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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Some thoughts to myself now voiced out loud. Meta-ethical moral relativism holds that there is no objective wrong or right between parties with different ethical views. Normative moral relativism holds that one should therefore tolerate each of these views.

For many years, the political right railed against both of these forms of moral relativism. It claimed that giving equality to those of different skin colours, gender positions, and sexualities would lead to an unthinkable liberalism (in its broadest terms), a slippery slope, in which there is no way to discern what is right from wrong. Boris Johnson in the UK, for instance, said, supposedly as a joke, that “If gay marriage was OK - and I was uncertain on the issue - then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men; or indeed three men and a dog”. That is, the right used to argue that it needed to ground (its own) moral values as truths or seeming fabrics of civilization could, we are told, unwind.

In recent days, the right has stopped doing this and instead, it seems to me, has embraced a rhetoric of meta-ethical and normative moral relativism (at least in how it expects to be treated). For instance, fascism is once again now propounded as “just another political view” that apparently must not be stamped upon but heard out. Racism, or whatever type of supremacist nationalism that we’re now supposed to call it, is apparently just another perspective.

The tool of critical thinking that is moral relativism and that served so well to liberate in past decades, it feels to me, has been appropriated by authoritarian populists in order to make previously unvoiceable opinions part of a spectrum and to which we are supposed to give credence. (Of course, moral relativism has never been a straightforward thing: it cuts both ways and can be used to justify horrendous practices within different cultures on grounds of respect.) Further, there is a hypocrisy in the appropriation here. For while these precepts underlie their actions, the new right does not hold a normative view of morals themselves. They expect to be tolerated without extending tolerance. They wish to be understood, in the epistemic realm, without understanding.

In other words, the strategy here is to use the left’s discourse of moral relativism without really investing in its meta-principles at all.