“That Was Then, This Is Now.” “Oh, yeah?” The Problem of Anti-Relativism in Political Morality


Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

Presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s criticism of Joe Biden for opposing court-ordered busing of school children in his younger days as a Delaware senator is the latest example of anti-relativism in the sphere of political morality.  Anti-relativist thinking insists that certain values approved by the speaker are constant and unchangeable.  This means that behaviors that we now believe are wrong were always unacceptable, and should always have always been recognized as such.  It often implies that people who committed these wrongs deserve punishment whenever and wherever they are caught, no matter where or when their misbehavior occurred.

Anti-relativism’s opposite, moral relativism, can be summed up in the phrase, “Other times, other customs.”  Historical eras, social conditions, and cultural environments change, altering commonly accepted definitions of right and wrong.  Pascal illustrates this with a short dialogue:

Why do you kill me?” . . .

“What!  Do you not live on the other side of the water?  If you lived on this side, my friend, I should be an assassin, and it would be unjust to slay you in this manner.  But since you live on the other side, I am a hero, and it is just.”[i] 

At the moment, anti-relativists are generally on a roll.  For example, #MeToo advocates and others protesting sexual harassment believe that regardless of what forms of sexual behavior older social norms tolerated, the harassment of women was always an unpardonable assault on their freedom and dignity.  “Other times, other customs” is therefore no defense to a charge of sexual predation.  And predatory behavior, even if it occurred in the past, suggests a need for present punishment.

Similarly, when it comes to judging racist acts and attitudes, it makes no difference that the U.S. Constitution long tolerated slavery, that large numbers of whites believed that treating Black people as property was a fine idea, or that respectable “scientific” opinion considered large immigrant groups, from the Irish and Italians to the Jews and Chinese, racially inferior to native whites.  From the Quakers on, some people always understood that racism was evil – an understanding that should have been shared by everyone, including those Confederate leaders whose carved images are now being justly toppled from pedestals across the country.

Non-partisan note: these examples may suggest that to be anti-relativist is to be liberal or leftist.  Not so!  Whether on the left or the right, anti-relativist attitudes tend to develop when people’s opposition to some behavior perceived as wrong is intensified by a history of failure by others to recognize it as wrongful, persistence of the behavior among a substantial number of contemporaries, and a dramatic event suggesting that it will continue indefinitely in the future.  Few religious conservatives, if any, consider the legality of abortion in the United States for almost fifty years, or the strong majority support for Roe v. Wade, to be valid defenses to the charge of murdering the unborn.

Anti-relativist thinking on one side of a conflict tends to generate it on the other, a dynamic that creates what the analyst Oliver Ramsbotham calls “radical disagreement.”[ii]  By breaking down or obstructing dialogue between conflicting parties, this can set the stage for violence.  Consider, for example, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (1857), a famous piece of judicial overreach that declared that Congress was powerless to abolish slavery in the U.S. territories.  By raising the specter of a westward-expanding, ineradicable slave power, Dred Scott helped turn public opinion in the northern states toward anti-relativist militancy, further increasing the likelihood of civil war.

At this point, a #MeToo’er, an anti-racist, or an anti-abortion advocate might well raise a loud objection:

Hold on!  You say that anti-relativism may intensify conflict and increase the chances of violence, but what’s the alternative?  To forgive sexual predators because their behavior was once winked at?  To go easy on racists at a time of rising white nationalism and xenophobia?  To let the innocent unborn be sacrificed?  If you compromise with evil, you become complicit in violence, too.  De-escalating conflict is often a worthwhile goal, but not if it means perpetuating some great social wrong.

“That was then, this is now.”  “Oh yeah?”  The relativist/anti-relativist contradiction poses an apparent dilemma.  If moral standards are relative to time, place, and culture, a villain on one side the water (or in one historical era), as Pascal said, is a hero on the other side.  It may seem excessive, then, to condemn people for behavior that was generally considered acceptable, or at least not intolerable, at the time and place they engaged in it.

Think again about Joe Biden.  In the 1970s Biden was a civil rights advocate popular with Delaware’s African-American community, but one who disapproved of “forced busing” as a way of desegregating the public schools.  At the time, a number of far-seeing politicians understood that if liberals in power failed to end de facto school segregation (which was always linked with gross underfunding of Black schools), this would condemn several generations of children of color to an inferior education, with devastating social consequences.  But only a few felt strongly about this.  Most of Biden’s constituents and most Democrats in Congress agreed with his defense of the “neighborhood schools” principle.  As a result, Kamala Harris’s attack on him, which seems perfectly justifiable in some respects, still has the air of an ex post facto indictment.

“Other times, other customs” is one horn of the dilemma.  The other is that, however pro-civil rights politicians like Biden claimed to be, those who did not understand that racism was structural, and who were unwilling to fight to disrupt and change the interlocked system of segregated schools, neighborhoods, jobs, public services, and political opportunities, can rightly be accused of perpetuating racism.  After all, the existence of such an interlocked system was the whole point of the Kerner Commission Report, which declared in 1968 that America had become “two societies, one white and one black.”[iii]  To the extent, then, that institutionalized racism is considered a long-term self-sustaining wrong, the anti-relativist position seems justified.

And yet . . . relativism vs. anti-relativism turns out in the end to be a false dilemma.  We are not compelled to choose one set of assumptions or mode of consciousness and suppress the other.

To begin with, moral relativism does not eliminate all moral continuities.  Although changing social and cultural conditions do alter people’s definitions of right and wrong, the resulting redefinitions reflect continuities as well as transformations: a process Hegel called the dialectic.  Pascal’s transformation – the killer on one side of the water who is a hero on the other – is as extreme as relativism gets, since he was trying to convince readers that only in God can one find an unchangeable moral order.  Even here, however, one can respond that whether a war is just or unjust is not established by what one’s government, culture, or historical era thinks.  A continuous stream of ethical inquiry developing over three millennia begins by condemning the killing of other people, then discusses whether exceptions to this rule are warranted, and finally (if exceptions are admitted) describes the “just war” exceptions.

Of course, ethical practices change over time.  In the days of feudalism, most Europeans would not have been shocked to see armed knights knocking each other about or marching off to kill Muslims in a holy crusade sanctioned by the Church.  But there was dissent about this even then, and the objections made – that the war was not fought in a good cause, that it was not necessary, and that the violence was disproportionate to the ends sought – would be familiar to modern people concerned with the same issues.

The point is that moral relativism, properly defined and exercised, is modified by moral continuity.  One could call this “relative relativism.”  It means that you can maintain a passionate commitment to core ethical and political values, and still appreciate the impact of local (temporal and cultural) standards on people’s behavior.  Does this mean that you need to forgive wrongdoers for doing wrong because times and circumstances have changed?  Not at all – but It does suggest that taking those circumstances into account in evaluating people’s behavior will produce a deeper, more nuanced understanding than unmodified moral judgment.

By way of illustration, consider the continuing controversy over the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by U.S. forces at the end of World War II.  I remember the wild enthusiasm that greeted these horrific events in 1945, when they promised the end of the fighting without the need for a U.S. invasion of Japan.  Many years later, critical thinkers like Gar Alperovitz convinced me that the decision to kill more than 200,000 defenseless Japanese, almost all of them civilians, was morally indefensible.  According to these historians, the decision was driven more by the American leaders’ desires to keep Russia out of the war in Asia, demonstrate U.S. military supremacy, and take vengeance on the Japanese than by the need to save lives by obviating an invasion.[iv]

The immorality of the nuclear bombings still seems clear to me, but it is equally clear that few people in Europe or America were troubled by such scruples at the time.  The bloodbaths of World War II made large-scale massacres seem normal, and Japan’s brave and fanatical defense of her Pacific islands suggested that any invasion of the homeland would produce vast numbers of casualties.  Furthermore, most Americans violently hated the “Japs,” in part because of U.S. racism, in part because of the cruelty of the Pacific War and Japanese mistreatment of occupied peoples and POWs.[v]  Finally, the war in Europe had ended four months earlier, and Americans were demanding an end to the struggle in Asia.

None of these factors, in my view, justified the mass killings, but they help explain why many otherwise decent people could approve a campaign of ultra-violence.  When we argue today about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, the tendency is for these “relative relativist” understandings to vanish, and for both sides to take hard anti-relativist positions.  Defenders of the bombings insist that they were entirely justified and label those who question this decision weak-minded, unpatriotic, or disloyal.  Critics insist that they were crimes against humanity reflecting a moral blindness on the part of many Americans, including the current defenders.  The conversation stops.  The Enola Gay, the B-52 bomber that annihilated Hiroshima, is thus displayed at the U.S. Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport, Virginia, without the slightest mention of the issues in dispute.

This leaves us with a hard question.  Can we pull back sufficiently, not from moral passion, but from anti-relativist simplification, to continue the conversation?  This isn’t easy, since it means holding two perspectives in mind simultaneously.  With regard to Joe Biden, for example, it means understanding at one and the same time that Biden’s refusal to support more radical anti-racist measures in the seventies helped perpetuate systemic racism, and that that refusal seemed reasonable to many people at that time, either because they didn’t understand that racism was systemic or didn’t care to challenge the well-established status quo.

Keeping these two perspectives in mind may not be a walk in the park, but it’s not that difficult either.  Suppose that one practices this, and then asks what the consequences of Joe Biden’s opposition to busing should be for his political career, including his current effort to become the U.S. President.  Here, one ought to hear a warning voice: “Not so fast!”  This is because the answer is not dictated in a mechanical way by analysis of Biden’s past behavior and its social context.  It depends upon how one evaluates what the former senator should have known and done in the earlier period, and what he has learned or not learned since then.

This same dual consciousness is essential even for dealing with a character generally recognized as reprehensible, like the predatory film producer Harvey Weinstein.  There can be no question of excusing Weinstein’s abuses of power.  His defenses based on various women “consenting” to his sexual advances are unconvincing, at least to me.  Even here, however, it is essential not to lose sight of the social context.  In earlier decades, the Hollywood studio system was violently exploitative; the “casting couch” was an institution joked about and widely accepted by those not victimized by it; and the general social atmosphere of which Hollywood was both product and creator was based on the sexual objectification and humiliation of women.

Should Weinstein have known he was abusing his power for purposes of sexual exploitation?  Certainly.   Was there a system in place that tolerated and even encouraged this sort of behavior?  Yes.  One can keep in mind both a venal producer’s oppression of his would-be employees and the socio-cultural system that some people (probably including Weinstein) thought justified, or softened condemnation of, this oppression.

Once again, it is worth noting that these perspectives present, but do not decide, the further question of how to translate a more complex understanding of human behavior into some sort of present judgment.  They do not, for example, determine whether and how the offender should be punished.  Because these issues are complex, they are matters to discuss and work out in discussion with other people, rather than leaping to a conclusion dictated by hard relativist or anti-relativist assumptions.  In this way, dual consciousness leads away from knee-jerk either/or responses toward dialogue.

What is there in our culture, I wonder, that induces us to switch off one mode of consciousness when operating in the other?  I do not think that this is a product of brain function.  It’s not a situation like the psychological experiment of the “lady and the goblet,” where the observer has to see either one image or the other but can’t perceive both simultaneously.  Perhaps, people switch off one mode or the other because they have already decided either to condemn or forgive someone, and this provides a way of keeping their thinking consistent and worry-free.  Pascal has something to say about this, too:

The will is one of the chief factors in belief, not that it creates belief, but because things are true or false according to the aspect in which we look at them.  The will, which prefers one aspect to another, turns away the mind from considering the qualities of all that it does not like to see; and thus the mind, moving in accord with the will, stops to consider the aspect which it likes, and so judges by what it sees.[vi]

Yes.  Even exercising a dual consciousness, one is probably going to emphasize either one mode or the other depending upon what one want to accomplish in the end.  Even so, refusing to suppress either perspective – resisting the temptation to keep things simple – not only enriches our understanding, it allows us to engage in conversations about these matters with other people, including some who may not share our own moral sensitivities.  I hardly need emphasize how important this sort of dialogue is to global society at the moment.

In a nutshell: we don’t need anti-relativism to define evil and fight to eliminate it.  On the contrary, to promote the good effectively, in concert with each other, we need the understanding that a dual consciousness provides.  “Men make their history,” said Marx, “but they do not make it just as they please.”  People are responsible for their actions, but they act in a social context.  It’s possible to keep both perspectives in mind at the same time.  Not only possible but necessary, if we hope to build a moral community.


[i] Blaise Pascal, Pensees #293  (Penguin, 1995)

[ii] Oliver Ramsbotham, Transforming Violent Conflict: Radical Disagreement, Dialogue and Survival (Routledge 2010)

[iii] National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Report (Bantam, 1968), p. 10.

[iv] In 1945, a proposal that the U.S. order a demonstration of the atomic bomb to be witnessed by Japanese leaders was rejected by President Truman, as was the suggestion that Hiroshima be leafleted to warn civilians that the city would be destroyed.  The idea that the war might be ended quickly by demanding something less than “unconditional surrender” was never even considered.  See Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb: and the Architecture of an American Myth (Knopf 1995).  By contrast, the Wikipedia entry, “The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” defends the bombings without citing the Alperovitz study in its bibliography (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_bombings).

[v] These themes are treated thoroughly in John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (Pantheon, 1986)

[vi] Pascal, Pensees #9


Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University in Virginia.  His recent book, Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed was published by Routledge in 2017.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Aug 2019.

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