Over at Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse calls attention to the curious statement by James O’Keefe, he of Mary Landrieu’s phones and ACORN-pimping infamy, about why he chose to become a conservative while a philosophy major at Rutgers University: his fellow students, influenced by the liberal professoriate, were â€œdrowned in relativism, concepts of distributive justice and redistribution of wealth.â€
Harry is concerned about O’Keefe’s mischaracterization of the intellectual alignment of scholarly philosophy. I’m concerned about something else. Let’s assume this was a much looser sense of “relativism”, one that I often see coming from cultural conservatives: an argument that liberal, secular culture doesn’t have any firm or fixed moral commitments, doesn’t believe in ethical commitments which transcend circumstance. Leave aside whether that’s true or not or even whether there’s a good case to be made that some ethical commitments should resist “relativism” in this sense.
My question is this: if that’s what O’Keefe (or similarly minded cultural conservatives) believes, why isn’t his first political calling to demonstrate non-relativistic ethical commitments? Such as, for example, scrupulous regard for intellectually rigorous processes of research and investigation. Honesty and transparency seem like good things to add to the list. Generally obeying the laws of a democratic society seems like it might be a non-relativistic ethical commitment.
So in that spirit, let’s suppose you have the non-relativistic ethics that your liberal peers scorn and you hear that a United States Senator reputedly is ignoring constituent feedback received by telephone about health care. You think this is a problem and should be looked into. Do you:
1) Investigate whether offices of Senators and Representatives typically take large amounts of telephone input from constituents about pending legislation, and what variations there are in practices from office to office?
2) Investigate the overall quality of constituent services in Congress, so you have a good sense of what the baseline expectation is?
3) Ask direct questions of Senator Mary Landrieu’s staffers, her colleagues in the Senate and any other sources in order to try and determine whether her office’s responses are notably divergent from general trends?
1) Dress up as telephone repairmen and otherwise falsely represent yourselves in an attempt to infiltrate her office in violation of federal law with an as-yet unclear understanding of how this would provide better non-relativist information about the above questions?
That’s what I worry about when I hear that there are too many “relativists” around: that the people complaining the most about that supposed surplus are the most supremely relativistic folks you might ever imagine encountering.