On moral relativism and a higher law

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:
One of my recent columns in The Week “Why I could never be a liberal,” aroused some mild mockery. Washington Monthly called the title an answer to a “question no one was asking.” Little Green Footballs called me a wingnut (I think). And even Conor Friedersdorf criticized it at the Atlantic .

While I do not intend to respond to every criticism, columns can’t include every caveat, and so they often deserve some clarification. As such, let me point out that I never said that all, or even most, liberals are Godless Communists. Nor do I believe everyone on the right to be an angel (I have been critical of the philosophy of Ayn Rand for many of the same reasons cited in the column.)

In fact, a quick glance at my oeuvre would demonstrate that I’ve spent quite a bit of time critiquing the right’s failures.

What I did say — and what I do stand by — is that the left scares me more than the right.

And my suspicion is that this stems from fundamental worldview differences. As I noted, there is a tendency on the left to believe in the perfectibility of man. This sometimes leads to utopian schemes (as opposed to a more Burkean epistemological modesty), and even a form of worshipping the state. (Some have argued that these are antiquated hangups — that the left has long ago abandoned these impulses. I would argue they have merely sublimated them. But here’s hoping I’m wrong.)

Much great harm has come from this philosophy.

* * *

Complicating matters, during my weekly appearance on Bloggingheads, I was less than eloquent when discussing the implicit theological underpinnings of the column. My comments were clumsy, but my fundamental point was this: Without some higher divine law, there seems to be no way of telling which laws (or public policy goals) are just or evil.

Absent a higher law, calling something “wrong” or “unjust” becomes arbitrary. Consider the following plausible arguments: “Who says this is wrong?,” “It’s natural for the stronger or more intelligent to dominate the weak…,” and “Who are you to impose your personal moral code on me?,” etc.

This has consequences.

Again, let me state that this isn’t an idea that belongs solely to the right. It is, of course, is a major theme of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The words, “endowed by our Creator,” are also an implicit suggestion that there is a permanence to our rights — that they are not subject to the whims of earthly leaders. In a sense, this is a rejection of moral relativism.

Interestingly, some of the Bloggingheads commenters suggested I should read more, because my argument in favor of a higher law (not to be confused with Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”) had already been debunked … by the experts.

Like everyone, I have much to learn. But to suggest there is only one side to this great debate is to ignore much of what philosophers and writers have been arguing about for eternity. This truly is a long-standing debate and a clash of fundamental worldviews. And summoning Plato or Hobbes to make your point is fine, so long as I can enlist Augustine, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky in a rebuttal…

Matt K. Lewis