Pet Peeves

There’s quite the debate raging over at Catallarchy, in reply to comments condemning Harry Truman as a terrorist as bad, or worse, than Osama bin Laden:

My view is the direct opposite of what they teach in government run schools. They teach that Truman’s action [the use of atomic weapons] was a heroic choice that saved many American lives. With a similar line of reasoning, a friend of mine argued that the massacre of civilians during war may be justified if the reward is high enough. He hesitated to make a judgment in the particular instance of Harry Truman’s wartime actions, claiming that the good of saving American troops at least partially offset the bad of incinerating Japanese homes and families.

Many other men have used logic similar to Truman’s supporters to justify attacking civilian targets to further national objectives. However, I don’t think my American friends would hesitate to condemn their actions because they don’t bat for the home team.

For example, the name Osama bin Laden has taken its place among Hitler and Satan in the pantheon of evil. The reason? He thinks freeing the Arab world from Western imperial influences is important enough to sacrifice civilian lives. We might call him the Harry Truman of the Middle East.

As most Americans condemn bin Laden for putting civilians in harm’s way, so too do I condemn Truman. If bin Laden is a terrorist, then so is Truman. In fact, Truman’s actions are more indefensible because eventual victory was available through conventional military means. For bin Laden, direct military action, against the most feared armed force in all of history, is out of the question.

Americans have a perverse and dangerous view of their place in the world. Until we realize that our civilians are not worth more than other country’s civilians and that our leaders do not operate within a sacred halo that allows them to turn ugly sins into holy acts, America will continue to be a source of great suffering.

Now, I think that Jacob is right on here, and that the shameless apology for mass murder, as long as it happens under the Stars and Stripes, may very well be the most sickening feature in all of American education. But the fish I want to fry today is meta-ethical, not political, so if you want to argue about the massacres at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, etc., feel free to do so, but the point I want to call attention to is actually off to one side of the debate. Here’s a comment in the thread from Dave, howling in protest (emphasis added):

Jacob’s post is about moral relativism gone out of control. Maybe next this libertarian will compare Timothy McVeigh to Murray Rothbard because both harbored anti-government feelings. Look at the passive posture he wants the United States to assume. …

And blah, blah, blah.

I pick this out because it highlights a pet peeve of mine. The Right–thanks to the influence of the Christian Right and fundamentalist ideas about the nature of secular modernism–have been throwing around the phrase moral relativism in public debate over the past ten or twenty years, and every year that goes by they seem to get further and further from having any clue at all what it means. Here we have a particularly dramatic case in point: not only is there there is absolutely nothing in Jacob’s post which either entails or even suggests moral relativism. In point of fact, Jacob’s comments demand that moral relativism be rejected, and that moral principles be applied universally, rather than applied ad hoc depending on your relationship to the agent being judged.

It’s no sin not to know meta-ethical theory, but if you’re going to use the terms, you ought to know what they mean. Moral relativism does not mean being lax about taboos that you shouldn’t be lax about; far less does it mean drawing a mistaken comparison in ethics. Moral relativism is the doctrine that one and the same action can be both right and wrong at the same time–that is, that questions of moral value can only be answered relative to some frame of reference that can change from one judgment to the next. For example, some people have believed (wrongly) that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether the person making the moral judgment has a feeling of approval or disapproval towards it; other people have believed (also wrongly) that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether or not the person making the moral judgment lives in a society in which the action is generally praised, generally condemned, or generally considered neutral. (For an excellent discussion of, and critical reply to, actual moral relativism, see Chapter III of G. E. Moore’s Ethics [1912].)

Now, Dave might think that Jacob’s moral principles (for example, that deliberately slaughtering thousands or hundreds of thousands of civilians in pursuit of your goals is wrong, no matter what) are mistaken. I don’t think they are, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Jacob is insisting on principled ethical judgments (even if you think the principles are wrong) and he is not claiming anywhere, ever, that the applicability of those principles is relative to the speaker’s feelings, or culture, or relation to the person carrying out the slaughter, or relation to the victims, or anything of the sort. Quite the contrary; he’s insisting that moral principles, which he claims we insist on in bin Laden’s case, ought to be applied absolutely and for everyone. That’s an outright rejection of relativism and the excuses for atrocities that relativism so happily provides.

On the other hand, I can’t say the same for these comments:

If you don’t believe that your country’s citizens are worth more than the citizens of other countries — that is, entitled to live even if it means the death of citizens of other countries — I don’t want to be in the same foxhole with you.

But of course the comments come not from Jacob, but from the hawkish Tom, in protest of Jacob’s point. The implied conclusion — that subjects of other States shouldn’t be treated as though they have as much of a right to life as the subjects of your own State — is a textbook case of moral relativism. (Specifically, in this case, the claim that fundamental moral obligations, like the rights of innocents not to be burned alive as a sacrifice for others, can only be decided relative to the relationship between the you and the victim–if you are subjects of the same State then it is not O.K., but if you are subjects of different States, then anything up to and including dropping a fucking nuclear bomb on their heads is, apparently, acceptable.) Maybe Jacob’s principles are right and maybe they’re wrong; but he is employing principles, and insisting that they are universally binding. Tom, on the other hand, is explicitly stating that moral principles are binding relative to one group of people and mere breath relative to another. Yet it is Jacob, not Tom, who is denounced as a moral relativist; this is nothing but darkening counsel with words without knowledge.

The kind of argument that Tom uses is, of course, a method of excuse used all the time by the Right: the idea that any means at all are acceptable in warfare, because our moral obligations end at borders on a map, and so the pursuit of victory can trump any and every other moral consideration. Of course, just saying that a view is relativist is not the same thing as saying that it is false; maybe there are some good arguments for relativism. I haven’t found any, and I think there are decisive arguments against it, but it’s an open philosophical topic. But my concern here is about the proper use of terms, and about consistency; if you are going to support a bloody and unapologetic form of relativism, then you had better argue for it, and you had better not pretend that you’re opposed to it. Yet it seems that somehow the self-appointed arch-nemeses of moral relativism never do get around to condemning this sort of blatant disregard for universality in ethics–perhaps because their situation is as the Prophet has written: We have met the enemy, and they is us.

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  1. Kevin Vallier


    Good post. Two responses.

    One, a quote from the great libertarian Ralph Raico: “If Harry Truman wasn’t a war criminal, then no one ever was.”

    I recommend these Raico, anti-Truman pieces:

    Second, a small point: It isn’t necessarily true that saying the lives of your citizens are more valuable than the lives of non-citizens is moral relativism. It just implies something false – that an individual’s worth is determined by whether she resides within the same borders as you do.

    It isn’t clear to me why this immediately implies that a moral norm is true and false at the same time, however. Of course, it does imply that the moral norm “All human life is sacred.” is false, whereas the people who are committed to denying this are also the ones who most loudly affirm it. However, that’s not really moral relativism either, as they aren’t proclaiming the contradiction as a doctrine.

    That just raises the question about whether one can be a moral relativist if one denies that moral relativism is true.

    I wonder – it seems to me that any position that first appears to be a moral relativist one can’t be shown in some way to actually not be relativist at all. Suppose someone said both of the following:

    1) I can kill people; it’s morally licit. 2) You cannot kill people; it’s morally illicit.

    Now, that seems like a prime example of moral relativism. But suppose you believed something further:

    3) I have moral rights, objectively, that you do not have.

    Of course, those three comments altogether do not constitute the position of a moral relativist.

    Maybe the moral relativist/moral objectivist distinction is something like the egoist/altruist one. But this is just a wild speculation.

    By the way, I think there’s a case that individuals should act as if those most proximate to them have the most value, although I do not think a human being’s intrinsic worth varies due to nationality. That’s outrageous and absurd.

    But to be fair to the Right, that’s probably where their confusion is coming from. They know that those cosmopolitan leftists who say that we should care as much about those starving in Africa as we do about our own children are incorrect. Where they’re wrong is in concluding that we haven’t really got moral obligations to them at all.

  2. Discussed at

    Dru Blood - I believe in the inherent goodness of all beings:

    Today’s vocabulary lesson brought to you by Rad Geek

    Pet Peeves: Geekery Today 2005/07/26 :: Rad Geek People’s Daily Now, if you will excuse me, I need to sift through my archives and make sure I have applied the term consistently in my arguments….

  3. Dave

    I guess the approach taken by Jacob is one of my pet peeves. As you say moral relativism is not the best term for it. False moral equivalence is what I’m talking about. OK, so I’m somewhat rightwing, actually a reformed LBJ liberal. Leftists bring up this issue of fairness, symmetry and equity all the time. It is hard to answer them by saying I don’t care about what is fair. I just support what is good for me and my friends. But why is the accusation only leveled at one side? If the interrogator is so fair and balanced how come he never says things like If you think Truman is bad you should see the what Osama bin Laden did. Damn he killed three thousand people. And he calls himself a religious man. Instead the leftist always hurls his charges at his own people and his own country. That is why I call them self hating. They are so concerned about being fair to the Other who always gets a pass that they neglect their own out of a sense of shame and guilt. Jacob seems to be mad at the schools and his teachers for lying to him and not showing that mass murderer Truman for what he was. I guess the same charge would have to apply to Roosevelt, who started the American bombing of civilians.

    I would like to know just what is the purpose Jacob’s raising the issue of Truman who was president 60 years ago any way. Why didn’t he compare Bin Laden to Timothy McVeigh? Surely there is more similarity between these two than Truman. If he just wanted to compare him to someone bad why not Hitler or Pontius Pilate? I thought he might be trying to undermine the righteous indignation of Americans, so they would not feel they have the moral authority to pursue Osama. You said that was wrong but instead we should react equally to both Truman and Osama, since their acts are morally equivalent. Does that mean that in the name of moral consistency we should send the marines in to kill Bin Laden and revise all the school textbooks that say anything positive about Truman? Should we tear down the Truman library? After all we wouldn’t have an Osama Bin Laden library. Should Truman’s relatives have to pay reparations? In my opinion the entire idea of a Truman/Bin Laden connection is a non- sequitur and is absurd.

  4. Sergio Méndez


    Good post, althought, I have a doubt about it. I am not sure if what you imply by a moral relativist is exactly what I had in mind. You seem to present moral relativists more as situationists (in A situation, B is good and in C situation B is bad). That sounds fine, but I wonder if people like myself (moral non-cognontivists) who think that moral statements cannot be qualified as true or false, cause they are simply valorative assertions and not a predicate about reality, are moral relativists too…

    For Dave:

    You know what is the problem we in the left have with moral judgments of the right? That they are hypocrite. I think the comparison between Bin Laden (or most of American presidents, specially in the last 50 years) is the fact that the US has killed by large, far more people than all Islamic Terrorist attacks in the same period of 50 years. And while nobody is ever going to defend a thug like Bin Laden, the right pretends that we not only ignore US attrocities, but that we give em our blessing as good actions. Fuck that.

  5. Dave

    Sergio: I disagree that the left has a lock on moral purity, having supported such mass murders as Stalin, Mao, and Fidel. I don’t think it is a question of hypocrisy. There is blame enough to go around for everyone. Why is it that leftists are so obsessed with selectively looking at the past? Socialism is a proven failure. If leftists had any good ideas about building the future there would be some track record they could point to. Then I might be a leftist too. They have none so far so they just try to tear down others who are more successful.

  6. Alex

    Dave: One can be in the left whilst still not being a fan of Stalin and co., as well as not even being in favour of socialism. This is in exactly the same way as those on the right don’t have to be fans of Hitler and fascism.

    The problem that the left finds with the right, as far as I can see, is that anyone who is either non-American or left gets a whole lot of attention for any crime that they might commit, whereas those on the American right who commit similar crimes are always conveniently ignored.

    That is Jacobs original point, that the right has a habit of conveniently ignoring atrocities committed by its own supporters.

    Oh, and as to the ‘proven record’ of the left, have you ever actually looked at the average (median, not mode) standard of life in right countries like the USA? Its far lower than more left-wing countries such as Norway and Switzerland.

  7. freeman

    Non-sequitur? Give me a break!

    Both men committed acts of terror, resulting in mass murder. It’s that simple. To deny this seems, to me at least, to suggest that too many people are still blinded by the flag.

    Maybe part of the reason why self-proclaimed lefties focus on people within our own borders is due to some feeling of responsibility towards people of power within our own borders. The actions of American politicians are the business of Americans and should be scrutinized.

    Additionally, history texts always seem to whitewash objectionable acts committed by the home country. This is a practice that constantly needs to be pointed out and rejected.

  8. Dave

    I can see that the familiar lines have been drawn. The familiar reasons have been proffered.

    I don’t think Norway is a particularly good example of a country we should copy. In fact it is an isolated homogeneous country whose primary exports are fish and oil from their vast offshore resources. Norway is a country, like those in the Middle East, with a shameful heritage as imperialists and conquerors, the home of the Viking. You don’t see them pining for past glories and trying to kill all those who stand in their way. Where are the Viking warriors ready to conquer the world and restore the glories of previous Viking hegemony?

    I have reason to believe that the Vikings may have raped my female ancestors yet I have yet to hear any liberals demand I get paid any reparations. Why do liberals cover up these inequities? The Muslims should be the ones who model themselves after the Norwegians, not the USA.

    Switzerland, located in the mountains has always pursued an isolationist policy, not even option for the U.S. In fact Switzerland didn’t even take sides in WW II, though it did act as banker and financier for the Nazis. Do you really want to be like them? Like Norway they are any thing but multicultural. Comparing these countries to the US is just another example of leftist sophistry.

    But seriously, studying history is fun and things haven’t always been fair. I do not dispute your moral principles, but really what can I to do about something that happened when I was a baby and you were probably even younger than that. The future is what we can deal with and if historical analysis can help I am all for it. The problems with the look back approach besides being incapable of changing anything include hindsight bias, polemical one-sidedness and selective indignation. All sorts of false comparisons and distortions are apt to arise. I don’t automatically buy them and neither should you.

  9. John T. Kennedy

    Let’s say an ICBM would soon be launched from Moscow targeting your city. Yhe only way you can prevent it is by a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Moscow. Would you say that morality requires you that you prefer the lives of innocent citizens of Moscow to your own and your own neigbors? Does morality require that you die in this case?

  10. Sergio Méndez


    The problem is that today there are few leftists that support guys like Stalin or Mao, or that try to make an apology for their crimes. On the other side I see right wingers (specially US right wingers) constantly excusing any US foreign decision the US takes, no matter if it was based on lies, no matter how many lifes those lies cost (being the exception the Clinton administration: not because he was lying or being attrocious, but because he was Clinton and he was trying to help muslims against orthodox christian serbians). Worse, the US right wingers not only pretend that we do not criticize the US most evil acts, but that we celebrate them! Imagine a leftist not only defending Stalin, but asking us to celebrate his actions…

    What is more fun of all this, is that right wingers, who scream all the time against moral relativism, pretend that their absolute moral principles do not apply to their own country. That may not be technically moral relativism, but it has the stinking odor of hypocresy…But as I always said…the right wingers are really moralist of the first order: they have not only one, but two morals…

    John T Kennedy:

    What if Alien Vampires came from another dimension to slaughter us and some mad scientist had the means to stop them? Wouldn’t it be fine to torture the mad scientist to obtain his knowledge to stop the Alien Vampires? Lets get serious (BTW, ICBM’s are never launched nearby populated areas, but from deep underground silos on unpopulated ones).

  11. Alex

    Dave: I don’t understand what Norway exports has to do with its social security model, which is what I thought you were critisizing. Furthermore, all countries have imperialistic pasts, but its only the more recent ones which anyone is apologising for, or, as has been pointed out, people are even congratulating. No-one is calling for reparations, only honesty and consistency.

    Again, in the case of Switzerland, you’ve mentioned their role in supporting the Nazi’s, but conveniently ignored your own. Fanta is the name of Coca-Cola when it wanted to operate in Nazi Germany, and IBM supplied a system for the Nazi’s to track Jews in concentration camps. Before you start again, I’m not saying that the USA is worse than others here, only that it never gets any blame.

  12. Diane

    I have always thought that Truman’s use of the bomb was horrific. I know that the grandchildren of the survivors were plagued with thyroid cancer, so it was a gift to democracy that kept on giving.

    I have discussed this matter, or seen it discussed, with Democrats (of which I am not one) for years, and they always say–just about to a person–that Truman was a hero and that he had to use the bomb.

    I admit to not being a military expert, but I can find no moral reason for obliterating two cities and their residents and causing multiple hardships for generations to come. But then, I am a pacifist, so what the hell do I know?

  13. Discussed at

    Geekery Today:

    A day that will live in infamy

    The easiest way to begin is with the numbers. Some 60 years ago today, at 11:02 in the morning, the American B-29 bomber dropped a…

  14. Laura J.

    If you don’t believe that your country’s citizens are worth more than the citizens of other countries — that is, entitled to live even if it means the death of citizens of other countries — I don’t want to be in the same foxhole with you.

    Setting aside the question of whom it’s with, is this person seriously suggesting that ordinary, moderately rational human beings should have any desire whatsoever to be in a foxhole in the first place?

    … sadly, the answer is probably Yes.

· September 2005 ·

  1. Discussed at

    Moral Relativism

    ‘Moral Relativism’ is a phrase being thrown around a lot at the minute, and as RadGeek points out, in this post, most people who use it don’t seem to actually understand what it means.

· October 2005 ·

  1. Roderick T. Long

    The mistake is a common one (for the latest instance see the recent Hanson-Callahan dispute). I can only assume it’s something like the following thinking that leads to it:

    1. This person treats country A’s action and country B’s action as equally wrong, whereas I think A’s action is wrong and B’s action is right.
    2. So this person doesn’t recognise important moral differences between country A and country B.
    3. So this person treats different countries as having the same moral status even when one is good and the other is evil.
    4. So this person thinks any country’s standards are as good as any other.
    5. So this person is a moral relativist.

    Of course every step of this argument is loopy, but I think I can see how tiny brains maddened by rage and prejudice could slide happily down it.

  2. Rad Geek


    Comparing these countries to the US is just another example of leftist sophistry.

    Rational human beings are entitled–one might even say obligated–to compare the judgments they make about the actions of one country’s government to the judgments they make about the relevantly similar actions of another country’s government. If the actions really are relevantly similar then the moral judgment on them ought to be the same, on pain of either (1) inconsistency or (2) relativism, which is just a more sophisticated version of (1). If the actions aren’t really relevantly similar, then you should object to that, not accuse your opponents of “relativism.”

    But seriously, studying history is fun and things haven’t always been fair. I do not dispute your moral principles, but really what can I to do about something that happened when I was a baby and you were probably even younger than that.

    The question is whether it is true or false that the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was terrorism, and whether such an act of terrorism is defensible or indefensible. What do I intend to do about it? Hell if I know. But truth and honesty about history are valuable in their own right, without regard to any further consequences that they may have.


    Let’s say an ICBM would soon be launched from Moscow targeting your city. Yhe only way you can prevent it is by a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Moscow. Would you say that morality requires you that you prefer the lives of innocent citizens of Moscow to your own and your own neigbors? Does morality require that you die in this case?

    I’m not sure that I understand what sort of circumstances are supposed to make it so that the incineration of Moscow is the only option. Be that as it may, if that does somehow happen, I’m not at all sure what the right answer is, but I do know that whatever the answer is, it would have to be something that’s objective and universally binding, not something that is relative to your frame of reference. If you’re justified in doing it (on principles of self-defense or something like them), then it would have to follow that a Muscovite is justified in doing exactly the same thing, mutatis mutandis, to you and your city if millions of Muscovites were imperiled. In either case, it would not erase the fact that millions of innocents are being murdered; it would just shift the blame for the slaughter from the person doing the incinerating to the person who threatened your city, or Moscow, with incineration. Neither a “Yes” or a “No” answer here entails a commitment to relativism.

    For what it’s worth, I am inclined to doubt that incinerating Moscow would be justifiable in the first place. If there were any reason to do it, it would have to be connected with the fact that you are defending yourself against aggression. I cannot see any grounds on which incinerating Moscow could be justified if you would remain safe in either case: why would exchanging one set of innocent victims for another be morally justifiable, if there’s no question of self-defense involved? But I cannot see any grounds on which incinerating Moscow in order to save yourself could be justified either: if somehow the attack that you’re pre-empting were only going to kill you, I cannot any way to morally justify incinerating millions of innocent people to avoid that fate. (Yes, that would mean that there can be cases in which you’re morally obligated to die. But I don’t see any decisive reason to be certain that there can’t be such cases, and cases in which the only way to survive is by incinerating millions of innocent people seem like pretty good reasons to doubt that there can’t.)

    Of course, the fact that you can’t justify doing X to save Y, and the fact that you can’t justify doing X to save Z, don’t entail that you can’t justify doing X to save both Y and Z together. But I don’t see any way in which combining the fact that you are defending yourself with the fact that you are defending your fellow citizens could make a difference. Do you?


    I think that that’s one way that people can end up slinging the charge of “relativism” around. I think the other way that it tends to happen is that people go from your step (2) to (3′) This person is unacceptably lax about moral principles and thence to (4′) This person is a moral relativist, on the grounds that in Right-wing circles “moral relativism” has come to be used, more or less, as a synonym for being too lax about some set of moral principles that the Right-winger in question cares about (by way of a further mistaken identification of relativism with an “anything-goes” attitude with regard to morality). That’s my suspicion, anyway.

— 2006 —

  1. Jamie DeVries

    I think what we’re missing in this discussion is the distinction between the notion of “moral relativism” and “moral equivalence.” The so called “Christian right” would point to the “cause” of the conflict itself. We cannot make a moral equivalent comparison between Truman and Bin Laden because the Japanese were clearly the imperialistic aggressor during WWII, and Osama (al Qaeda)on 9/11. Truman was reacting and trying to end the conflict, not attempting to somehow occupy or “Christianize” Japan, in the way that Osama would want an all-encompassing Caliphate, directing us to live under Shria law. For Osama’s ideal, see the Talibanic government of Afghanistan pre 9/11.

    Here is the question we ought to ask ourselves: )Did Truman have the ability and power to incinerate each and every Japanese citizen, even after a surrender was declared? The answer is: yes. Did he or the U.S have the WILL to do so? The answer: of course not. Once Japan surrendered, we went home. Japan became the 2nd largest economy in the world.

    Now flip the coin. If Osama had the “capability” and ability to wipe every citizen of America off the map, would he take advantage of it? The is answer is: of course.

    In short, we cannot draw any moral parallels between the two figures. To say that all “civilian killing” is unjustified is to say that all sex is adultery. We have to look at the issue a little bit deeper.

  2. Rad Geek


    The entire point of the post was to distinguish arguments based on moral equivalence (which Jacob’s remarks were) from arguments based on moral relativism (which they were not). In fact, Jacob’s argument, and most other arguments based on moral equivalence, presuppose that moral relativism is false, since they generally demand that an ethical principle be applied consistently to all cases that are analogous in all the relevant features. Of course, you might disagree that Truman’s actions and bin Laden’s actions really are analogous in all the relevant features. But that’s a separate argument, which has nothing to do with moral relativism (since Josh’s argument is not relativist), and nothing to do with the cogency of moral equivalence arguments in general, either. (There’s nothing wrong with asserting moral equivalence between things which really are similar in all morally significant respects. There’s only a problem if the things compared aren’t really equivalent in all respects significant to the point being made.)

    Did Truman have the ability and power to incinerate each and every Japanese citizen, even after a surrender was declared? The answer is: yes. Did he or the U.S have the WILL to do so? The answer: of course not.

    Well, gosh, Jamie, that’s mighty white of him.

    Truman was reacting and trying to end the conflict, not attempting to somehow occupy … Japan …. Once Japan surrendered, we went home.

    Jamie, what in the world are you talking about? There are plenty of differences between Truman’s political ends and bin Laden’s political ends. But you’re not entitled to rewrite well-known facts of history in order to try to make this point.

    But, in any case, the point of Jacob’s remarks didn’t have anything to do with comparing Harry Truman’s ends and Osama bin Laden’s ends. They had to do with comparing the means they chose for achieving those ends (to wit, knowingly and willingly slaughtering thousands of civilians for the sake of military strategy). The point is if those are terrorist tactics in bin Laden’s hands, they are terrorist tactics in Truman’s hands too, and if terrorist tactics are universally wicked, then you have to condemn Truman’s tactics as well as bin Laden’s, whatever you might think of the goals he was trying to accomplish by them.

    Of course, if you think that knowingly and willingly slaughtering innocent civilians for the sake of military strategy does not always count as terrorism, then you’re free to argue for that. (But then you’ll have to explain what it was that bin Laden’s tactics had, and Truman’s tactics didn’t, which made one terroristic and the other not.) Or you could claim that the end sometimes justifies terrorist means. (But then you’d have to argue for that.) What you cannot intelligibly do is insist on one standard for Truman’s actions and another for bin Laden’s just on the ground that one of them presided over your own country whereas the other coordinated opposition to your own country. The important thing is to recognize that this is a question of principle, not a matter of rooting for the home team.

  3. jamie devries

    It sure sounds as though the rad geek is trying to affix a certain amount of “blame” towards the actions of Truman et al. Please tell me: what is the sense in saying that Truman was wrong in killing innocents unless Right is a real thing which the Americans at bottom knew but failed to practice? I’m just a simpleton, but I see this as the fatal flaw to moral relativism.

    Echoing the Natural Law philosophers before him, Lewis wrote the following:

    The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others. Or put it this way. If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of mine less true, there must be something- some Real Morality- for them to be true about.

    P.S. Thanks for the wikipedia reference. For all of these years I was under the impression that Japan was a sovereign nation. I mistakingly thought 90% of the troops came home after V-J day. I now stand corrected.

  4. jamie d.

    You don’t have to post the last comment. I know this strand is long over, I simply got my computer back.

    and another P.S.

    I heard someone once say something like War is Hell. The more Hellish it is, the quicker it’s over. I suppose I wouldn’t disagree with Osamas tactics, if the ends justified it. Just like I wouldn’t blame a woman for shooting her rapist assailant. We can’t isolate one variable and consider it wrong in all contexts.

    If Osama were right, and those Americans who died on 9-11 weren’t innocent after all. They were diabolical creatures, zionistic apologists, sent from the evil one to rid the world of God’s true people (muslims), than surely if ANYONE deserved death, it would be us. In short, I think he’s wrong about the facts…not that he’s incapable of knowing the difference between right and wrong.

  5. Roderick T. Long

    Jamie, your second-to-last comment makes it sound as though you think Rad Geek is, or is trying to be, or is claiming to be, a moral relativist! And that you’re thereby scoring points off him by pointing out that his criticism of Truman amounts to a rejection of moral relativism. But the whole point of the present discussion is that Rad Geek explicitly rejects moral relativism. That’s why he’s complaining about being falsely labeled a moral relativist when he makes a moral-equivalnce argument.

  6. Roderick T. Long

    Also to Jamie: do you think the citizens of Hiroshima were “diabolical creatures”?

    If not, then again what is the difference between what Turman did to them and what bin Laden did to the 9/11 victims?

  7. Rad Geek

    It sure sounds as though the rad geek is trying to affix a certain amount of blame towards the actions of Truman et al.

    I certainly am.

    (Although as I say in the post, debating that is not actually the main point of this post; the point of the post is to make a logical point about charges of moral relativism. That point remains whether or not I’m right about Truman and the rest of his terrorist network.)

    Please tell me: what is the sense in saying that Truman was wrong in killing innocents unless Right is a real thing which the Americans at bottom knew but failed to practice?

    There isn’t much.

    I’m just a simpleton, but I see this as the fatal flaw to moral relativism.

    I agree.

    What, did you think I was defending moral relativism in this post? I’m not. I think that moral relativism is wrong — both in the sense that it’s theoretically mistaken, and also in the sense that indulging in relativist arguments is morally vicious.

    For all of these years I was under the impression that Japan was a sovereign nation.

    Just so we’re clear, I don’t think there are any sovereign nations (the notion involves a conceptual error about the nature of legitimate authority). But even on conventional understandings of State or national sovereignty, this is quite obviously absurd as a description of Japan following the Second World War. If you are going to go around proclaiming the national sovereignty of unconditionally surrendered, militarily occupied nations, with a form of government determined by, imposed by, and revoked at the pleasure of the military authorities of the occupying power, then you are clearly using the phrase national sovereignty without any meaning whatsoever. Nobody at all would have recognized Japan as a sovereign state for the purposes of international law until the withdrawal of the occupying forces and the conclusion of a formal peace treaty in 1951-1952.

    Note that I am not saying anything here about whether or not the occupation of Japan was a bad idea or a good idea. I have my own views, but my point has nothing to do with those views. The point is that Truman’s plans clearly did involve the complete conquest and occupation of Japan at the end of the war (which he achieved), and that it is simply false that we went home when Japan surrendered. Maybe it was a good thing that we (or rather, the U.S. military) occupied Japan after the war. Maybe not. But whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, my point here is simply that, as I said earlier, you’re not entitled to rewrite well-known facts of history in order to try to make [a] point.

    We can’t isolate one variable and consider it wrong in all contexts.

    Of course you can. Jesus. There are some things that you have no right to do to innocent people, not ever, not for any reason in the world. (N.B.: shooting someone who is attacking you is not among those things. That’s because people who are actively attacking you are not innocent people.)

    If you intend to deny this, then you are limiting yourself to one of two rather narrow ethical positions, depending on what you mean by in all contexts here. Specifically, you could hold (a) that there are real, objectively-specifiable goods and evils, but whether a given action falls into the good or evil category is always contingent on the whole context of the act (thus there are no kinds of actions that are categorically called for or categorically ruled out). Or else you could hold (b) that there aren’t any objectively-specifiable goods or evils at all, and that what even counts as being good or evil is contingent on the context from which you evaluate it.

    If you defend position (a), you’re defending a radical form of situational ethics. If you defend position (b), you’re defending straight-up moral relativism. I think neither position is justifiable (although position (a) is a lot more sympathetic than position (b)). In either case, you’ll need to be more clear about just what position you’re defending if you want to both (1) excoriate moral relativism and (2) deny the possibility of evaluating actions across all contexts (!), without getting some incredulous stares.

— 2008 —

— 2013 —

  1. Discussed at

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2013-05-06 – Against National Relativism:

    […] draws so much of its intellectual basis from the watch-words of the cultural Right[2] — relativism has come to be very frequently used in order to defend the crassest sorts of exceptionali…. But when moral relativism is used polemically this way in debates about war and foreign policy, […]

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