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June 18, 2004

Conservative = Moral Relativist?

Shorter Jonah Goldberg: Yes, yes, it's not nice for Americans to torture people, but it's not like Osama bin Laden and all those other nasty people are signatories to the Geneva Conventions, and they don't play by its rules, so screw 'em.

This is yet even more proof that if you really want to see moral relativism in action, you need a conservative somewhere in the room (look for the guy standing next to his new wife, who used to be his mistress). Indeed, is there a single government document in the last 30 years more full of moral relativism than the infamous torture memo prepared by the Justice Department? Its deconstruction regarding what's really torture and how certain techniques can be used with presidential authorization and how our torturers could get off the hook even if they did break the law is pretty much the height of saying "that depends on what your definition of 'is' is." This isn't about a blowjob, people. It's about what's supposed to make the US different from those pissant dictatorships where police break off glass rods in someone's urethra just for the hell of it.

Let me make it simple as possible for Jonah Goldberg and all the other slow people in the room: The United States shouldn't be torturing anyone. Not because we have an inappropriate allegiance to the Geneva Conventions, but because we're the United States, and we're better than that. The old saw says that morality is what you do when no one else is looking; on a national scale, morality is what you do even when there's no treaty.

(Of course this leaves aside the pragmatic issues concerning the highly questionable usefulness of torture as an interrogation tactic; i.e., the information you get out of hurting people is often not very useful because their primary concern is not telling you the truth but telling you what you want to hear in order to get you to stop hurting them. In the end, the only practical reason to torture people is that you want to hurt them. And then we're back to morals.)

Goldberg writes: Well, if the barbarians get all of the benefits of the Geneva Convention without obeying any of its rules, then it becomes not merely quaint, not merely worthless, but instead a useful tool for those who wish to overthrow all it stands for.

Wrong. Goldberg's formulation of American morality implicitly suggests that in the absence of a contravening treaty our behavior should be no better than the behavior of Osama bin Laden or like people, because that's what they deserve. However, I suggest our behavior should be better, not because that's what they deserve, but that's what we deserve.

Of course, that's not an argument a moral relativist would understand.

Posted by john at June 18, 2004 11:42 AM

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