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Beyond the Theory of Moral Relativity

On this Fourth of July, to understand how America -- and much of the world -- began to go off the rails in the 20th century, it’s worth flashing back to the tremendous opening shot of Paul Johnson’s opus Modern Times:

At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.

No one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension. He was bewildered by the relentless publicity and error which his work seemed to promote. He wrote to his colleague Max Born on 9 September 1920: ‘Like the man in the fairy-tale who turned everything he touched into gold, so with me everything turns into a fuss in the newspapers.’ Einstein was not a practicing Jew, but he acknowledged a God. He believed passionately in absolute standards of right and wrong.

He lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a social pandemic, just as he lived to see his fatal equation bring into existence nuclear warfare. There were times, he said at the end of his life, when he wished he had been a simple watchmaker.

The public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.

Last week, while searching for that quote, I came across a 2010 comment on Johnson's thesis by econo-blogger Bryan Caplan and a post at the long-running British libertarian blog Samizdata which both referenced it with some gentle criticism. As Johnathan Pearce wrote at the latter blog:

Like Caplan, I am not entirely sure that moral relativism captures the full nature of what went wrong in terms of the 20th Century, although I think Johnson does capture quite a lot of the problem with that concept. For me, the ultimate disaster of that century was the idea of the omniscient State and of the associated idea that governments, run by all-knowing officials, could solve many of the real or supposed problems of the age. The 20th Century was not unique in witnessing the growth of government, but it was an age when government had, like never before, the technology at its disposal to be immensely powerful, probably more so than at any time since the Romans (and even the writ of Rome had its limits). We are still, alas, in the grip of that delusion that government can and should fix problems, although there is perhaps, hopefully, a bit more cynicism about it than say, during the late 1940s when the likes of Attlee were in Downing Street.

Johnson is right, however, to point out that in a world where there is no stated respect for the idea of impartial rules and law, no respect for reason and for the idea of objective truth - or at least that it is noble to pursue truth - that terrible consequences follow; every irrationality, might-is-right worldview, will fill the vacumn. However, unlike Johnson, I do not think that morality requires the anchor of belief in a Supreme Being, and he tends to make the mistake, like a lot of devoutly religious folk, of assuming that atheists, for example, cannot arrive at a moral code, which seems to rather overlook the role of people such as Aristotle, who had a huge impact on views about ethics, and from whom other religions have borrowed (think of the Thomist tradition in Catholic thought, for instance).

I think he's right. Part of the problem is that "moral relativity" and moral relativism sounds at first glance like a swingin' night on the town in Manhattan during the Beame era – that squalid perigee of the 1970s when the city birthed Death Wish, Taxi Driver, and, heck, Saturday Night Fever, a hopelessly nihilistic period that, ironically, a surprising number of liberal New Yorkers bored with Mayor Bloomberg’s current great clean-up of the human soul would be happy to return to.

But at the risk of going to the well once too often, I'd say the real cause of the woes of the 20th century was this:

Whenever a revolutionary movement took shape, it effectively banished the past. But it wasn’t just history that vanished – Nietzsche killed God, and millennia of Judeo-Christian religion. Marx paved the way for systems of government where freedom of choice and economic knowledge accumulated over centuries of trial and error could be junked for a top-down centrally-planned command and control economy.

Progressives began to argue that man himself could be reengineered – as Tom Courtenay’s Pasha/Strelnikov character says to Julie Christie’s Lara near the start of David Lean’s version of Dr. Zhivago shortly before Hell descends, "It’s the system, Lara. People will be different after the Revolution.” And if they weren’t, they could be engineered to be different. H.G. Wells and other late 19th and early 20th century “progressives” believed this concept implicitly, Fred Siegel wrote in a 2009 article on Wells in City Journal magazine:

In A Modern Utopia, written in 1905, Wells updated John Stuart Mill’s culturally individualist liberalism in light of the horizons opened by Darwin and Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics. Biologically, argues the book’s narrator, the “species is the accumulation of the experiments of all its successful individuals since the beginning.” That means, he says, that the “people of exceptional quality must be ascendant.” Further, “the better sort of people, so far as they can be distinguished, must have the fullest freedom of public service.”

What provides the possibility for such freedom is eugenics. Wells has no use for the iron laws of Marxism, but he replaces them with the iron laws of Malthus and Darwin. “From the view of human comfort and happiness, the increase of population that occurs at each advance in human security is the greatest evil of life,” he writes. “The extravagant swarm of new births” that created the masses was “the essential disaster of the 19th century.” Man’s propensity to reproduce will always outstrip his productive capacity, even in an age of machinery. Worse, the “base and servile types,” who are little more than the “leaping, glittering confusion of shoaling mackerel on a sunlit afternoon,” are the most fecund.

In Anticipations, Wells had already argued horrifyingly that the “nation that most resolutely picks over, educates, sterilizes, or poisons its People of the Abyss” would be ascendant. For the base and servile types, death would mean merely “the end of the bitterness of failure.” It was “their portion to die out and disappear.” The New Republicans would have “little pity and less benevolence” for the untermenschen, “born of unrestrained lusts . . . and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity.”

In A Modern Utopia, Wells, stung by criticism of Anticipations, backed off, but only partway. “Idiots,” “drunkards,” “criminals,” “lunatics,” “congenital invalids,” and the “diseased” would “spoil the world for others,” Wells again argued. But their depredations required “social surgery,” not total extermination. That meant preventing people below a set income and intelligence from reproducing, as well as isolating the “failures” on an island so that better folk could live unfettered by government intrusion. Remove the unfit, and there will be no need for jails or prisons, which are places “of torture by restraint.” Illiberalism enables liberalism.

In practice, the notion that groups of men deemed "inferior" could be eradicated did not begin with, nor was it exclusive to, the Nazis. Stalin used famine as a weapon to reorder early Soviet society; the German obsession with eugenics preceded the Nazis by decades. It was certainly very much in the intellectual atmosphere of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s while the Nazis gathered strength and plotted their own version of Hell.