Monday, March 3, 2014

The reductio of moral relativism

Left: Faith McGregor. Right: Omar Mahrouk.
We who have been writing from the Catholic-Christian perspective for some time have known the inherent self-referential incoherence of moral relativism. While many examples of the "dictatorship of relativism" have come to us from Europe, often all we Americans need to do is look across our northern border at our Canadian neighbors to see how the tolerant refuse to tolerate, the inclusive exclude, and the multiculties try to forge a single culture out of disparate, often contradictory parts.

Well, it seems that the unstoppable force of gay rights has met the immovable object of Islam. Let's let Ezra Levant of the Toronto Sun tell the story:

So a lesbian walks into a Muslim barbershop, and asks for a "businessmen’s haircut".
It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it really happened, and now a government agency called the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario will hear her complaint.
Faith McGregor is the lesbian who doesn't like the girly cuts that they do at a salon. She wants the boy's hairdo.
Omar Mahrouk is the owner of the Terminal Barber Shop in Toronto. He follows Shariah law, so he thinks women have cooties. [You get the feeling Levant has little sympathy for either side?] As Mahrouk and the other barbers there say, they don’t believe in touching women other than their own wives. ...


Mahrouk’s view is illiberal. But in Canada we believe in property rights and freedom of association — and in this case, freedom of religion, too.
But McGregor ran to the Human Rights Tribunal and demanded that Mahrouk give her a haircut.
In the past, human rights commissions have been a great ally to gay activists. Because, traditionally, gay activists have complained against Christians. And white Christians are the one ethnic identity group that human rights commissions don't value, and that multiculturalism doesn't include.
In recent years, Canadian human rights commissions have weighed a complaint about a women's-only health club that refused a pre-operative transsexual male who wanted to change in the locker rooms.
They've ordered bed and breakfasts owned by Christian families to take in gay couples. They've censored pastors and priests who have criticized gay marriage. Gays win, because it's a test of who is most outraged and offended.
But in the case of the Muslim barbers, the gay activists have met their match. If the test is who can be the most offended or most politically correct, a lesbian's just not going to cut it.
Oh, McGregor is politically correct. But just not politically correct enough. ...

Physicist-philosopher Anthony Rizzi summed up the self-referential incoherence of moral relativism: "It is saying, one should not say, 'should not'" (The Science Before Science, p. 295). Here's why moral relativism is self-defeating: 

If no moral principle is objectively better or worse than another, then there can be no objectively "better" or "worse" moral codes, and thus no inherent reason to prefer one over another. If moral relativists really mean what they say — and that's a big if — then a culture which reduces women to second-class status and oppresses homosexuals cannot be worse than a culture which protects and celebrates women and gays; a totalitarian, single-party police state cannot be worse than a liberal democracy which tries to maximize human freedom. Not only can't a true moral relativist impose his moral code on anyone else, by definition he can't have a moral code per se ... only a collection of preferences for which he can claim merely subjective validity: sic volo, sic iubeo ("Thus I want; thus I order").

In fact, progressivists do have moral values. Mostly, they're values taken out of the context of developed post-Enlightenment Christian morality and treated — or at least spoken of — as if they were absolutes, often given preference where their original context would have subordinated them. And in the pursuit of imposing their moral values on everyone else, progressivists can be just as illiberal as any Moslem ... just illiberal in a different manner. (For an example of progressivist illiberality, check out "Making Harvard a propaganda factory" in The Other Blog.)

To the common cry, "You can't legislate morality," the late Judge Robert H. Bork replied, "Indeed, we legislate little else" (The Tempting of America). With the exception of the most trivial regulations, it's hard to find a law that doesn't implicitly (or explicitly) refer back to some notion of right and wrong; about the only times when the law doesn't say, "Thou shalt not," are when it's saying, "Thou art required". The law imposes morality almost by definition; as Morgan Freeman's Judge Leonard White says in The Bonfire of the Vanities, "The law is man's feeble attempt to insure decency." A community or nation that tries to tolerate everything can legislate against nothing.

 Now, it may turn out that the Human Rights Tribunal thinks less of religious rights than it does of gay rights. On the other hand, the HRT may fear pushback from the Islamic community more than from the gay community. Either way, the situation provides us with a living reductio ad absurdum argument for conceding that moral values can be objective. Moreover, it makes sense to speak of relative values only with regard to fixed points; if moral values can be objective, they can be objectively absolute.

Quod erat demonstrandum.