Bryan Caplan  

Conservative Relativism

Henderson on Piketty, Part 1... No hawks or doves, just owls...
I spent a lot of time conversing with conservative intellectuals this week.  What surprised me most was their moral relativism.  Sure, they spent a lot of time griping about left-wing relativism: The awful liberals refuse to admit the West is morally superior to Islamic and other non-Western cultures - or the United States is morally superior to Europe's decadent social democracies.  But the conservatives were also quick to dismiss claims about Western and American moral failings.  The U.S. immigration laws of the 1920's were explicitly driven by Nordic racism?  Let's not "flagellate" ourselves; that was fixed long ago.  The genocide of the Indians?  That was the price of civilization.  George Washington, "father of our country," was a slaver?  Well, it was common at the time.  The West's murderous Crusades?  Eh, whatever.

The conservatives could have objected that they're looking at the big picture; in the broad scheme of things, Christian holy war, the Founders' slave-holding, the Indians wars, and U.S. racism were no big deal.  But each of these moral lapses - even the Nordic racism - led to massive body counts.  It wasn't like stealing a cookie.  The conservative could more plausibly point out that only a small fraction of Western and American resources were devoted to sheer wickedness.  But the same holds for most notorious criminals: Over 99% of the typical serial killer's days are murder-free. 

Don't these puritanical standards deprive us of heroes?  No, but they do heavily thin the applicant pool, for reasons identified by Lord Acton:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men...
I'm not saying that conservatives' complaints about liberals are unfair.  My claim, rather, is that both ideologies have parallel blind spots.  The liberal mistake is ignoring all the ways that Western civilization and the United States have been better than the competition.  The conservative mistake is ignoring all the ways that Western civilization and the United States have been awful.  In slogan form: "Better" is not "good."

Fortunately, to quote Vanilla Sky, "Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around."  Columbus Day is tomorrow.  It's a great opportunity for conservatives who reject moral relativism to break ranks and stop pretending this historic criminal was a hero.

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COMMENTS (28 to date)
Jane Doe writes:

Conservatives are okay with a lack of morally perfect heroes, because "the fallibility of man" is a key doctrine. It is the liberals (and the libertarians) who are absolutists, who demand doctrinal purity. In this way, from the liberal perspective, the conservative appears to be morally relativistic, since he acknowledges that people are bad and can do good in spite of it. It is this ability to view our ancestors as human like us, instead of subhuman moral savages, that repulses liberals.

That is not to say that Columbus was a good man, of course. Although, "claiming both moralities have parallel blind spots" is a truth so obvious I suspect you say it merely to feel superior to both.

Liberals are relativist toward people in the same time but a different place. Conservatives are relativist toward people in the same place but a different time.

John Smith writes:

Columbus did not engage in any unlawful killing and am therefore not a criminal. Unless you do have evidence of him committing acts that were criminalised then.

Moreover, your position inherently implies that the lives of the Natives are as valuable as the lives of the non-Natives and/or the benefit of bringing modern civilisation to the Americans.

Many do not take this position, including me. Achieving a greater benefit may at times involve collateral damage.

Tom West writes:

"Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around."

Good luck with that. Despite the claims of the opposite sides, both sides are human, for better and for worse.

And both sides can justify venerating villains by the simple expedient that doing so enhances the chance of success in the political arena. Do you care about actually changing people's lives for the better, or satisfying your need to "be in the right".

Shane L writes:

If anything it is the neo-conservatives I've debated with who have the greater moral flexibility. When some left-wingers say that it's not alright to torture, launch preemptive wars or execute suspects, I've seen neo-con hawks, fresh from insisting on their moral absolutism, dismiss all this as naivety. They deem torture, invasion and murder as necessary evils when faced with a barbaric enemy. Peace and justice for us, brutality for them.

A writes:

Tom West, it doesn't make sense to put quotes around "be in the right", when your immediately preceding words exemplify the phrase. A rationally acting person is always trying to do right according to their values, or "actually changing people's lives for the better." The differences arise in which people and what you mean by better. Imagining that your moral process is intrinsically different from others, at this broad level, is a sort of semantic illusion.

Look at John Smith's comment. It's unassailable by reason because it isn't an argument. He is simply stating his preference, which may motivate one chain of reasoning or another. But the core of it is that emotional response which can only be changed by other visceral responses (which may of course be triggered by argumentation).

A writes:

The comment section from Caplan's "historic criminal" link must be a team of psychohistorians. Amazing technical achievements in accurately assessing counterfactuals over centuries. If only they shared methodology.

Foseti writes:

Wait, wasn't Columbus just exercising the universal human right of free movement across artificial "borders?"

KPres writes:

I'll be looking forward to Caplan's post on MLK's misogyny come January. Somehow I think it won't be forthcoming.

None of this isn't relativism, of course, its just calculation. You judge a person or people by the sum of their accomplishments against the sum of their failings. That's why Columbus is celebrated. That's why western civilization is celebrated.

DangerMan writes:

I see a major distinction between the examples of things conservatives criticise and the examples of things conservatives defend (that allegedly make the conservatives relativists): the critiques are PRESENT issues, and the defenses are PAST issues.

Maybe Bryan sampled at random and happened upon this pattern, because it seems to me that... beyond the mere mood affiliation... conservatives are highly willing to criticise CURRENT moral failings of the west/America.

Also, I don't see evidence that the conservatives were engaging in relativism at all: it sounds like they were engaging in a crass utilitarianism.

Bryan appears to admit this in the older article when he said: "If Mengele had cured cancer, should we celebrate Mengele day?"

That's not what relativism is at all, that's act-based utilitarianism.

Jeff writes:

People need heroes, I suppose, and being tribalists, they want to take pride in their ancestors' accomplishments. Expecting them to be perfectly rational and objective about their own history is just not realistic. National myth-making is a human tradition; just look at the Old Testament.

And really, I think the conservatives have a point: you can still venerate George Washington's courage and skill as a military leader without condoning his actions as a plantation owner. Violence and coercion were much more common in the past than they are today, which is not say that makes any of it more acceptable, but if you are committed to judging the past on the same standards as the present, then literally every culture and ethnic group on earth has to feel ashamed of their history and the only people we can look up to are those who weren't in a position to inflict violence on anyone (ie, the weak). Is that realistic? Not really.

Furthermore, what would it even accomplish? Is slavery and colonialism in danger of making a comeback, such that we have to zealously guard against anyone saying anything nice about Columbus, lest it inspire contemporary people to revive the Transatlantic slave trade? That seems unlikely in the extreme. So what's really the point? Other than some sort of intellectual or political status competition where you point out that the other team's leaders are all jerks. George Washington was a slaver, Babe Ruth was a drunk, Barry Bonds took steroids, the Pats only won those Super Bowls 'cause they were cheating, etc.

EricH writes:

An amusing and informative webcomic take on Columbus Day:

Massimo writes:

This is subjectivism. Ultimately, every hero and every villain of history wasn't perfectly good or evil, they are all just humans that lived their lives in response to stimuli, and there is no pure measure by which any one person is better than any other.

Caplan has a blindside to the negatives of immigration or is at least dishonest about acknowledging them.

Pure math has a very clean framework for separating truth from non-truth. The scientific method is a similar framework that is close, but not as good as that for pure abstract math. But outside of that, there is no objective framework for establishing truth from non-truth, and reality itself is subjective.

The sins of Columbus are very widely known. Even among people who are fully informed of his villain behavior don't think it's a pressing issue worth spending a lot of effort to fix. Today's conservatives generally don't champion him as a big hero, and no one cares enough to change the holiday. The Knights of Columbus should probably choose a new name as well.

Jim Hlavac writes:

Conservatives Relativism is shown big in their treatment of "homosexuality" -- Conservatives are against 'group think' they say -- but "all homosexuals ..." do this, say that -- it's all of us, alike, apparently. They are against 'mind control' but seek to "cure" people who don't think we are ill -- through what is only changing and controlling the minds of millions through brainwashing. Conservatives are for 'pulling your own weight' but are quite sure somehow that gay men don't pay taxes at all ... or are somehow terrible for daring to ask to file a joint tax return. They are for Liberty -- except for gay men, and then some of them believe we should be incarcerated. Conservatives are against whining and not thrilled with the "I'm offended" crowd - and then whine incessantly about how they offended by gay existence. They are "for marriage" except for gays -- we should stay single. Conservatives want people to settle down behind a picket fence with their live love -- except gays - we should either marry someone we have Zero interest in -- or stay celibate. And not a one has ever proffered their own daughters to take up the task of straightening us out -- but suggest someone else's daughter.

But even more strangely -- Conservatives are all for "capitalism" and yet they insist on selling a service ("ex-gay" or "reheterosexualization") to "customers" who Refuse to buy the service -- and then blame the customers (gay men) for not buying the lousy broken product ... while calling the potential customers horrendous horrors.

I could go on .. however, in short, it's amazing how Conservatives turn into mush headed Liberals when they start to talk about gay men.

>> In a larger sense - Liberals are for diversity, so long as we all think alike -- and Conservatives are for individualism so long as we're all on the same page.

john hare writes:

I thought I was conservative until I spend a year and a half trying to work with a conservative group. The multiple standard was a sight to behold from the inside.
Stand for the Fourth Amendment, unless we are talking about drugs, then knock down the doors at will. Fair trials, except for suspected dealers. Criminals should be locked up with the key thrown away, even while professing that "I will keep my guns regardless of laws passed." The gay marriage (lack of) debate was a constant topic, with raised eyebrows when I asked why I should care. And so on.

I found that I disagree with all political groups that put their agendas ahead of facts and evidence.

steve writes:

I think you misrepresent what most on the left believe. I think that nearly all on the left agree that the West is morally superior to Islamic radicals. It gets a lot more complicated when you deal with mainline Islam. While they may not treat women especially well, how do you weigh that against our tendencies to muck around with the internal politics of other countries and bomb so many people?


Robert writes:

"Columbus did not engage in any unlawful killing and am therefore not a criminal. Unless you do have evidence of him committing acts that were criminalised then."

Let's be charitable and call that willful ignorance:


Steve Roth writes:

"The liberal mistake is ignoring all the ways that Western civilization and the United States have been better than the competition."

Do mainstream liberals ignore that? Go around saying that communist rule was/is just as good? C'mon.

"The conservative mistake is ignoring all the ways that Western civilization and the United States have been awful."

Really, mainstream conservatives do steadfastly ignore that.

The situation is not symmetrical, and matters of degree matter.

Oliver Sherouse writes:

The cases that you claim contradict each other aren't parallel. You say that the conservatives criticize liberals for not seeing the comparative morality of different cultures, but don't evaluate their own history in absolute terms. Surely you're not saying that the conservatives would argue that Western civilization has become less moral, overall, since the Middle Ages, or even Washington's time? That would come dangerously close to failing the ideological Turing test.

The following set of assertions seems to be entirely coherent internally:

  • There is such a thing as absolute morality; people and civilizations can be better or worse than one another
  • Western civilization is better than Islamic civilization
  • Western civilization is better now than it was in the past
  • George Washington was common as regards his immorality (there were a lot of slaveholders) but uncommon as to his morality (courage, political self-restraint, &c.), and it makes more sense to pay attention to what makes people interesting than what makes them boring
Jeffrey S. writes:


This post is ridiculous. Conservatives certainly have their blind spots (e.g. someone already mentioned torture, which I think is a good example), but you should know by now that we all don't accept your premises and agree with your analysis when it comes to immigration. Also, there is a difference between a sin of omission and a sin of commission -- whatever we didn't do to help the Jews during WWII, we weren't the ones doing the killing.

Jim Hlavac apparently doesn't understand the basic arguments behind natural law reasoning or why homosexual acts should be considered sinful (not homosexual individuals, some of whom are trying to live chaste lives).

Finally, anyone who indicts Christianity for the Crusades is both historically ignorant and as Oliver Sherouse points out, knows nothing of important about the relative contributions of Christian civilization compared to Islamic civilization. Crimes were committed in the name of the Church -- men are sinners, dogs bite men, etc. Tell us something we don't know. The surprise is how much good was accomplished when men accept Christ as their savior.

Floccina writes:

Let's have Roger Williams day instead.

Brad Franky writes:

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Jedediah writes:

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San Fernando Curt writes:

Your straw men of conservatives who supposedly extol American exceptionalism, and therefore, what you call 'Nordic racism' (whatever), are as urban-legend nonexistent as phantom white people who supposedly rub African American skin to see if the black comes off. Issue isn't about our superior civilization, it's survival of our civilization. You make so much of the darkness in our history, and in that, you reflect mainstream media and academia - presenting Western history as nonstop horror and oppression. But as you point out, the other story - of our not infrequent bright spots - is as relentlessly ignored as monstrous depredations committed by Soviets in the first 25 years of their brief history. No other civilization has seen its downside so fetishized by its own 'intellectual' class. In reality, there is no Western 'intellectual' community - only an ideological one. And it clings stubbornly to an ideological light that failed miserably.

Seth writes:

"Let's not "flagellate" ourselves; that was fixed long ago."

Is that a good example of moral relativism? It seems that would be acknowledging that it was wrong and has been addressed, no?

Brett Champion writes:

Judging historical personages by modern standards of behavior is grossly unfair to those people. And while there have always been people who have argued in those times for the wrongness of the acts committed, let's not pretend that those people were even close to being the majority voice of the law, and especially of the people.

Richard Rider writes:

Where is the moral indignation over black and Arab slavers? For centuries blacks and Arabs have kidnapped and sold other blacks into slavery, and held slaves themselves.

Shaka Zulu, a great leader some some consider the black George Washington, practiced slavery, as did his tribe. Ever hear about that?

Has anyone EVER condemned such behavior -- and held modern Africans and their descendants morally culpable? Well, those not now ACTIVELY practicing slavery?

Never mind.

Duncan Frissell writes:

"U.S. immigration laws of the 1920's were explicitly driven by Nordic racism?" Immigration restrictions do violate America's founding principles but their motivation is irrelevent. Can't one be a perfect libertarian and racist?

"The genocide of the Indians?" Is there historic evidence of genocide. Weren't most deaths disease caused? Mistreatment, obviously but some on both sides.

"George Washington, "father of our country," was a slaver?" The founding generation in VA opposed slavery and were trying to end it.

"West's murderous Crusades?" Attempt to recapture territory stolen in 632-770. In any case, not the fault of the US.

Shouldn't you compare the US with other nations? Rummel says US unlawfully killed circa 600,000 people in 20th century (mostly WWII Area Bombing) vs 50 million for Belgium! and of course 150 million for commie countries. [If the US had merely substituted targeted bombing for area bombing during WWII, we could have eliminated almost all our unlawful killings.]

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