By Bryan Caplan
I spent a lot of time conversing with conservative intellectuals this week. What surprised me most was their moral relativism. Sure, they spent a lot of time griping about left-wing relativism: The awful liberals refuse to admit the West is morally superior to Islamic and other non-Western cultures – or the United States is morally superior to Europe’s decadent social democracies. But the conservatives were also quick to dismiss claims about Western and American moral failings. The U.S. immigration laws of the 1920’s were explicitly driven by Nordic racism? Let’s not “flagellate” ourselves; that was fixed long ago. The genocide of the Indians? That was the price of civilization. George Washington, “father of our country,” was a slaver? Well, it was common at the time. The West’s murderous Crusades? Eh, whatever.
The conservatives could have objected that they’re looking at the big picture; in the broad scheme of things, Christian holy war, the Founders’ slave-holding, the Indians wars, and U.S. racism were no big deal. But each of these moral lapses – even the Nordic racism – led to massive body counts. It wasn’t like stealing a cookie. The conservative could more plausibly point out that only a small fraction of Western and American resources were devoted to sheer wickedness. But the same holds for most notorious criminals: Over 99% of the typical serial killer’s days are murder-free.
Don’t these puritanical standards deprive us of heroes? No, but they do heavily thin the applicant pool, for reasons identified by Lord Acton:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope
and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong.
If there is any presumption it is against the holders of power, increasing as
the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for want of legal
responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…
I’m not saying that conservatives’ complaints about liberals are unfair. My claim, rather, is that both ideologies have parallel blind spots. The liberal mistake is ignoring all the ways that Western civilization and the United States have been better than the competition. The conservative mistake is ignoring all the ways that Western civilization and the United States have been awful. In slogan form: “Better” is not “good.”
Fortunately, to quote Vanilla Sky, “Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.” Columbus Day is tomorrow. It’s a great opportunity for conservatives who reject moral relativism to break ranks and stop pretending this historic criminal was a hero.