Why Does the Right Think the Left Is Morally Squishy?

"I am repelled by the Left's worldview, which implicitly argues that morality is subjective," Matt Lewis writes. But that isn't so.
More
left full.png
YoHandy/Flickr

In The Week, columnist Matt Lewis, a conservative who's regularly willing to criticize the right, explains why, despite his occasional frustrations, he isn't tempted to defect. "I am repelled by the Left's worldview, which implicitly argues that morality is subjective," he states. "This is a natural outcome of a rejection of the numinous, but it's an idea that has consequences. When there are no moral absolutes, we make policy decisions based on efficiency instead of compassion. Or we make decisions based on our own individualistic needs, not on what is right or good."

I'd never urge Lewis to defect to the left for all sorts of reasons. But I don't think the one he's offered is what should hold him. The left encompasses a lot of people who believe in God, while the right has its atheists. I don't think that there is any single worldview that encompasses the whole left. And even if we presumed for the sake of simplicity that it makes sense to talk about "the" world views of the left and right, I don't think the left embraces moral subjectivity any more than the American right, despite the fact that so many conservatives insist otherwise. How common is moral subjectivity on the left, according to Lewis? It is unclear, perhaps understandably, since he was constrained by writing at column length for print.

Pending clarification, let's set the left aside and talk about the American right. To what moral absolutes does it subscribe in practice? Certainly some of the ones that are shared by the whole political spectrum. Slavery is wrong. So is rape. And genocide. Surely we can all agree that, on those significant questions, that neither the American left nor the American right are non-absolutists.

(Right?)

Okay, now how about torture. Is its immorality a moral absolute? 


As I understand it, the right would be outraged if an American, even one guilty of a serious crime in a foreign country, were tortured by a foreign government. When Ronald Reagan signed a treaty attesting to torture as an absolute wrong that should always be prosecuted, there wasn't much dissent from the right. Yet the Bush Administration had broad support when it instituted an official program of torture. It strapped prisoners to a board, prevented them from breathing normally, repeatedly forced water down their throat till it filled their lungs, and terrified them with the sensation of drowning -- and to this day, large swaths of the right defend their doing so, without the torture having prevented the detonation of any ticking nuclear bombs in Times Square.

Is the rule of law sacrosanct?

Debating immigration policy with conservatives you'd swear that they think so. One of the most common arguments against an immigration amnesty is that it would undermine respect for the rule of law. At minimum, the right believes those who came here illegally must pay some kind of penalty. Then again, conservatives aren't so attached to the rule of law that they want to prosecute Bush Administration officials who broke it, or telecom companies that illegally provided them with information. After all, they were earnestly trying to "keep Americans safe." What if a liberal, who was earnestly trying to keep Americans safe, suggested seizing lawfully purchased firearms? Well, that's different. An outrage. Haven't they read the U.S. Constitution?

The right frequently touts its belief in what the Declaration of Independence held to be self-evident: that humans are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Do those inalienable rights extend to innocents at Guantanamo Bay who wound up there because of dishonest Pakistani soldiers cashing in on the bounty America paid in the chaotic days after 9/11? The conservative position was that even those prisoners could and should be held indefinitely, without any ability to challenge their detention, till al-Qaeda is defeated.

In what moral absolute was that position grounded?

I wonder if the examples I've offered would fit Lewis's notion of non-absolutism or moral relativism, which conservatives seldom define when they invoke it. I am not sure if they fit my definition. There are people who hold the seemingly contradictory positions I've described who do so because they have different, perhaps wrongheaded understandings of the facts; or because they are drawing distinctions that, however much I may disagree with them, aren't grounded in moral subjectivity or relativism. It is often hard to discern whether a wrongheaded position is explained by relativism or irrationality or unwitting hypocrisy or any number of other factors.

It nevertheless seems clear that at least some conservatives subscribe to a belief system whereby certain actions are regarded as obviously immoral, except when they are undertaken by the United States, which is exceptional and facing a brutal enemy, so that the means justify the end.

To adopt Lewis's framework -- he says moral subjectivity causes us to "make policy decisions based on efficiency instead of compassion. Or we make decisions based on our own individualistic needs, not on what is right or good." Does he believe that the Bush Administration's interrogation program was grounded in what was compassionate, right, and good? Or what was thought to be efficient? Which description better fits the drone program that conservatives support?       

How about John Yoo's beliefs?

In an infamous exchange, the former Bush Administration lawyer was asked whether the president would be legally permitted to crush the testicles of an innocent child in order to coerce information from his parent. He answered that it would depend upon why the president thinks he needs to do that. A lot of liberals and independents expressed moral horror at that statement, and at anyone who would give legal cover to such an obviously morally suspect act. But it hasn't stopped Yoo from being warmly embraced by the conservative movement. Is that because conservatives believe a lawyer's analysis of what the law is has no moral dimension? Or is it because they've implicitly embraced a kind of moral subjectivity in the War on Terror?

If they do embrace moral absolutes, unlike the left, what are those absolutes?

If Lewis doesn't think the examples I've offered prove moral subjectivity, fair enough. But if his standard of what constitutes non-absolutism is more exacting -- as would be reasonable -- what is it, and when has the left transgressed against it in a way that the right hasn't? I'd be surprised if he could persuasively argue for the conclusion he states, but perhaps I am missing something.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

How have stories changed in the age of social media? The minds behind House of Cards, This American Life, and The Moth discuss.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In