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.