METAETHICS: THE SAGA...

METAETHICS: THE SAGA CONTINUES. I don't want to get too bogged down in this, but since Jonah Goldberg's written some posts in response to what I said Friday on relativism, here's a bit more. One thing, for the philosophers in the room, is that "relativism" per se is a vulgar term that just about everyone rejects. I'm more like a quasi-realist or a non-cognitivist or some other jargon term you may prefer.

The interesting point came, I think, in Jonah's second post wondering, "How are you going to convince others, to pick a nice progressive example, that gay marriage is a moral imperative or that torture is wrong without an appeal to conscience?" To me, this is just the point. Jonah's witnessed me engage in arguments with moral aspects in the past, and, indeed, we've debated various issues from time to time. There's no point in an actual moral conversation where adding "and my views are objectively correct!" adds anything to what's happening. Obviously, appeals to conscience are a part of argument. Equally obviously, conscience exists -- people feel guilty sometimes and have the capacity to empathize and people take advantage of these traits when arguing. I might say to someone, "Well, look, how would you feel if you were being told you couldn't marry your lover, that your relationship was going to be permanently relegated to second-class status, all because, hypothetically, recognizing the legitimacy of your love might lead to a decline in heterosexual marriage rates at some time in the future?"

That sort of thing is a classic of moral discourse, but obviously it doesn't "prove" anything. And that's generally how these things go. When you argue with people, you try to appeal to shared sentiments, point out alleged inconsistencies in the other guy's position, and so on and so forth. What underlies the possibility of discussion isn't objective moral truth but the fact that, say, Jonah and I have a vast stockpile of things we agree about and one tries to resolve controversies with appeals to stuff in that store of previous agreement.

He also says there's something "profoundly un-liberal" about my view. I think it's a little un-liberal and, indeed, I'm always a little surprised at conservative hostility to the notion. As I see it, this is all exactly why we sometimes must, as the conservatives say, stop negotiating with people and start trying to kill them instead. Sometimes you face someone whose disagreements with you are so profound that appeals to shared premises don't get you anywhere. Or you face someone who just doesn't care about doing the right thing. It's precisely because there's no way to decide who's objectively right in a dispute between, say, Adolf Hitler and liberal democracy, that we resolve the biggest moral controversies with force and threats of force rather than moral discourse and appeals to conscience. Debate and deliberation only work for the small stuff.

--Matthew Yglesias

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