Relativism and Value Hierarchies
Will Truman makes two astute observations concerning the philosophical differences between liberals and conservatives: while both camps may at times use the same words and express the same sort of values, they regularly differ in how they define their words and order their values. Liberals and conservatives both speak of freedom, but they each have a distinct definition for this word. Moreover, while liberals and conservatives both prize freedom, they do so in different hierarchical arrangements of values.
Communication between these two poles therefore tends toward confusion and misunderstanding. They’re not really speaking the same moral language even when using the same words. For each side to understand the other, each has to enter into the other side’s moral language and value hierarchy, but as this move demands a transcendence of self and the ability to think otherwise about one’s own values, it’s rarely made.
I’ve said before that what has been called the “dictatorship of relativism” in our contemporary culture is best understood not as a coherent moral philosophy, as if lots of people espoused a relativistic morality, but rather as widespread moral laziness and absence of moral consideration. Will’s insights raise an additional understanding: our moral culture seems relativistic because it is comprised of competing definitions and hierarchies of value that seem on the surface to be part of the same framework. Even though liberals and conservatives appear to speak the same moral language–they use the same terms and therefore seem to speak of the same values–their moral discourses are fundamentally incommunicable without moral imagination and transcendence. So when, say, the liberal disagrees with a declaration of moral truth made by the conservative, the conservative assumes that the liberal denies moral truth, when in reality, because the liberal has her own definitions and order of values, she may be denying only the conservative’s way of thinking about moral truth and not moral truth itself. What seems a relativistic denial of moral truth is really just a different way of defining and ordering moral values.