Arnold Kling  

Moral Relativism and Modern Times

In Praise of Don Boudreaux... The Macro Doubtbook, Installme...

Seeing Bryan's previous recommendations, I am reading Paul Johnson's Modern Times for the first time. It is a bracing book, filled with opinions that differ from those of Progressive historians. On a number of minor points, I find Johnson less than persuasive. His veneration of Charles de Gaulle, for example.

Modern Times succeeds in making the case that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and various third-world dictators deserve to be placed next to Hitler on the list of great villains of history. They shared a gangland method of retaining power by killing rivals and a social engineering strategy for which they were willing to commit mass murder.

As Bryan points out, Johnson wants to explain the emergence of these great villains as resulting from the growth of moral relativism. However, I think that Bryan is distorting Johnson's thesis by suggesting that the totalitarians "sold" their policies in terms of moral relativism. Instead, I think what Johnson means by indicting moral relativism is that this philosophy sapped the will of people to resist totalitarian leaders. Johnson seems to be saying that back in some halcyon day when people had religious faith and believed in objective morality, they would not have fallen for tyrants. His thesis is that as traditional religion faded in importance, it created a void that was filled by Communism, fascism, Nazism, and Third-worldism.

Some points that I would make:

1. Religion killed, too.

2. It is not clear that the 20th century was uniquely violent. Some (Steven Pinker, for example) would argue that humans have become less violent over time. The scale of violence reflects much larger population as well as technologies that kill more efficiently.

3. I do not think people need ethical relativism in order to rationalize not fighting tyrants. Fear can be quite sufficient.

In fact, I would argument that the main factor allowing the tyrant to emerge is a climate of fear, brought on by years of political violence. Hitler came to power in the middle of an era of vicious street-fighting between Communist and right-wing gangs. Lenin came to power in the middle of war that had already produced a revolution. Mao came to power after a long period in which China suffered from foreign invasion and domestic warlords.

Overall, I do not think that the "moral relativism" thesis can carry the weight that Johnson puts on it.

Having said that, I think that there is a larger point to be made, which is that people can rationalize violence in ways that, after the fact, seem horrifying. Johnson finds many instances of prominent individuals who praised Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and even Hitler.

I do not think that either moral relativism or moral absolutism are the answer. The moral relativist risks remaining neutral in situations where great evil is taking place. The moral absolutist risks making strong moral stands that ultimately rest on "My tribe is good, and the other tribe is bad."

I agree with Bryan that tribalism is bad. However, I also agree with Johnson to the extent that he is saying that we need to believe in moral absolutes that serve to restrain our use of violence to achieve our goals.

Comments and Sharing

TRACKBACKS (1 to date)
TrackBack URL:
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]
COMMENTS (19 to date)
AJ writes:

Tyrants have ridden to power in alliance with whatever ideology was in vogue at the time. They may even have had good intentions or good accomplishments early in their reign. But its still tyranny and Paul Johnson's characterization is accurate, but not new, merely that of greater scale then in the past.


Mike writes:

Tribalism itself is not bad. In fact, it is the critical glue that holds societies together. Of course, like everything else, it often leads to abuses. However, without it, our society would spin apart.

Robbie writes:


What would it spin apart into?

It seems that when societies spin apart tribalism becomes increasingly important to people in a sort or positive feedback loop where the strength and belligerence of other tribes leads people to make their own tribes stronger and more aggressive.

Steve Sailer writes:

The century from 1815 to 1914 was unusually peaceful in Europe, allowing vast wealth and organizational skill to be built up without much in-the-bones awareness of just how destructive modern war was becoming. When the legitimate old ruling classes of Europe lost their legitimacy by plunging Europe into 1914-1918, that opened the door for all sorts of fringe Man-with-a-Plan ideological adventurers such as Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler.

Chris Koresko writes:

I mostly disagree with Arnold on this. My suspicion is that it's because he's writing outside his area of expertise and has waded into politics, in which everybody's got an opinion and we're all basically wrong.

Anyway, my basically wrong responses follow:

1. Religion killed, too.

I can't think of any plausible 20th-century example of religion (meaning Christianity in this context, right?) killed. I'm not an historian, but my guess is that the best anyone could come up with would be the violence in Northern Ireland... which strikes me as a tribal struggle rather than a religious one, and insignificant in scope compared to the big militant-Progressive killers. Against that we have the large number of Jews who escaped the European Holocaust as a result of intervention by the Roman Catholic Church, an enormous amount of charity work, and probably other examples.

3. I do not think people need ethical relativism in order to rationalize not fighting tyrants. Fear can be quite sufficient.

But when a person weighs in his own mind whether to take up a struggle, with fear on one side of the balance and a moral imperative on the other, doesn't a willingness to alter one's moral judgement tend to tip the balance in favor of fear?

The moral relativist risks remaining neutral in situations where great evil is taking place. The moral absolutist risks making strong moral stands that ultimately rest on "My tribe is good, and the other tribe is bad."

I'm not seeing historical examples of the latter. A Christian moralist would be hard-pressed to justify even a single murder, much less mass murder on the scale of a 20th Century totalitarian. Admittedly one could relax the assumption of Christian morality and design a moral system specifically to justify mass murder. But that pretty much requires moral relativism, doesn't it?

Troy Camplin writes:

The moral absolutist declares that my tribe is good, your tribe is bad, and therefore your tribe must go.

The moral relativist argues that his opinion is just as good as yours. Like the protagonist in Kafka's "The Trial," he lies down willingly to be killed by the knife, desiring all the time to take the knife to kill himself.

I prefer moral naturalism, where it is recognized that there is a moral core which evolved in all people, and which gets expressed in a variety of ways. This does not mean anything is allowed, but it recognizes flexibility as well.

Neither crystaline rigidity nor chaos are the answer -- rather, as with any complex system, the truth lies on in the borderlands.

pandaemoni writes:

One of the more famous earlier genocides did *not* take lace under the auspices of a moral relativist government: The Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire.

To some extent that incident can be thought of as a religious conflict, Muslims vs. Christians, but simplifies a complex history (that ultimately did spring from Christians being oppressed under Ottoman rule). One things the Ottomans were not, in any event, was moral relativists.

An interesting question, that I do not know the answer to, is whether reactions to the Milgram Experiment break along philosophical lines. In other words, do moral relativists inflict the maximum voltage electric shock more reasily than those of other philosophical traditions, and if so, what are the relative differences?

That said, it is not an valid argument against moral relativism that tyrants have used it to justify murder. No more so than it would be valid to condemn the Christian religion because of the Crusades or the Pogroms against the Jews. A religion or a philosophy could be both completely correct and still be easily abused.

Moral relativism never killed anyone...and to think otherwise is little different than blaming guns for the violence of criminals. I have no doubt that it can be associated with many evil (or, for the moral relativists, socially undesirable) men and women, just as almost any major belief system can be. If minimizing violence is the goal of our philosophical system, then surely only extreme pacifism is the "right" philosophical position.

Tracy W writes:

Chris, you say Christian moralist would be hard-pressed to justify even a single murder, much less mass murder on the scale of a 20th Century totalitarian.

Isn't how most people bring themselves to do murder is to define it not as murder, but as self-defence, or defence of others, something that most moralists do allow? Isn't what drives murder normally fear? Fear that if you don't act, the others will kill you, or destroy everything you value, or wreck your soul? Or fear of emotional pain?

I can believe that there are some psychopaths out there who kill for pleasure, the case of the German cannibal who ate a voluntary victim springs to mind. But as far as I can tell from history, most murders are committed by people who have managed to rationalise it as self-defence, or the defence of others.

Luis H Arroyo writes:

Social morality is very elusive, because you can not base it just on reason. What is "good" or "bad" is only known after a long time. We now know that Christianity is a foundation of our civilization. But I do not think all Christians think equally: I have noticed that everyone does their belief in their own way. But there is a community to which religion serves as a mortar.
Religions come to meet complex internal impulses, and helps us to form ourselves and live in harmony with others. We can speak of "Moral Sentiments" (Adam Smith) to be "filled" with an adequate moral theory. But it is a mistake to think this theory can be taugh rationally. It should be taught in childhood, when the feeling is more alive, and myths of a religion are more effective than any rational theory. I think it's impossible to create "ex novo" a rational religion that avoids the shortcomings of traditional religion.
I therefore believe that religious education (non-oppressive) is good for the happiness of children and their future entry into citizenship.

Chris Koresko writes:

Tracy W: I can tell from history, most murders are committed by people who have managed to rationalise it as self-defence, or the defence of others.

Wait, aren't you arguing that moral relativism is the enabler, if not the cause, of most murders? Or that is it possible to rationalize murder to that extent while still holding to moral absolutism?

Luis H Arroyo:

If I'm reading you right, you are arguing for moral systems as emergent phenomena, and one which contributes to the well-being of a society and should therefore be encouraged. This strikes me plausible from a mechanistic point of view. I'm not sure whether it's consistent with the Christian view that morality is a revealed truth; it seems to depend on one's picture of the process of revelation.

As a side note, I think that a lot of the confusion over absolute vs situational morality would be resolved if we define morality as an absolute/fundamental and constant structure, and then define ethics as the practical rules derived by applying fundamental morality to a given situation. This would be analogous to axioms vs theorems in math: You build a mathematical theory by laying down a set of axioms and deriving theorems from them as needed. You cannot derive the axioms; they have to be taken as given. What we call "moral reasoning" is the process of deriving the ethical rules from the moral rules.

fundamentalist writes:

I don't think that Hitler, Stalin and Mao were different from mass murderers of the past. From the earliest days of history, conquering armies have murdered everyone in the cities they conquered. Genghis Khan is a good example. And there have been many examples of one religious group killing another. In the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon ordered everyone who didn't worship him to be killed. Roman emperors killed those who refused to worship them and murdered many Christians. The "Christian" Byzantine Empire murdered many who held to slightly different theology. Muslims murdered millions of Christians, including the Armenian genocide. In the Reformation, Catholic kings murdered hundreds of thousands of Protestants.

If you're going to come up with a theory of mass murder, you need to go beyond just the 20th century. It seems that the unifying element is that the heads of state want absolute obedience and power and are willing to murder anyone who doesn't provide it. Religion, ideology, race, etc., are just excuses.

And as for looking to the people to do anything about it, they rarely have in history. Either the mass murderer died of natural causes, or a competitor killed him. The people almost never rise up and defend themselves against a mass murderer, no matter how bad he was.

fundamentalist writes:
The scale of violence reflects much larger population as well as technologies that kill more efficiently.

That's too much like the common argument I often hear that says the percentage of people killed wasn't any greater. But there is something repulsive about a percentage comparison of murder. Do we really want to say that killing 10% of a population of 100 million is no less evil than murdering 10% of a population of 100,000? I don't think so. With humanity, absolute numbers are the best guide. So I would have to side with many historians who consider the 20th century to be the bloodiest in the history of mankind and therefore the most evil.

Having more people available to kill and more efficient means of killing doesn't lesson the evil of murdering one person. So murdering a thousand times more people is a thousand times more evil. Percentages don't matter.

Tracy W writes:

Chris Koresko - the second, that it's possible to rationalise murder as self-defence while thinking that you are holding to moral absolutionism.

It may be that someone who truly held to moral absolutionism would never engage in such rationalism, but to err is human, and I think that people can easily hold inconsistent moral positions without realising the inconsistency. Indeed, the thought worries me deeply, in the form of what I am inconsistent about without realising it.

fundamentalist - but in the 20th century we've also seen a massive increase in the proportion of people who are alive, in people who have given themselves to others (for example vaccinations and blood donations allow people to assist each other in a way not doable in past generations). Murdering a thousand people may be a thousand more times more evil than murdering one person, but if so then equally saving the life of a thousand people is a thousand times more good than saving the life of one person. So proportions do matter, again, making this century not the most evil.

Bob Layson writes:

Is it not paradoxical that Bentham the Utilitarian is held up as an exemplar of moral relativism? Bentham could claim to be a moral absolutist and realist. Pain is a natural evil and the deliberate infliction of pain so that greater pain would follow - the total outweighing any pleasure enjoyed by the causer of pain - was the quintessence of human evil in action and effect.

Religious moral judgement however must be relative to the supposed commands of an invisible Almighty. If He so commanded then the slaughter of men and the enslavement of women and children was good and fit and proper.

To agree that morality or ethics should be a matter of absolutes brings no one any closer to manifest knowledge of what the one true code should be. Witness history - which is the history of any number of 'one true' religions, both spiritual and secular.

fundamentalist writes:

Tracy, I think that is strange math. If I save one person's life and then murder another person, am I not still a murderer? The one doesn't cancel out the other. I think the best one can say of the 20th century is that is has gone to extremes more than any other century. While doing good and saving many lives, we have also murdered more than any other century. The evil has been greater than at any previous time, but so has the good. Still, it is the bloodiest century in human history.

Tracy W writes:

If I save one person's life and then murder another person, am I not still a murderer? The one doesn't cancel out the other.

Yes, and you also are a saviour. As you say, the one doesn't cancel out the other, saving someone's life doesn't cancel out the murder, murdering someone doesn't cancel out the saving of the life. I am very fond of arithmetic, but it doesn't capture everything.
(Of course there are a number of moral and practical arguments for punishing someone for murder even when they saved a life, or multiple lives, what I am talking about here is the moral assessment of a person, or of a massive group of people).

Mr. Econotarian writes:

"The century from 1815 to 1914 was unusually peaceful in Europe,"

Austro-Prussian War 100,000 killed/wounded/missing 1866
Franco-Prussian War 200,000 killed 1870-1871
Three Carlist Wars in Spain
Greek War of Independence
Crimean War 500,000 killed 1853-1856
Russo-Turkish War 40,000 killed 1877–1878

Steve Sailer writes:

Right, and you could add in Balkan Wars, as well. But it was all pretty small change compared to 1914 to 1945.

The key wars of the 19th Century were the three under Bismarck, which were sharp, short, and successful, thus reinforcing the idea of war as a reasonable instrument of policy at a reasonable cost.

Luis H Arroyo writes:

I don´t know exactly what you mean, Koresko. I suppose you are right, but I think that mechanical apriory esquemes dont work: the moral an society are evolution; Slow evolution. So, perhaps I am an evolutionist, a little as Hayek. I think moral change slowly, gently, and to intend to appraisal it with a fix theorical esqueme is like to take water with a filtre. In this sense, I don´t think necessary to link cristian dogma to our behavior. We are descendent of cristianism, but not in the sense that our granfathers think.
In any case, we are very different of islamists, in spite of oue rational capacity, wich is the same, more or less.
What I mean is that the rational capacity is not the last word. Our society is not better because rationality. moral truth is not cientific truth.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top