Contemporary moral philosophy has hit a dead end, at least in the academy. Increasingly many students of ethics have become too willing to defer to findings in neuroscience and to experimental methods in general, often thereby confusing how we think about right and wrong with how we should think about right and wrong. Scanning my brain with an fMRI machine to see how I in fact react to a moral dilemma tells us nothing about how I ought to react.
Given this lamentable state of affairs, where is one to turn for new insights about morality?
The Santa Barbara View, of course.
Today Sharon Byrne has shaken up the field with a novel argument for moral relativism: the view that what is morally right or wrong can vary depending on the time, place, or other aspect of the situation. Byrne—who, you will recall, does not have a PhD—circumvents the insular realm of peer-reviewed journals and brings her findings direct to the people.
She first contrasts street liberals, who are often activists and are genuinely committed to eradicating oppression, with parlor liberals, who support leftist causes as long as it doesn’t require them to examine their own privilege and complicity in systems of inequality. She illustrates the ideological gap between these two groups with an example (unfortunately the editor of the Santa Barbara View accidentally exchanged instances of “parlor” and “street”; I have corrected the error):
Hypothetical example: Normally tolerant [parlor] liberals get annoyed with their public spaces being taken over by homeless … They take this stance with great angst. Liberals are supposed to support the homeless, right? … So how does this play against [street] liberals’ agenda of funding homeless shelters in the [parlor] liberals’ community, and expansion of civil rights for the homeless … ?
While “street liberals” recognize that the homeless deserve the same protections that the rest of us enjoy, the acknowledgment by “parlor liberals” of the humanity of others depends on whether or not the goings-on of the parlor is disrupted.
Byrne’s second distinction is between liberals in general and libertarians:
Libertarians and liberals look alike on the surface. They both support reducing penalties [for] illegal drug use, for example.
(Both also support universal healthcare, affirmative action, stronger hate-crimes legislation, and a better social safety net. They only really disagree about whether cars are basic.)
Where they part company, as pointed out by Matt Mazza in a recent letter to the editor, is on the solution. Liberals believe government is the best regulator of human behavior.
Libertarians believe the opposite. The government should not be in the business of telling us what to do …
Both arguments break down at various points. Liberal arguments for increased government involvement create a society in which ultimately, liberty is lost. That’s a strange outcome for a group with the Latin root liberalis (freedom) in its name.
Libertarian arguments work until you check in with, say, a cartel head. It seems we’re actually not all rational adults that should be trusted to do the right thing.
Here Byrne sets forth the dilemma that motivates her thesis. The libertarian’s worship of individualism would restrict regulation and allow drug cartels to persist even if drugs were legalized. That is unacceptable. But the liberal’s solution, to regulate the drug trade and prevent violent cartels from flourishing, would result in an equally unacceptable loss of liberty, particularly to the cartel head. What is to be done? What is the correct solution?
If you’ve read your Tom Friedman, you know that the answer is somewhere in the middle:
Whichever paradigm you’re holding onto (and we haven’t discussed conservatives), you can safely assume that at some point it’s going to fail to provide the right answer.
So in my mind, it’s worth checking in with other circles to see if they’ve stumbled onto something that posits a better answer.
Sharon Byrne’s relativist thesis can be expressed thus: for every pair of moral theories, there is a third theory that is better and is a compromise between the two.
By way of illustration, there is, according to Byrne, a compromise between liberalism and libertarianism (liberaltarianism?) that is therefore better than either. But—and this is what makes the view relativist—there is then a view that is a compromise between liberaltarianism and liberalism, which is better than either. There is also a compromise between liberaltarianism and libertarianism. And there are compromises between those compromises, and so on ad infinitum. No compromise is actually true, or even better than all others, because there are compromises of that compromise, but each is better than the views it is a compromise of.
This is all pretty abstract, but it’s the most explicit formulation yet of the centrist view that principles are weakness and there is always a Third Way. With Byrne’s philosophical acuity and Mark Strong’s youthful energy, the future looks bright for bold pragmatists willing to say what everyone has already said a thousand times before.