In an attempt to make clear that Todd Akin ran into trouble because he’s a moral absolutist and not simply because he’s a mysogynist, Matt Steinglass took to the Economist's Democracy in America blog to write some truly bizarre things about morality and relativism:
Personally, I’m proud to be a moral relativist. In fact I’d go further: I think even the most moral moral absolutists cannot be as moral as the most moral moral relativists. Human beings, after all, aren’t computer programs, and the idea that a simple and consistent set of rules will get you to justice, optimal utility, virtue, or any other telos you could name seems absurd.
To begin, I suppose it’s important to note that Steinglass’ claim either makes no sense or is meaningless. What he’s claiming is that, when he creates the category of morality and fills it entirely with his opinions, the people with whom he disagrees on matters like abortion are clearly less moral than the people with whom he agrees.
To put this another way, Steinglass is incredibly proud of himself for reaching the conclusion that millions of college freshmen have reached, namely that there’s no such thing as morality, that everything we happen to believe to be right or true is wholly contingent, and that only good things can happen when we embrace the notion that everything is as good as everything else because that gives us space to just live and let live.
As he writes:
[B]eing a good person requires a certain comfort level with shades of grey. You need to be able to embrace propositions that are, at some level, potentially at odds with each other.
In other words, everyone’s a little bit different and so everyone has different opinions and beliefs. And who are we to say that one idea is right while another is wrong. They can both be a little bit right and a little bit wrong.
Except Todd Akin’s ideas, which are — in Steinglass’ words — “monstrosities.” What makes them monstrosities? Well, Steinglass doesn’t agree with them. And he doesn’t agree, apparently, because he thinks they are the products of absolutist thinking. I also happen to disagree with Akin’s ideas. But I could come up with a perfectly good absolutist reason for my disagreement [see below] rather than a wishy-washy non-argument that says, “Everyone’s beliefs are as good as everyone else’s because there’s no single truth out there … except for the people with whom I disagree; those people are just flat-out wrong.”
In any event, here’s how Steinglass “solves” the abortion debate:
Where exactly does the line fall between a clump of cells whose interests should count for very little compared to those of the full-fledged person it’s inside, and a nearly-developed human baby whose interests should count for a lot? I don’t know. There isn’t one. We have to draw some lines, for legal purposes, and they’re going to be arbitrary, relative, and non-absolute. People should be comfortable with that.
That’s a complete dodge.
There is a massive problem that affects millions and millions of lives. And the answer for how to address the problem that we get from Steinglass’ brand of morality is “I don’t know.” Let’s all get comfortable with completely arbitrary lines that we draw for no reason at all. Why? Because that’s not monstrous and it isn’t a fairy tale. Let’s allow a bunch of human lives to be taken. Why? Because of some belief I have for which I have no good argument. Or, let’s allow no human lives to be taken. Why? Again, because of some belief I have for which I have no good argument.
I happen to be of the opinion that the problem with Todd Akin isn’t going to be solved by exposing him to the grey shades that will help him to recognize when it’s appropriate to abort fetuses. Why not? Because the problem is that his understanding of morality is entirely uncritical: No fetuses should ever be aborted because every fetus is a rights-bearing human person from the moment of conception.
And why is that exactly?
But this is also the problem with Steinglass’ embrace of relativism. He is so desperate to avoid any connection to the vices of the Todd Akins of the world — namely their problematic, uncritical certainties — that he thoughtlessly embraces the complete absence of certainty and calls it a virtue. But it’s not a virtue … because, if Steinglass was thinking carefully, he’d know there ought not to be any such thing as a virtue. The radical uncertainty of relativism should really be seen as no better and no worse than the complete certainty of Akin’s absolutism. A good relativist would just note that these are two different ways of thinking … and that there are probably a bunch of other ways of thinking too.
I’ve written at some length in the past about abortion (here and here, for example). At its core, the argument is that we can allow for virtually all of the abortions that currently happen and also limit some abortions that might be particularly troublesome. It’s based on the <gasp> morally absolutist notions of human dignity, human personhood, and human rights. I can’t say whether Steinglass would see my argument as a monstrosity or a fairy tale but I suppose he’d have to do so since it’s based on another absolutist notion, namely that truths about human biology give us insight into the problem of abortion.
And making a truth claim, a good moral relativist should tell you, is really just my way of trying to disguise my opinion as a fact; since it’s all really just shades of grey, after all, the truth is relative.