Moral Relativism

MORAL RELATIVISM….Matt Yglesias notes today that Eugene Volokh has decided that charges of “moral relativism” against liberals are unfounded. However, it’s not clear to me if either of them is talking about the term correctly. For his part, Eugene suggests that moral relativism is related to cultural relativism and situational ethics (both longtime conservative bugaboos), while Matt thinks it’s mostly used as a synonym for atheism (the old “secular humanism” schtick).

Is this right? I’m not referring to its technical philosophical meaning here, but rather to its common meaning, especially in the conservative blogosphere. My impression has always been that “moral relativism” refers to a (notionally invalid) comparison between two people or movements: for example, that the Israelis are as bad as the Palestinians or that al-Qaeda’s terrorism is no worse than America’s military actions in Vietnam. In other words, a moral relativist is one who is unable to properly distinguish good motives from bad and makes false comparisons based solely on surface similarities between actors.

I don’t want to argue about whether there’s anything to this or not, I’m just curious whether or not I understand correctly the way the term is normally used by hawkish conservatives. Comments?

UPDATE: In comments, Matt suggests that I’m confusing moral relativism with moral equivalence. Could be. It is hard to keep track of all the conservative buzzwords sometimes….

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