Callahan is doing all of this hand-waving about moral relativism either because he doesn’t have a counter-argument, or knows that the counter-argument is too ugly to say out loud.

Look, Ross Douthat and James Poulos have already tried similar stunts with at least a little more adroitness. It would be getting tiresome now, if it hadn’t always been tiresome. The popular moral stance among social liberals on this issue is a moral realist one; if you think that position is wrong, then state your case. But hiding behind cries of “moral relativism” and denying the moral urgency of your opponent’s argument is just another way of saying that you endorse existing hierarchies and inequalities for familiarity’s sake.

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One Response

  1. Oh fuck me. Comparing women following their own conscience to serial killers. Wow. Says so much.

    This is giving me bad flashbacks of when I was philosophy/theology tutor at a Catholic university. Of course you and I know, recognizing a person’s autonomy and right to follow their own conscience is not moral relativism. Not even in that ball park. Actually, per Catholic moral teaching, without recognizing a person’s autonomy and consicence, you are essentially not recognizing them as a moral being. You CANNOT act morally unless you have the conscience to discern moral choices and then have the autonomy to act on your own conscience.

    So, yeah, what Callahan is really hiding under this B.S. claim of moral relativism is too ugly to say out loud: that we women cannot be trusted to act morally (we’re like serial killers, y’know?), so we cannot be trusted with our own autonomy or allowed to follow our own conscience. As we are so flawed and so inferior to men (we’re like serial killers!) that we cannot be trusted to act morally, we must submit to men and do as they tell us.

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