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.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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29 Responses

  1. Sam says:

    I quibble with the term “moral laziness.” I prefer “moral disinterest” or something else which indicates a more passive belief about what other people do with their time.

    Otherwise, yes.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Moral disinterest is part of what passes for “moral relativism,” but by “moral laziness” I mean action without the moral consideration due to the circumstances or situation. I’m guilty myself. I’ve rationalized after the fact instead of doing the hard work beforehand to determine, as best I can, whether a particular course of action is really moral.

      • Sam says:

        You’re describing a sort of moral paralysis to me. You don’t trust yourself to generally make moral decisions without requiring specific analysis?

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          I wouldn’t say all or even most moral decisions require extensive analysis; often moral intuition suffices, but even moral intuition takes work to develop. Conscience isn’t a ready-made thing. So one can be serious about developing one’s conscience. Or one can be lazy about it.

          • Sam says:

            Unless I am misunderstanding you, you’re introducing a polarity that oversimplifies the development of moral belief. What defines “serious” conscience development? What defines laziness? Or, perhaps, a better question: who qualifies as serious and who qualifies as lazy?

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            My conjunction “or” was a poor word choice. I don’t mean to divide everyone into the morally-serious camp or morally-lazy camp. I mean merely that the development of conscience or moral intuition can be taken seriously and it can be approached lazily and/or not at all. In short, it’s possible to be lazy about being moral, and I think this laziness, more than rigorous moral thought, accounts for what is sometimes called moral relativism. (On the other hand, there are rigorous moral relativists, but they’re hardly the movers and shakers of the culture).

          • Sam says:

            Can I ask for some examples? Are religious peoples (more) rigorous? Are atheists not? What are the standards for telling the differences between more rigorous and less rigorous peoples?

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            I wouldn’t tie rigor to the position, but the effort made to arrive at the position. Two people could arrive at basically the same moral position, one after rigorous consideration, the other by being lazy. So, for example, two people share the moral view that euthanasia is a morally acceptable action, for themselves or others. The first has arrived at this conclusion after careful consideration of the relevant facts, arguments, and life experiences. The second deliberately sidesteps these facts, arguments, and experiences because he has an uninformed opinion and he doesn’t want to be spend the mental energy to consider and possibly reconsider his opinion.

            Regarding moral rigor and religion, I hesitate to make any sweeping statement, but I’d wager that authoritarian fundamentalist religion inclines one toward moral laziness because here moral truth is reducible to what the religious authority says it is. The authority says X is evil, then X must be evil. Such a system doesn’t tend one toward moral reflection.

  2. BlaiseP says:

    This isn’t a matter of definition. It’s a matter of measurement. Everyone likes freedom. Freedom is a mom ‘n apple pie weasel word: freedom implies the absence of some constraint, as in degrees of freedom in statistics or physical systems.

    Hierarchy? Arrangement of values? Freedom for me is tyranny for thee. As such, it cannot be anything but a Relative Word. I once tried to make a distinction between Ethics and Morality, a distinction which fell on deaf ears, but it resolves to exactly this point: ethics is me telling you what to do, not how to think.

    I’ll tell you what’s Moral Laziness, absolutist morality. It all comes down to axioms at some level, axioms we may not share, as you point out. It’s when we all have to get along in the wide world where we must begin to accept each others’ axioms — or not, as the case may be, examining the assertions behind the axioms and proofs. Science has always reserved doubt for even the most fundamental of axioms. Some of those axioms can be changed, as in Riemann’s geometry of the sphere, where parallel lines just might intersect under some conditions, or Einstein’s spacetime, where the line of least resistance comes into play as light is bend in a gravity field. We’ve even got two sorts of relativity, general and special and we’re hard at work trying to make the two work in concert, with surprisingly little success.

    The Conservatives have always accused the Liberals of relative morality. When it comes to Articles of Faith across the sociopolitical spectrum from Liberal to Conservative, this has always been the case. But yesterday’s Conservative can silently accept what were once Liberal positions without even a hiccup in his beer. Confronted by his changes, he’ll tell you to your face he never believed anything but the doctrine he preaches today.

    • DensityDuck says:

      “But yesterday’s Conservative can silently accept what were once Liberal positions without even a hiccup in his beer. Confronted by his changes, he’ll tell you to your face he never believed anything but the doctrine he preaches today.”

      Yesterday’s Conservative believes exactly what he always did. He’s just now part of a minority voting group. It is the height of team-jersey foolishness to claim that Strom Thurmond and Scott Brown have exactly the same attitudes because they’ve both got “(R)” after their names.

      • BlaiseP says:

        Curious you should mention Strom Thurmond. Watching ol’ Trent Lott wax nostalgic about the days of yore, eet waz to larf. Bill Buckley once said the Conservative stood atop the steamroller, yelling Stop! Stop! To which I’d respond, the Conservative is the guy who got rolled over by that steamroller like Wile E. Coyote and got up to repeat some variant of his previous idiocy, having learned nothing from the first umpteen times he and his forebears got run over by the same steamroller.

        • Will Truman says:

          That would be the same Trent Lott who was immediately pushed onto an apology tour and, when that didn’t work, was stripped of his leadership position?

          • BlaiseP says:

            The very same! Yep, Trent’s great sin was to admit such things were once Conservative Gospel. I am old enough to remember Strom Thurmond as a Democrat. Now… (scratches chin) perhaps you’ll tell me why he changed parties.

          • Will Truman says:

            Your original contention was a lack of change within the GOP. Strom Thurmond was welcomed into the party. Trent Lott was stripped of his leadership for speaking positively of the agenda Thurmond brought with him into the party. This is not a good example of lack of change, regardless of whether one believes that the change is sincere or cynical.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I’ll tell you what’s Moral Laziness, absolutist morality.

      Depends. Aquinas was a moral absolutist, but I’d hardly call him morally lazy.

      • BlaiseP says:

        Poor old Aquinas. He reminds me of the prince in the story of Cinderella, trying to fit the glass slipper of science onto the remarkably ugly feet of religion.

  3. greginak says:

    This may be persnickety but i think this issue of definitions and hierarchies applies to everybody not just the lib’s and con’s. This is not just about political dichotomies but about how we all communicate.

  4. DensityDuck says:

    It does seem that the last fifty-some years of American society have been about the conflict between “freedom from” and “freedom to“.

    • Sam says:


      Both sides use those terms interchangeably. An example: social conservatives simultaneously expect the freedom from homosexuality and the freedom to oppress homosexuals.

    • Mark A says:

      I would say that conflict is as old as American society itself.

  5. Will Truman says:

    It doesn’t take long around liberals to understand that they very much do have their own moral structure. When I run across someone that argues that the government shouldn’t enforce moral values, my internal response is that anti-discrimination laws (to pick an example) are moral values. There is at least some recognition of this as, when liberals are accused of not having moral values, they (rightfully) object. And it does seem in the last ten years or so that they increasingly wear this a degree of honor. But when conservatives talk about morality, they’re typically referring to a narrow subset of them. And they view morality that comes from one source (God, say) as being more on-point than moral values from another source. As though the latter doesn’t particularly count.

    Of course, when the latter comes up, you often get into freedom arguments and often the same sort of don’t-judge-me line of reasoning more frequently deployed by their opponents. In my view, what so many things come down to, is not public morality vs individual conscience (freedom) as abstract ideals that we weigh against one another in a total sense, but rather the value of the morality, and it’s source, and so on. Siding with morality when we consider it (and it’s source) to be valid, but leaning on freedom when we disregard the source or disagree with the moral presented but choose not to argue against it for one reason or another.

    This is a bit tangential from your post. One of the subjects that has been preoccupying my mind is the conflict between moral (and aesthetic) judgment versus the desired withholding of judgment (a form of morality itself, of course, and sometimes even a form of aetheticism) in the name of pluralism.

    • GordonHide says:

      Of course the government should enforce some moral values and restrict personal freedom. But there is a specific subset of freedoms that should fall into this category. That is those freedoms which if exercised would impinge on the freedom of others. That’s what the law is all about, the protection of all at the expense of some of their freedom of action. But the liberals are right. The government should have no role in the restriction of personal freedom where the exercise of that freedom does no-one any disservice.

      • Will Truman says:

        It is very, very rare that somebody’s freedom does not impinge on someone else’s, if we define freedom broadly. Even something as simple as gays being allowed to peck each other on the mouth on a sidewalk… impinges on a homophone’s right to walk down the street with their kid without their kid being exposed to homosexuality.

        We can argue “But there is no freedom from exposure to homosexuality!” This is, in my mind, quite true. I have a more limited view of freedom and that doesn’t qualify. Nor does a black man’s desire to get equal consideration for a job at Racist Ron’s Car Wash a matter of freedom (a matter of justice, fairness, and equality… but not freedom).

        So if we take the broad view of freedom and only allow freedom to be clipped when nobody else’s freedom is encroached upon, the only freedoms we have granted are within the confines of our home (and even then, what happens there can spill out and have repercussions that do affect the freedom of others). If we take a narrower view of freedom, then we are clipping freedom of association even if it does not impinge on the freedoms of anyone else.

        • GordonHide says:

          It is true that there are value judgements to be made by government. Is the restriction of my freedom to walk naked down the street reasonable considering the public nuisance that might be created? – Probably. Is it reasonably to restrict homosexual displays of affection in public? If the participants get sexually aroused – probably if not maybe not. In general it is probably right to err on the side of freedom of action in these matters but every case needs to be examined on its merits.

          As for racist Ron. It’s certainly a matter of his freedom if he can’t employ who he likes but I think it’s a reasonable restriction considering the undesireable social effects you alluded to of allowing such descrimination.

          • Will Truman says:

            To err on the side of freedom depends on how one defines it. Personally, I don’t view the ability to walk down the street without naked people having sex on it to be a matter of freedom, per se. Rather, I view it as a matter of decency. I would (most likely) not get aroused seeing such a thing. I would just not want to see it. When it comes to gay pecks-on-the-lips, I would not be bothered by it. I absolutely think it should be legal and tough noogies to someone who has to explain to their kids that sometimes men kiss one another. These judgment calls are, however, entirely a product of my own sense of what is and is not appropriate and how that stacks of to the freedom of people doing what they want where they want. I’m not sure how it could be any other way, realistically speaking, unless we’re willing to say that people should be allowed to have sex on the street.

          • Will Truman says:

            Or, alternately, we decide that walking down the street without seeing a couple having sex is a freedom. Which I reject, though others don’t. And if we view that as a freedom, I don’t know how we don’t say the same of walking down the street without seeing a gay peck absent a value judgment on appropriateness.

          • GordonHide says:

            Walking down the street without seeing copulating couples may not be a freedom but the freedom to copulate in the street certainly is. Of course most would say it’s a freedom we could do without.

  6. Mark A says:

    I can only concur though I can sympahtize with the morally lazy. Seriously evaluating one’s own values as well as understanding the moral vernacular and priorities of others is daunting and scary business. Let me defend the opinion I already hold, please.