conservative relativism

Moral relativism is the idea that there isn’t any objective or knowable right or wrong; there are only the opinions of individuals or cultures at particular times in history. Some famous conservatives have made their names by attacking moral relativism: Bill Bennett and Allan Bloom, for instance. Many of us also object to it from the left, since it undermines claims about social justice. But conservatives and liberals sometimes make moral-relativist arguments when it suits them.

Consider Justices Roberts and Thomas in the case of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District (2007). This is racial segregation/integration case. Defendants want to use race as a factor in assigning kids to schools, for the purpose of increasing diversity or integration. They claim that this goal is benign, unlike segregationists’ use of race, which was malicious. They ask the court to allow racially conscious policies that are well-intentioned, reasonably supported by evidence, and enacted through democratic procedures.

In response, Justice Roberts quotes Justice O’Connor from an earlier case: “The Court’s emphasis on ‘benign racial classifications’ suggests confidence in its ability to distinguish good from harmful governmental uses of racial criteria. History should teach greater humility‚Ķ . ‘[B]enign’ carries with it no independent meaning, but reflects only acceptance of the current generation’s conclusion that a politically acceptable burden, imposed on particular citizens on the basis of race, is reasonable.” Justice Thomas likewise argues that allowing a school system to promote diversity through racial classification means acceding to “current societal practice and expectations.” That was the approach, he argues, that led the majority in Plessy v Ferguson to uphold Jim Crow laws, which were the fad of that time. “How does one tell when a racial classification is invidious? The segregationists in Brown argued that their racial classifications were benign, not invidious. … It is the height of arrogance for Members of this Court to assert blindly that their motives are better than others.”

These justices doubt that there is a knowable difference between benign and invidious uses of race. But surely there are moral differences between Seattle’s integrationist policy of 2005 and the policy of Mississippi in 1940: differences of intent, principle, means, ends, expressive meaning, and consequences or outcomes. If we cannot tell the difference, we are moral idiots. There can be no progress, and there isn’t any point in reasoning about moral issues.

To be sure, Seattle’s policy is open to critique. The conservative justices quote some politically correct passages from the school district’s website to good satirical effect, and the policy could also be attacked from the left. Whether Seattle should be able to decide on its use of race, or whether that should be decided by judges, is a good and difficult question. But it’s almost nihilistic to assert that “benign” has “no independent meaning” and reflects only the opinions of the “current generation.” That equates Seattle’s policy with that of, say, George C. Wallace when he “barred the schoolhouse door.”