Intellectual garbage cleanup

When did conservatives become moral relativists? It was always a petty slander when they placed that label on liberals, but it seems so odd that the torture debate of the last month resulted in such unambiguous moral relativism from staunch conservatives.

For instance, Patterico responded to people’s qualms about torture by writing “Admitting any ambiguity kills the sweet, sweet high of self-righteousness.” And liked the line so much that he repeated it. Repeated it in the course of offering a circumstance which he claims makes torture acceptable.

Of course, the beef is that TORTURE IS WRONG. There is no ambiguity. Torture is wrong, and it doesn’t matter what name you give it, and it doesn’t matter whether there’s a ticking bomb. The reason we are fighting al Qaeda ? the reason that even skeptics of military force didn’t raise a ruckus about invading Afghanistan and hunting al Qaeda down wherever else it hides ? is that they engage in activities like torture which are simply and objectively wrong. When we lose our focus on simple moral truths, we lose a powerful tool in the fight against al Qaeda. (Torture is wrong even if you accept Patterico’s wishy-washy moral relativism, as Sebastian points out.)

This has practical consequences. Sudan and Myanmar (née Burma) have used incidents like Abu Ghraib and Republican moral relativism on torture to justify their own genocidal actions. Our ability to get other countries not to torture (something that even conservatives agree is a good thing) is hampered by the hippy-dippy moral relativism of the President.

The same relativism is on display in discussions of stem cells. Last week’s announcement of a new way of producing embryonic stem cells could only be seen as resolving a moral conundrum if the underlying moral issue is hopelessly trivial.

Proponents of stem cell research pointed out that conducting research on a blastula which would otherwise be destroyed could save lives, and that saving lives is a Good Thing?. Anti-science activists, including the President, replied that destroying embryos for research was bad (unless they were destroyed before some arbitrary deadline, in which case it was no problem).

Then scientists found that using a virus to insert certain genes into foreskin cells seem to turn those cells into the functional equivalent of those from a blastula. In order to be functionally equivalent, they would have to be capable of being grown into a functional human being (if not, then there are differences between these cells and actual embryonic stem cells, and this technique could not supplant existing means of deriving stem cell lines).

Thus, anti-research conservatives are claiming some moral distinction between cells with no difference in their ability to produce an independent human being (similar cells derived from mice have been grown into embryonic mice; the same experiment would be unethical if conducted with human cells, and wasn’t attempted). There is only one moral distinction I can identify between these cells and stem cells derived by any other means: these cells don’t work as well or do as much, plus they have a tendency to turn cancerous. At best, we can assume that the moral objection raised by anti-researchers is to the initial destruction of an embryo. Were that the case though, we should have expected a ban on federal funding for that specific process, with no objection to the subsequent use of any stem cells so created (or a ban on cells so produced regardless of when the embryo was destroyed). As a compromise, the Bush policy never had moral coherence, and this latest discovery only emphasizes the underlying moral relativism.


  1. #1 Punditus Maximus
    November 28, 2007

    Conservatism never was a coherent philosophy; it was always a primal scream against People Not Like Me.

  2. #2 Dunc
    November 28, 2007

    Our ability to get other countries not to torture (something that even conservatives agree is a good thing) is hampered by the hippy-dippy moral relativism of the President.

    Ahem – something that “conservatives” claim to agree is a good thing. But who was it trained Pinochet’s secret police? Who’s backing Islam Karimov? And there’s nothing “hippy-dippy” about this moral relativism – in fact it’s not even moral relativism in the true sense. It’s just the difference between what they claim and what they do. They have always been in favour of torture – they just used to hide it (a little) better.

    Self-serving lies and propaganda are not moral relativism. It wasn’t moral relativism when the Soviets did it, and it’s not moral relativism now. It is the plain, old-fashioned exercise of power. As long as you continue to believe they have any kind of morality, relative or otherwise, then you’ll continue to be confused. The stem cell issue is a perfect example – it’s not about morality at all, it’s about politics.

  3. #3 derek
    November 28, 2007

    Mr Republican, I keep hearing that hijacking planes and flying them into office buildings is always wrong. But what if there was a ticking atom bomb in the building, and the only way to defuse it was to hijack a passsenger plane and fly it into the building? Wouldn’t it be right to do that, to save millions of people?

    Well then, you’ve admitted that flying hijacked passengers into a building full of office workers isn’t always wrong, so what’s your complaint against Osama bin Laden again, exactly?