Rahul on relativism and moral phil -Reply

jwalker jwalker at email.unc.edu
Tue Apr 18 06:25:03 MDT 1995

Hello Lisa --

I share the political goals you express in this recent post, and I also
share most of your concerns about the usefulness of moral appeals in the
political arena.

On Mon, 17 Apr 1995, Lisa Rogers wrote:

> I like your questions, John.  I've wondered something similar - If I
> don't have religion or some organized moral theory, how do I know
> what is right or wrong?  (My father asked me this question when I
> left "The Church".)
> Well, I know what I like and I know what I want.  I prefer
> emancipation to degradation, honesty to deceit, etc.  Maybe I don't
> even know why, but I figure my desires and my conscience are probably
> just as good as anybody else's.

> So, how shall we take a step toward a better, socialist society?
> It seems to me to just come down to fighting it out politically.  The
> more people will ally into a larger force, the more successful we
> will be.
> If appeals to morals to which the audience can relate are helpful in
> this effort, okay.  There are a lot of different ways to come to the
> same or similar conclusion; emancipation is good, or beneficial (for
> those who are emancipated) or attractive to some of us bleeding
> hearts who are doing well for ourselves already, but would like to
> see a "kinder, gentler" world.
> But I don't expect morality talk to work very well on the ruling
> class, or on anyone who stands to lose much in the short run by
> supporting the revolution.  Because I've seen people use morality and
> the constitution and concepts of "rights" very flexibly indeed, about
> anything can be bent to support or rationalize one's own interests
> (however broadly defined).  "Human rights" means property rights,
> "freedom" means free to profit, "emancipation" means freedom from
> environmental and labor regulations, "social responsibility" means
> the oppressed are responsible for harming society, etc.
Your worries here are important.  It may just come down to "fighting it
out" politically.  But I think moral appeals are an important part of
that fight.  You'll notice that every depredation that is perpetrated on
the working class and the poor in this country is given a moral gloss.
It's important that the Republicans should be able to say the poor are to
blame (there's the moral claim) for their poverty, so it's OK if they get
the shaft.  It's important to say that GATT and NAFTA will benefit
everyone (moral appeal, maybe) in order to justify enabling an
exploitative free-for-all.

Now of course this is part of the problem you're seeing!  People twist
and bend moral appeals to suit their purposes.  To my mind, though, it
points out the political importance of such appeals, and the necessity of
being able to answer, in a convincing way, the moral claims of the right.

> It just seems to come back to the fact that we are going to have to
> fight for what we want.  I'm all for education, it's had an effect on
> me, but we probably can't talk the powerful into handing over some of
> the reigns [spelling intentional].
> How do relativists think that others "ought" to do the same?  I don't
> know.  I wish and hope that others will see the value of the
> socialist vision.  I may try to talk them into it.  I point out
> oppression and suffering, and try to help someone see that it is a
> result of capitalism, poorism, sexism, and I suggest that it doesn't
> have to be that way.  But I can't make them care.  Luckily they often
> do care, at least a bit, and that is where I find a toehold, a chink,
> through which some education may penetrate.
> Lisa Rogers
I think you're right that actually convincing people of some moral claim,
when their interests are strongly in favor of its opposite, it unlikely
to succeed.  But if it's socialism we're in favor of, and the great
majority of people we're trying to convince, we don't face _that_

Luckily none of this -- the difficulty of convincing others, the
questionable political efficacy of moral appeals -- implies that moral
relativism is true!  That's good, from my point of view, because there is
one thing I think we differ on.  I'd have a difficult time advocating
political change if I thought my ground for advocating it were just a
preference of mine -- I like socialism, Bob Dole likes capitalism, I like
chocolate, he likes vanilla.  It wouldn't motivate me very much!  I have
to think it's more than that, even if just _what_ it is, is hard to say.

(Actually I strongly suspect you don't treat your politics the way you
treat your ice cream choices!  Just making the point about the need for

John D. Walker

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