Relative Moralism
March 11, 2012

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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Nope, No Alliance Here
March 8, 2012

In a post titled The Left-Right Anti-Yglesias Alliance, Matthew Schmitz suggests that Ross Douthat’s recent quarrel with Matthew Yglesias echoes lefty critiques of so-called pity-charity liberalism.* Both Douthat and the non-neoliberal left, Schmitz writes, argue “that a certain brand of economic thinking is blinkered to the types of things that allow humans to flourish and realize goods that won’t always be easily captured on surveys, things like dignified work and, yes, a stable family.”

That’s a fair gloss of Douthat’s critique — as well as the critique made on folks on the left, such as Freddie DeBoer, Mike Konczal and myself — but it’s hardly grounds for an alliance. And in this particular instance, I don’t think any of the lefties Schmitz cites would accuse of Yglesias of being blind to the unquantifiables that contributes to human flourishing. To understand why not, let’s take a look at the offending Ygz passage that kicked this whole thing off:

The obvious place to look for an explanation of the declining marriage rate is the vast increase in the economic opportunities available to women. Newly empowered and less dependent on male economic support, women have become somewhat choosier and are now less likely to be married than in the past. You can perhaps make the case that this is bad for kids, and that as a society we should return to total economic disempowerment of women in order to force people into two-parent households. But why not just look at progress and call it “progress”? There is evidence that family instability is hard on children, but as seen above, there’s no reason to think we’re witnessing systematic generational decline.

“Economic empowerment” as a concept is not so far removed from agency, autonomy, and the other virtues you’ll see extolled in my writing on labor. And when Konczal writes about “human dignity” in the workplace, he seems to be getting at much the same thing. Our criticisms of neoliberal economic policy tend to be grounded in a conviction that it is, at worst, overly coercive, and, at best, insufficiently emancipatory. Here, Yglesias is whole-heartedly endorsing gender parity in economic autonomy, which seems like sort of a no-brainer from my corner of the ideological spectrum.

Douthat’s critique, it’s true, accuses Yglesias of being concerned only with “some form of continued growth and a relative social stability.” But once you recognize the centrality of empowerment to Yglesias’ argument, that accusation looks pretty plainly false. Douthat seems to have misconstrued the nature of the argument by equating empowerment with an increased ability to pursue one’s “short-term rational interests” (presumably in the economic sense). That ability may be a consequence of empowerment, but they’re not identical notions — and by trying to make them appear identical, Douthat makes the classic neoliberal mistake of reducing complicated philosophical/psychological categories to their measurable economic effects.

Presumably this is so he can sap gender equality in the workplace of its moral appeal so that any state of affairs that encourages heterosexual marriage — even at the expense of gender equality — looks preferable. But for our purposes, it doesn’t really matter why Douthat makes the negative argument he does; the main takeaway is that the argument only works if you take “empowerment” to be some sort of code for “a more efficient specimen of homo economicus.” To be sure, if you’re willing to take that leap, then Douthat’s argument starts looking structurally similar to the left critique of neoliberalism in a very shallow sort of way. But once you decontextualize an argument so much that it really only amounts to, “X framework fails to account for Y,” then a lot of critiques look very similar. It doesn’t mean that the similarities are particularly meaningful.

*For a recent example of the latter type of critique, see my piece in The New Inquiry.

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