Thursday, October 1, 2009
"Would you like that with Nature or History?"
Bill Clinton was the first sitting President to speak before a Gay Advocacy group. At times he sounds like a moral relativist in the speech: “Our ideals were never meant to be frozen in stone or time.” And again here: “We are redefining, in practical terms, the immutable ideals that have guided us from the beginning.”
Yet moral relativism cannot be his final position since he wants to be able to say things like this: “So I say to you tonight, should we change the law? You bet. Should we keep fighting discrimination? Absolutely.” The injustice of discrimination only makes sense if there is a fixed standard of morality it fails to live up to.
Where, one wonders, does Clinton find that standard? Is it in the “law of nature and nature’s God” as the founders argued in the Declaration of Independence? Clinton’s answer is no because “….when we started out with Thomas Jefferson's credo that all of us are created equal by God, what that really meant in civic political terms was that you had to be white, you had to be male, and that wasn't enough -- you had to own property…” (For a counter to the hypocrisy charge, read Thomas G. West’s response)
Where does this fix standard exist if it isn’t found in our nature? The alternative proposal in modern times (think Hegel) is History. Clinton says, “Indeed, the story of how we kept going higher and higher and higher to new and higher definitions -- and more meaningful definitions -- of equality and dignity and freedom is in its essence the fundamental story of our country.” He also talks our imaginations being “limited” but it will be “broadened” in the future. We can see here the Progressive notion that history itself is a rational process which provides an evaluative standard. The End of History or the Absolute Moment is the measuring stick which all previous ages must stack up against. This is why Modern Liberals can say we are “better off” in 2009 than 1909 and the people of 1909 were “better” than ones living in 1809.
The Marxist version of history as a rational process has long been discredited, but the Progressive understanding is alive and well among Modern Liberals. Consequently, the real debate between Conservatives and Liberals today is not over an absolute or relative standard of morality, since both believe in an absolute, but whether Nature or History is foundation for it.