Bryan Caplan  

How Bad Was Moral Relativism?

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I just finished re-reading Paul Johnson's Modern Times.  According to Johnson, moral relativism was the root of all evil in the twentieth century.  I'm tempted to agree, but ultimately I doubt that meta-ethics played more than a supporting role in the statist horrors that Johnson catalogs.

Consider: If you're pushing mass murder, what's the best way to sell it?

Sales Pitch A: "Mass murder is good, here's why, let's go for it!"

Sales Pitch B: "Mass murder seems wrong, but morality is relative, so it's not really wrong.  So let's go for it!"

The obvious answer, I submit, is Pitch A.  And when you read Lenin, Hitler, and various other totalitarians who made it to the top, Pitch A is their main focus.  Pitch B usually makes an appearance, but it's too confusing and defensive to win hearts and minds.

The main rhetorical purposes of moral relativism are to (a) reduce the guilt of your fence-straddling sympathizers, and (b) hastily respond to critics who point out how evil you are.  And frankly, neither of these two functions seems to have been crucial for twentieth-century statism.  Fence-straddlers aren't much help - and usually make up their own excuses for you, anyway.  And when totalitarian movements face criticism, they get much better mileage out of ad hominem arguments, flat-out denial, threats, and the Big Lie than they get out of meta-ethics.

So what was the root of all (or at least most) evil in the twentieth century?  Utilitarianism is another tempting candidate.  After all, the theory does imply that murdering six million people to save the world is OK.  But to be fair, utilitarianism only recommends mass murder in extreme situations.  The scary thing about the twentieth century was that so many mass murders happened on the flimsiest pretexts.

So where did the twentieth century really go wrong?  I'm not sure, but here are my two favorite candidates:

1. Tribalism.  Yes, tribalism has always been with us.  But in the twentieth century, tribalism became especially nasty.  The most poisonous ideologies of the twentieth century - Marxism, Nazism, etc. - actually declared a large fraction of humanity to be sub-human.  These sub-humans didn't just count for less than "real" people; the sub-humans had negative value.  As a result, adherents of these ideologies were actually willing to sacrifice the lives of their own group to eliminate the bourgeoisie, Jews, kulaks, and so on. 

2. The inverted "what is not seen" fallacy.  In the twentieth century, people became bizarrely eager to believe that short-run horrors would lead to massive long-run benefits.  A little judicious skepticism about "better tomorrows" would have taken most of the wind out of the sails of Marxism, Nazism, "national liberation" movements, and much more.  In earlier times, people would have taken their empty promises much less seriously.


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The author at in a related article titled Thoughts on the 20th Century, Moral Relativism and Paul Johnson writes:
    Bryan Caplan has some thought-provoking comments about Paul Johnson's "Modern Times" - in my opinion, one of the greatest works of history by a historian of any era, let alone ours. Johnson, a devoute Roman Catholic who has written about, and met, many... [Tracked on August 1, 2010 1:07 PM]
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rapscallion writes:

The early successes of technology convinced people for the first time that Utopia really was possible, so they actually became serious about making it happen. Since we could make planes and send pictures through the air, there really wasn't any limit to what might be achieved. The strength of this conviction was enough to overcome inhibitions that would previously had held people back.

Foobarista writes:

I'm somewhat on board with rap above, and the idea that you could achieve a "scientific" bureaucratic state that could achieve total control of society was rooted in 19th century ideas of technology and the power of "scientific management".

Even though this idea failed spectacularly over and over in the 20th century, we still seem determined to rebuild it and try again. After all, if the bureaucrats are properly selfless and meritocratic, how can they do anything but make correct decisions?

Often this was combined with tribalism and mass murder. The State really _was_ more efficient with better tech, but this just meant it overreached even more and screwed up more spectacularly than ever before.

fructose writes:

The inverted "what is not seen" fallacy is also what is being used to justify huge costly interventions against greenhouse gases. The argument is that people should sacrifice a lot of comfort (air-conditioning, cheap conventionally grown foods, fancy electronic gadgets, etc. to prevent long term climate change.

Lode Cossaer writes:

Wouldn't you say that just because moral relativism isn't very clear, it doesn't follow it's lingering in the background?

Maybe the wording was sales pitch A, but it (sort of) required a foundation based on sales pitch B. Because a lot of people (sort of) accept moral relativism, it's easier to convince them that mass murder is awesome?

I'm not sure about my point of view, so I'm throwing this into the debate.

Felix writes:

20th century screw-ups? Several peoples (represented in our minds by their countries) thought that a pre-industrial, farming-level empire would be a good thing to have - that is, an empire based on taking over the other guy's land and ruling (farming) it.

Big 20th century lesson? A geographic region's value is in the people, not in the physical resources. Welcome to the industrial revolution.

Given that almost all of us have a couple hundred+ generations of farming bred in to us, it can't be a surprise that lesson is being learned the hard way. Farming is even longer bred in to us that some mini-races of people have been bred - e.g. South Sea Islanders and lawyers.

Joe Marier writes:

I think the idea was that moral relativism prevented the non-totally evil nations from taking swifter action against the totally evil nations. After all, we're not perfect; who are we to judge?

Robin Hanson writes:

I have a long discussion of why our era is one of the most deluded eras ever. That seems the best explanation for totalitarian delusions as well.

NZ writes:

By pretty much any measure (except perhaps a primitivist/sentimentalist one) the 20th century was an oasis of prosperity and Good compared with the thousand centuries that preceded it. Does thinking in these terms help?

agnostic writes:

2 is backwards -- they didn't frame it as bearing short-term pain in exchange for long-term pleasure, but just the opposite. I.e., there may be troubled times ahead, but to provide relief Something Must Be Done Now.

The Germans mired in misery weren't about to accept even more short-term pain -- they had enough to go around already. Ditto Russians at the turn of the century. And throw in those in Western capitalist countries who supported Keynesian policies. He is famous for saying "in the long run, we are all dead" -- hardly what hypothesis 2 would suggest.

It has something to do, then, with the opposite worldview -- that, because there's no such thing as "further down the road" (possibly in a supernatural sense, like there's no afterlife where we'll be judged, but also in a material sense a la Keynes' quote), why don't we do whatever we can to make ourselves feel better here and now.

1 seems inadequate because merely viewing others as sub-human doesn't lead you to try to conquer, enslave, or kill them. Most of us view those dorks camping out for an iPad as sub-human, but we're not trying to wipe them out... yet...

Chris Koresko writes:

I like the idea that building scientifically-designed utopias started to look plausible in the light of the huge scientific progress of the century or so leading up to those great atrocities. But I'd like to suggest another idea which might also have been important: Science also had the side-effect of displacing Christianity as a social force in much of the world.

Dinesh D'Souza argued in The End of Racism that racism grew not out of ignorance but rather the displacement of the traditional Christian idea of a single human creation by a Darwinist view which allowed for degrees of evolutionary fitness among human populations.

Certainly totalitarians uniformly sought to subvert or suppress Christianity, and it seems to work both ways: it has been argued that Christianity was one of the principal forces that caused the collapse of Communism in Europe.

You may point out that some of the totalitarian atrocities occurred in places that had not been traditionally Christian, to which I would reply that those areas tended to import Marxism or have it thrust upon them from places where Christianity was in rapid decline.

I expect a lot of readers here will be skeptical of these ideas, but I don't think many would argue that radical Progressive ideologies like Fascism and Marxism are consistent with Christian teaching. It would follow that for those ideologies to flourish, Christianity must go.

Troy Camplin writes:

Utopian schemes. Which is related to #2. I woudl relate it to the argument that a healthy body needs to have its cancer surgically removed, except that the movements in question were the cancers -- a cancer is a cell that attempts to make the entire body the same kind of cell. That is what Marxism and Nazism both attempt to do, in slightly different ways. Tribalism can be locally dangerous to a few people -- but ideological tribalism (utopianism) is what it takes to achieve truly large-scale evil. Utopia is cancer.

Andy Hallman writes:
So what was the root of all (or at least most) evil in the twentieth century? Utilitarianism is another tempting candidate. After all, the theory does imply that murdering six million people to save the world is OK. But to be fair, utilitarianism only recommends mass murder in extreme situations.

I don't know why you dragged utilitarianism into this discussion. Sure utilitarians will say mass murder can be justified, under the right circumstances. But one of the tenets of utilitarianism that you don't seem to appreciate is that utility is treated equally regardless of the person who experiences it. Totalitarian groups like the Nazis weren't interested in counting the utility of the people at Auschwitz, so I don't know how you can say their philosophy was anything like utilitarianism.

Lars P writes:

I don't think tribalism became any nastier last century.

I think technology advanced to make genocide much easier and cheaper!

Kurbla writes:

Bryan's claim that Marxism - not qualified, that means, Marxism in general - declared large fraction of people "subhuman" is about equally false as his recent claim that Marxists in the 2nd half of the 19th century didn't thought about economics. The standard Marxist ideology is not that capitalists are "subhuman" but - the class enemies; the capitalists are not evil as individuals or as group, but because of their position in economy. The solution of the problem is confiscation of the private property (over means of production, or all private property) and after that they are not capitalists any more. Check on Internet, there are many Marxist groups around. Is it possible that Bryan somehow doesn't know that? Maybe, but I think it is more probable that he is just intellectually dishonest on the way typical for fascists.

But, to contribute to discussion - what is the root of all evil of the 20th century? That century is not exceptional - the history of humanity is full of the crimes done following exactly the same pattern. The same pattern is not even limited on people: many species, including our closest relatives - chimps - kill in their own group, and engage in lot of wars. The behaviour is older than any ideology; ideology can be designed or abused to justify the crimes, but the root is in our instincts.

Every ideology can be used to justify mass murders. Simple inversion is enough - instead of using ideology as theory, one start using it as flag. Those who do not believe in flag are enemies, and they could be killed. It doesn't matter what is written on flag. Even non-violence and love toward enemy as advocated by Jesus was abused on that way.

Randy writes:

The 20th century went wrong in applying industrial methods to socio/political enterprises. Further, the experiments of the socio/political elite are not over, and consequently the 21st century is likely to be even more totalitarian and horrific than the 20th.

Troy Camplin writes:

To declare someone is to dehumanize them. When someone is dehumanized, you can legitimately kill them. That's why Marxism inevitably leads to mass murder and why Marxists are the enemies of all that is good and just and beautiful in the world.

Troy Camplin writes:

That is, "To declare someone an enemy is to dehumanize them"

Tracy W writes:

Kurbla - I think it depends how you define Marxist ideology. When the Marxists were in power, standard Marxist ideology was that the ex-capitalists were still evil.

The Soviets' treatment of the kulaks is notorious.

To quote the Chinese Communists, from their 16 points in 1966:
"Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and endeavor to stage a comeback. ... At present, our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road... (see And in the Cultural Revolution they put that crushing into practice.

The Khmer Rouge famously killed anyone who had been found to have been in a position of power or wealth before the revolution, including people overseas who listened to their appeals to come back.
In the 1950s, the North Vietnam communist regime launched a campaign against wealthy farmers and landowners, see

So standard Marxist ideology when they're not in power might be that capitalists disappear after confiscation of property, but standard Marxist ideology when they are in power is that capitalists are still around after the revolution and are the enemy and must be treated as such.

Maybe, but I think it is more probable that he is just intellectually dishonest on the way typical for fascists.

Ah, the standard left-wing smear attempt. Badly done sir, badly done.

Kurbla writes:


if you want to know what is standard Marxist ideology, buy or borrow the book with title "Introduction to Marxism" or similar. If it is standard Marxist ideology, it should be written and unchallenged in almost every such book.

Faré writes:

Pitch A (praise of Evil) is what you sell to the potential MURDERERS and their potential ACCOMPLICES, so they have no scruples.

Pitch B (Moral Relativism) is what you sell to the potential VICTIMS and their potential ALLIES, so they don't react.

Commies used Pitch A in the territories they controlled, and their PsyOps used Pitch B in enemy territories.

Tracy W writes:

Kurbla, of course the Marxists are not going to put the really nasty stuff into their introductory books. They're not mathematicians. But the consistences between what they do once they are in power is very revealing.

endorendil writes:

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zeljka writes:

I think the importance of moral relativism conceived as a philosophical argument is very limited in practical matters. Very few people could even make that argument coherently, and among those who can, many don't accept it, and even fewer act on it. If anything, the opposite is the case - the total number of norms, taboos and punishments is fairly constant (what Pinker calls 'the law of conservation of moralization'), it's just that their contents keep shifting from, say, burqas to jeans to ill-fitting mini-skirts.

So, again, moral relativism is not really an issue. But there is something similar to it that might have some relevance. It's an attitude of not holding any beliefs strongly and/or not having a sufficient intellectual resources (e.g. firmly held religious beliefs) to maintain whatever normative beliefs one does hold (some people call this 'moral vacuum'). I don't know enough history to judge this, but to me it seems that there might have been more of such 'vacuum' in the 20th century.

In any case, your example:

"Sales Pitch B: "Mass murder seems wrong, but morality is relative, so it's not really wrong. So let's go for it!""

while funny, is not the one that is really relevant. The power of 'moral relativism' (whatever power it does have) comes in an increased propensity to accept 'here is why' section of the sales pitch A. Basically, such people are more open to consider the argument and have less intellectual/instinctive/emotional resistance to it.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The cause of violence in the 20th century was lack of respect for property rights.

If everyone had respected everyone else's property rights, no one would have been killed (because killing someone is taking the property of their life).

Plus, most of the wars were caused by desire to take other's people real property.

BZ writes:

Regarding relativist vs absolutist claims. I don't think the choice was between "Mass murder is good, here's why, let's go for it!" and "Mass murder seems wrong, but morality is relative, so it's not really wrong. So let's go for it!".

Instead, it was: "We have problem A, mass murder solves it, period." Moral relativism means that the idea that mass murder is immoral never even enters the calculus to begin with.

- Bo

Zing writes:

The people were willing to tolerate some horrors as described to gain more benefits. It was how the Nazi party, and Communists were able to gain control of governments. The Nazis were able to restore and improve living standards in Germany. They fulfilled their promise to the people. The people had much to gain from their trust.

It is why Pitch A worked. It promised immediate results. Pitch B did not promise direct results. It's used as a defense against critics and the opposition. Pitch B is harder to be argued against. The totalitarian governments were able to provide quick benefits as well as inflict their horrors on the dissenters. It was a way for totalitarian governments to quiet critics.

vidar writes:

The short answer that no one has brought up is Altruism, the moral gloification of sacrifice. Rooted in Christianity in the west and marxism in the east, people were taught from childhood that the hight of moraity was to sacrifice, to give value for nonvalue. When the totalitarians caused things to go from bad to worse, people accepted and expected it.
That said I have to agree that the 20th century in overall terms was vastly superior to the centuries before it.

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