Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Dennis Prager on Nihilism and Same-Sex Marriage

The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism...
-- Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

Via Ezra at Pandagon, I discover this passage from Dennis Prager, in the context of a claim that America is at two wars:

"The first war is against the Islamic attempt to crush whoever stands in the way of the spread of violent Islamic theocracies, such as al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Iranian mullahs and Hamas. The other war is against the secular nihilism that manifests itself in much of Western Europe, in parts of America such as San Francisco and in many of our universities."

There's a lot to criticize in Prager's tirade, and there are even some points worth considering. I don't have the patience to go through the whole thing and both Ezra and Jesse have already done so but I do want to briefly discuss the above passage and the charge of nihilism contained therein.

It is false that the main philosophical theory underwriting the push to legalize same-sex marriage is nihilism. 'Nihilism', like its cousin 'relativism' is an extremely unclear and slippery term, and even most scholars don't have a very clear idea what they mean when they use it. One sensible way to use the term is like this:

moral nihilism is the view that there are no moral obligations.

Not many people believe this, and there is, of course, some doubt that such a position is even coherent. Most people--most non-sociopaths, at any rate--acknowledge that we have at least some moral obligations, though there is some bit of disagreement about what those obligations are. We tend to disagree about unclear, peripheral cases like same-sex marriage, but we tend to agree about clear, central cases like recreational torture. In this respect, our disagreements about morality are analogous to our disagreements about non-moral matters. We tend to disagree about unclear, peripheral cases like the existence of God but we tend to agree about clear, central cases like the existence of rocks.

People who are moral nihilists think that there are no moral obligations. The people who get called moral nihilists, however, usually aren't nihilists at all. One usually gets called a moral nihilist if one thinks that something is permissible that is traditionally or widely held to be impermissible. But those who fight to legalize same-sex marriage, like those who fought to legalize interracial marriage, don't do so because they think that nothing is right or wrong. Rather, they do so because they think that some things are really right and some things are really wrong, and that preventing two people who love each other from marrying just because they have the same kind of genitals is one of the things that is really wrong. For the right to accuse them of nihilism is like vegetarians accusing the rest of us of nihilism because we think that it is morally permissible to eat meat.

In short, Prager has mistaken a first-order dispute about what is morally permissible for a meta-ethical dispute about the nature of morality.

In closing, let me suggest, however, that liberals do bear some (though by no means all) of the responsibility for inviting charges of nihilism and relativism. The intellectual far left is festering with postmodernism and associated maladies. The right is, unfortunately, right about that. Despite their occasional protests to the contrary, leftist intellectual heroes like Rorty and Lyotard are either relativists are something like it--though since their views are incoherent, it's hard to say what they really think with much precision. Most American liberals don't read such folk, so they don't understand what the right is so upset about. When American liberals do think about the philosophical justification for their views, they think about people like Rawls, not people like Rorty or Lyotard. If liberals did read Rorty, Lyotard & co. more frequently and with more care, I think liberals might come to realize that they have more in common with centrists on the right than they do with a big chunk of the intellectual left. And if liberals were more inclined to distinguish themselves from the more radical elements of the left, the right's charges of nihilism and relativism would lose some of their veneer of plausibility.

(Er, and I hope by now it goes without saying that everything I say could be wrong. But I'm pretty sure about this post.)


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