For years I’ve tried to get my students to talk about “it.” “It” can be almost any controversial issue, but we never get there; my students, like most of my academic colleagues and New York City Upper West Side friends, and the American left in general, have long ago ceded actual moral judgments to others, i.e.,moral conservatives. And all of us , red and blue, pay the price.
Say the topic is pornography. I gamely ask my class: “Do you think pornography is degrading? Ignoble? Liberating?” The hands go up: “People have a right to see what they want.” Three other hands: “Who decides what counts as porno anyway?” I say: “Okay, let’s agree, censorship is absolutely wrong: Now about pornography… what do you think about it?” Another hand: “According to the First Amendment….”
This refusal to address “the thing itself,” has been going on for decades and is systemic, ranging over issues of sexual morality and moral education to ascriptions of good and evil, dignity and decency. But if social liberals are to regain their moral voice, they need to examine how it became so muted.
Perhaps the most common form of moral reticence is the liberal habit of transforming value judgments into legal judgments. Consider, for example, the asymmetry in our long-standing national dispute about abortion. “Right-to- lifers” seek legal restrictions on abortions, but also declare the procedure a moral wrong. In contrast, the liberal side of this debate refuses to render judgments about abortion itself, preferring to withdraw behind the barrier of legal rights. But suppose we acknowledge, insist even, on women’s sovereignty over their bodies. What then of abortion itself? Is it ever a moral imperative to have an abortion? Is it ever morally wrong? Do liberals have anything to say that is not about the “right to choose” but about the choice itself? Similarly, assuming that prostitution should not be illegal, is its moral opprobrium deserved? Are there circumstances in which prostitution should even be encouraged? Again, what moral, not legal, reflections are appropriate here? You’ll find further examples of this legalistic turn away from moral judgments with regard to hate speech, drugs, gambling, chastity, privacy, security policy… the list is painfully long.
And when liberals don’t mutate moral challenges into First Amendment concerns, they bleach them with psychology talk. The usual rhetoric begins with a quick “This is not to excuse…” followed by a long excuse. In an egregious instance of this ideological tic, a parade of leftist academics, uncomfortable in labeling anyone as “really evil” (except perhaps their own government), offered mitigating, even exculpatory rationalizations for the destruction of the World Trade Center; reference to the humiliation, frustration and social injustice suffered by its perpetrators continue to punctuate their analyses of ongoing terrorism. From this therapeutic perspective, moral corruption is understood only as psychological aberration; implementing evil is “acting out.” The alcoholic and the addict, the obnoxious and the thief, perpetrators of public and domestic violence — all are in need of cures, but never deserving of moral rebuke. To be sure, the converse absolutism of conservative moralists is at least as contemptible, for, obviously, social and psychological factors influence behavior — and not every deviance is moral deviance. But liberals need to stop garnishing their every outcry with psychological babble — people are as responsible for the bad they do as they are admirable for the good they do.
Underlying this endemic inhibition to assert moral judgments is a pervasive, crude relativism. Perhaps nowhere is this stance more rooted than on the college campus, both among both professors and their students. Ethical relativists stipulate that no ethical position can be objectively true or false, for all values are simply reflections of one’s culture (or, in some versions, one’s personal taste). From the presumption, “It is true that everyone has an equal right to an opinion,” they conclude blithely, “Therefore everyone’s opinion is equally true.” Such simplistic relativism is not only philosophically vacuous, but also socially pernicious. Not all points of view deserve respect. In fact, genuine moral equivalence is rarely the case — some claims are more legitimate than others. And this liberal equivocation creates a vacuum inevitably filled by faithful moralists only too eager to dictate how everyone else should live.
The liberal flight from judgments also traces to an affinity for what political theorists call the “procedural Republic.” In this view, governments ought to be emphatically neutral on questions pertaining to the nature of the good life. Not all liberals agree; communitarians, for example, believe that government does have a proper role in supporting substantive values and in promoting some communal goods over others. But this debate is essentially political, not moral. Here again, social liberals need to be careful not to confuse two different conversations. Even if you insist that our elected representatives be impartial on competing ideas about values, that does not free you and me from making those judgments. And let’s remember, the refusal to make any value judgments is itself a value judgment, and an incoherent one at that.
This plea to fellow social liberals would be incomplete without reference to the recent election. Pundits are still busy with their forensic reports on poor performance of the Democratic Party, the natural home of social liberals. An honest appraisal must include the fact that the left and its most visible spokespersons are still busier criticizing the neo-conservative foreign policy agenda than articulating their own vision of America’s long-term foreign policy goals. Opposition to the war in Iraq is not a substitute formulation for what America’s role in the world ought to be. The focus on tactics rather than on strategy, expressions of criticism rather than of clear alternatives, is another manifestation of the left’s chronic reluctance to propose other, positive points of view.
Certainly, these issues require nuance and don’t admit of easy answers — but this is not an excuse for saying nothing at all. The rightists did not hijack the moral high ground — they found no one standing there. For whether you are sympathetic to the liberal viewpoint or find it distasteful, this much is clear: We as a nation can ill afford to hear only one side of these critical moral debates. Those on the left need to start talking about “it.”
Joshua Halberstam is a writer in New York City. He previously taught philosophy at New York University and at Teachers College, Columbia University.