Saturday, August 07, 2004

Moral Relativism and Conservative Apologetics

I find it amusing to ponder that conservatives, who are usually to be found at the fore of those condemning others for engaging in moral relativism, are also the primary defenders of that very practice when applied in the context of history. What else other than moral relativism is it, for instance, to excuse the misdeeds of slave-holding founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson by saying "they were men of their times?" Couldn't one say the same about any individuals who engage in practices we find unacceptable today, like suicide bombers and Sudanese slave raiders? Aren't they "men of their times", or is one's "time" defined according to some objective measure, of which prevailing opinion in the United States happens to be the infallible guage?

Even in the context of days long gone by such arguments make no sense, for the behavior of ancient tyrants like Herod the alleged child-murderer, and that of the Roman emperors who were wont to feed Christians to the lions, were most definitely typical for leaders of their time. As for King George III, against whom the glorious founding fathers rebelled, one can argue with a straight face that he was actually a far milder sovereign than was typical for an age in which absolutism was the order of the day, which means that considered in the context "of their times", the American rebels had no justification whatsoever in engaging in their little insurrection. No doubt the practitioners of suttee too must be spared censor, acting as they did in accordance with the prevailing norms of their times.

In fact, one can use the very same "men of their times" routine to relativize away every one of the great slaughters that has ever occurred, just as long it happened at some point in time preceding the one in which we find ourselves, as mass orgies of cruelty tend as a matter of course to take on a routine air to those who find themselves neck deep in their perpetuation: an SS man shoots a naked, unarmed woman and her child in the back of the head, and it's no big deal, seeing as he's done it dozens of times before, as have pretty much all the other thousands of enlistees in the black corps - that he happens to feel not the smallest twinge of guilt shouldn't be held against him, as his view of his victims as mere vermin is utterly typical for an occupant of the Greater German Reich, and the poor fellow can't help being a man of his time, can he?

Talk of "men of their times" as a way to excuse the blatant hypocrisy of founding fathers who held slaves even as they condemned King George III for effectively reducing them to slavery is nothing more than apologist drivel. If we open the door to moral relativism based on the historical era under discussion, pretty soon we'll find that all basis for passing moral judgement on other societies is pulled away from under our feet. To the accusation that other ages may judge us by their own standards in turn and find us wanting, the proper answer isn't that we ought to prevail from judging those who came before us by our own standards, but that we should strive to raise our standards to such a level that those who come after us won't hold our thoughts and deeds against us. After all, men who lived as long ago as did Jesus and Rabbi Hillel managed to live lives as free of moral blemish as anyone can hope to do even today.