In my high school World History class I remember reading about moral relativists who expressed moral indifference at the practice of forced female circumcision common in some African cultures. These moral relativists argued that moral principles were culture-specific and not universal. According to this theory, there is no objective standard by which to judge cultural norms.
Curiously, the moral relativists were equally reticent about immoral acts committed in the United States. They defended the violence of The Weathermen and other extremist groups, excused brutal murderers sentenced to death row, and extolled the virtues of the 60's counter-culture. The argument that morality is culture-specific was spurious, employed out of convenience, not principle. In principle, the moral-relativists refused to moralize across and within cultures.
The far left's tolerance (and in many cases open support) for the atrocities committed by communist regimes in the 20th century is well documented. The far left opposed the Truman Doctrine and Containment, arguing that America had no right to interfere in other countries. The fact that the Soviet Union was poised on global domination and had enslaved millions of people did not illicit moral outrage from committed American socialists.
It is true that many on the left became partially disaffected with the Soviet Union after Premier Khrushchev's speech condemning Stalin's atrocities was leaked to the Western press, and especially after the Soviet Union brutally suppressed Hungary's anti-communist uprising. However, aside from some stern rebukes, there was no real moral outrage and whatever tepid moral outraged did surface was always qualified by a moral-equivalence argument. That is, the Soviet Union's misconduct was no worse -- and perhaps more utilitarian -- than America's misconduct.
So what lies at the root of the far left's ethical code? What ideology compels them to excuse history's most tyrannical regimes, death row inmates, and homegrown anti-American militants? Is it moral relativism or is it something more insidious?
Moral relativism holds that all morality is subjective; nothing is fundamentally good or bad. Morality is in the eyes of the beholder and no one can claim the moral high ground. I don't doubt that there are purists who unwaveringly adhere to this nihilistic philosophy, but the far left does not belong to this orthodox breed. In fact, the far left shuns moral relativism with as much fervor as the "moralizers" the far left purports to despise.
The far left has no qualms about defending third-world barbarism, yet proclaims with an aura of ultimate righteousness that corporations are evil and that the men who lead them are corrupt tyrants, who profit at the expense of the public good. They routinely vilify Republicans, conservatives, libertarians, Christians, and all others who do not adhere to utopian Marxist ideals and variations thereof. To many of these so-called relativists Dick Cheney epitomizes evil; a man who served not only as the Secretary of Defense for the imperialistic United States but as Chief Executive of the multinational corporation Halliburton, itself a symbol of evil.
The far left's tirades against "evil" corporations and Christian (but almost never Muslim) zealots are not relativistic, neither in tone nor in substance. They are unambiguously absolutist. The left moralizes about perceived injustices -- be it the effects of capitalism or the war against global jihad -- with a religious-like conviction, never uttering the word "relative" in its condemnations.
After Saigon fell in 1975, the American left willfully ignored the enslavement, expatriation, and slaughter of millions of Vietnamese by the North Vietnamese Communists. Of course during the war itself, the left was quite brazen and outspoken in condemning America's involvement. The cries of "immoral" and "unjust" in reference to the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies were ubiquitous.
The charge of moral relativism is simply not credible. If the left were truly morally relativistic, they would not deign to censure any policy, any doctrine, or any person. They would treat corporations and America's foreign policy with the same moral indifference as they treat murderers.
The common denominator of the people, doctrines and institutions that are despised by the far left has its origins in Western culture.
The aversion to Western culture and its core ideals, namely individualism, personal responsibility, and capitalism is the cornerstone of the far left's ethical code. The far left tolerates or condones only that which is the antithesis of Western culture: third-world barbarism, communist despotism, nihilism, and so forth. If Western ideals are the root of all evil, then its opposites must be good, or at least, not as bad.
The far left's support for domestic militarism is based on the premise that American institutions, especially constitutional republicanism and capitalism, are inherently corrupt and engender violent reactionary movements. Similarly, the barbaric acts of Communist despots are justifiable on the grounds that they represent a natural reaction to the oppressive capitalist system, as well as a means to a utopian end.
The aversion to Western institutions is in part rooted in Rousseau's famous, and almost always misunderstood, aphorism that "man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains". Rousseau did not mean that men are "in chains" because they live under illiberal and undemocratic regimes, as most did during his time. Rousseau believed that men are in chains because modern norms, rules, and laws did not exist in man's natural state. Man was "good" and "free" in the pure state of nature, but over time was corrupted and imprisoned by artificial institutions. The absurdity of this nihilistic philosophy has been thoroughly dissected by many philosophers, and I will not repeat some of their counterarguments. What is relevant for the purpose of this essay is that Rousseau's nihilism is the primary building block of the far-left's ethical code.
The left maintains that Western institutions bear responsibility for all of society's evils. How often have we heard the claim that murderers are byproducts of their society, and therefore can not be held accountable for their actions? Personal responsibility is an illusion if we accept the premise that man's psyche is invariably corrupted and controlled by artificial institutions. Man is rendered helpless by unnatural norms and rules and therefore is incapable of being "good".
The only logical solution to this institutional crisis is to destroy Western institutions and to restore the state of nature. Laws, social norms, and all other elements of modern human civilization must be vitiated, if we are to be truly free, happy, and good.
The far left would be hard pressed to praise Islamic terrorism, so they instead justify it on the grounds that it is the byproduct of Western oppression. The reigning godfather of the far-left, Noam Chomsky, sees the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as a symbol of the third-world's repudiation of Western imperialism. It makes little difference to Noam Chomsky that Imperial Japan was ruled by a ruthless dictatorship engaged in monstrous atrocities against other cultures, most notably the Chinese and the Koreans. What matters to Chomsky and the Chomskyites is that Japan in 1941 was the antithesis of Western culture. It shunned individualism in favor of collectivism, and practiced a religion that was at odds with Christianity. To Chomsky, a culture that rejects Western ideals is by definition noble.
The obsession with victimization and "the oppressed" is an important manifestation of the far-left's ethical code. You're either the oppressed or the oppressor. This simplistic derivative of Hegel's master-and-slave dynamic acts as an important theoretical underpinning.
Victimization enables the far left to incorporate multiple themes into its cultural and political framework. The Israelites, who are "white", oppress the Palestinians who are Arab, and Muslim to boot. It doesn't matter to the leftists that a large part of the Arabic and Muslim world is in a perpetual state of sectarian violence. What matters is that the Palestinians practice a religion which has at certain times in history been at odds with Christianity. Again, the far left does not care that Christians stopped killing in the name of Christ many centuries ago, while to this day there are millions of Islamic extremists who believe in killing or enslaving Christians and Jews.
What is important from the far left perspective is that radical Islam represents the antithesis of modern Christianity. The maxim is simply that which is not an emblem of Western culture is by default good.
Therefore, from the far left's perspective, the core significance of the conflicts between the Palestinians and the Israelis, NATO and Al-Qaeda, is that they pit Christians against Muslims, Whites against "people of color", the oppressors against the oppressed, and in the final analysis, Western ideals against non-Western ones.
Moral relativism is a doctrine too rigid and counter-intuitive for most people to apply consistently. Human nature compels us to be repulsed or angered by certain types of conduct, be it rape, theft, or the murder of the innocent. Our experiences and education further shape our moral compasses. It is then a question of which acts and institutions evoke moral outrage. Are we more offended by the nuking of two Japanese cities in order to end the bloodiest war in human history or by the slaughter of innocent men, women and children at the hands of despots who ostensibly seek to establish a paradise on earth?
Those who embrace Western ideals generally reject third-world barbarism as backwards and unjust. On the other hand, those on the far left who reject Western ideals condone acts and institutions which they see as a just reaction against Western oppression. What is clear is that neither the pro-Westerners nor the ant-Westerners are morally relativistic.