Walk into any Barnes and Noble and you are bound to run into a book display celebrating the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. Unfortunately, a book you will not find in that collection is Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, which was published fifty years ago. Jaffa was recently on Uncommon Knowledge and he talked about what originally drew him to him this debate. What Lincoln and Douglas are ultimately arguing about is whether morals are relative or absolute. Or to put it in Jaffa’s words, “Do the people make the moral law or does the moral law make the people?”
Take Douglas, for instance. His “popular sovereignty” argument is that slavery’s existence is simply a matter for the people in each state to vote up or down. And since the people's will is never unanimous, might or the majority makes right. This is just a variation of the doctrine of moral relativism which states that moral principles are a product of the people’s will. Thus morals are subjective and will vary from place to place which is why Douglas believes popular soveriengty is the solution to the slavery issue.
In contrast, Lincoln argued that the equality principle, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, is made by God, not man. The approval of slavery is a failure to live up to the moral law. This is a textbook presentation of moral absolutism.
What is especially interesting is how moral relativism is applied today. Cultural Liberals, who believe history is moving toward greater and greater freedom, usually presuppose moral relativism when arguing for their causes: abortion, gay marriage, etc. Yet they would think Lincoln, not Douglas, belongs in their pantheon of heroes. If the L-D Debates reveal anything, it is that such Progressives should reevaluate their first principles. The rock of moral absolutism can better secure human rights than the shifting sands of moral relativism.