You may have noticed that, in this blog, I have spent very little space making authoritative-sounding statements about Cajun cooking, 18th-Century Belgian literature, or the grammar of sub-Saharan languages. There's a reason for that: I know absolutely nothing about these subjects. Sadly, not everyone shares my restraint.
In one of my periodic fits of self-loathing, I was reading Jonah Goldberg's syndicated column in the Chicago Tribune last week, in which he wrote about the idea of torturing alleged terrorists. (He's for it, not surprisingly.) A lot of it was just standard conservative warmonger stuff, but there was one thing that leapt out at me. He sharply criticized those who said that engaging in things like torture and imprisonment without trial would lower us to the level of some of history's less wholesome regimes. More specifically, he accused such people of "moral relativism." I'm not interested in Goldberg's arguments that torture is okay; I'm much more interested in Goldberg's odd choice of terminology.
Now, I don't claim to be especially bright, but I know what a few basic philosophical terms mean. Moral relativism claims that there is no moral standard that applies to all people and cultures; instead, morality is relative to the actor, and an act that is okay for Bob or an Englishman to do might be wrong for Bill or a Korean to do.
The problem with Goldberg's claim is thus obvious: the argument that torture would lower America to the level of evil regimes like Cuba is fundamentally anti-relativistic. The whole basis of the argument is the idea that morality is universal, and thus as binding on democratic America as it is on a communist, fascist, or Islamist regime. It is arguably Goldberg who is arguing that morality is relative to culture (or perhaps to form of government)- he claims that torturing people without trial is wrong when done by Arabs (or fascists, communists, etc.) but acceptable when done by Americans. I don't know whether Goldberg's use of the word "relativism" is the result of honest ignorance or willful deception in order to push the reader's buttons. I've occasionally seen conservatives use the word "relativism" to mean "a moral opinion a I don't agree with," (or as a derisive term for tolerance) but this is the first time I've noticed it being used to mean the exact opposite of what it means. Mr. Goldberg should consider leaving the philosophy to others and focusing on things he has actual knowledge of, like The Simpsons and old Star Trek episodes.