Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Liberalism and Moral Relativism

The impulse underlying Progressive-liberalism was the late nineteenth century's moral angst at the expanded power of big business, its lack of moral foundation and the disorder and uncertainty that the railroads, the expanding market and the increased homogeneity of the American market had caused. Americans of that time were mostly religious Protestants. Their reaction to the increased power of business and the railroads was in part informed by their religious values. The economy had been a source of moral training and discipline when producers were small and life was local, what Robert H. Wiebe calls "island America" in his book The Search for Order. The late nineteenth century response to expanding markets included Populism, trade unionism, and Mugwumpery. The Progressives arose from the introduction of the ideas of the German historical school to this mix. It held that the state ought to be strengethened in order to manage big business. The underlying impulse was the moral one of correcting the moral abuses of big business and the new mass production.

The moral impulse behind Progressivism carries through to liberalism and its more extreme variants. Progressive-liberalism claims to rectify moral abuses through government or the marshalling of public opinion. Thus, Wal-Mart is evil because its prices are too low; oil companies are evil because their prices are too high; banks are evil because they demand that borrowers repay; and fast food restaurants are evil because they serve too much food. Liberalism is thus a moral movement that derives from late nineteenth angst about business. Liberals believe that the business system requires their moral guidance.

But liberalism pretends to derive from science, not religion. In part because of its scientism liberalism adopts Enlightenment skepticism about morality. But it applies its skepticism only to others', not to its own moral claims. Liberalism holds that the school system ought not to advocate religion. It insists that American values are not superior to those of other cultures. In its more extreme variants it holds that 9/11 victims are "little Eichmanns". It assumes that public morality is a convention and that rules about public morality amount to infringement on freedom of speech. It argues that morals are locally derived, have no logical foundation, and that their chief purpose is to justify power. Philosophy and literature have been written by dead white males; and natural rights have no meaning because morals have no logical meaning.

Given Progressive-liberals' skepticism with respect to American values, natural rights and morals, the liberal position faces an irreconciliable dilemma. No argument about morality is possible if there is no such thing as morality. If there is such a thing as morality, then liberalism has to explain why it is to be preferred over nationalism, religion or other locally derived moral systems.

Progressive-liberals wish to have it both ways. They offer one emotionally charged moral argument after the next: Global warming is wrong; Wal-Mart is evil; America is the Great Satan. But at the same time, liberals deny that there is such a thing as morality.

From whence do liberals' derive their moral sense? If morals have meaning, liberals must be able to show that their causes are morally superior to those whom they attack. If natural rights have meaning, then liberal causes are generally immoral, for liberalism depends on redistribution of property by violence. If economic inequality is wrong, why is it worse than stealing? By what moral system does liberalism justify forcing me to pay taxes? What makes liberal causes more moral than natural rights?

Liberalism has not attempted to answer such questions. It is an ideology, not a philosophical system. It is an ideology whose aim is to justify the assumption of power by educated elites.

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