Morals in a post-truth era
Steven Lukes talks Trump, moral relativism and the necessity of judgement.
Few contemporary social theorists have shown as acute and political a grasp of social reality as Steven Lukes, a professor of politics and sociology at New York University, and formerly professor at the University of Siena, and the London School of Economics. His countless works, published over the past five decades, attest to a ceaselessly questioning mind. In Individualism (1973), he mined the social and semantic diversity of the idea of the individual; in Power: A Radical View (1974), he brought a neglected aspect of power – that is, the ability to shape the way people think – out into the open; and in Moral Relativism (2008), the book we concentrate on in this interview, Lukes explored the emergence, dominance and supersession of the idea that species of morality are relative to the communities and societies in which they’re extant. And in doing so he defended the possibility of moral and ethical truths, and, ultimately, the necessity of moral judgement.
But, before tackling the issue of moral relativism, we asked Lukes about the related question of post-truth politics…
spiked review: So, what do you make of the idea of post-truth politics? Has politics ever been grounded in truth, moral, scientific or otherwise?
Steven Lukes: It’s a fashionable phrase that has arisen after the arrival of Trump on the scene. It seems to be a reaction to the sense that blatant lying does not matter to very many people. Yet, it ought to be said that lying has long been part of politics. Take, for example, hypocrisy, the saying of one thing and the doing of another. As La Rochefoucauld, a 17th-century French writer, put it, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. So it’s far from being a new phenomenon that politicians say things they neither believe to be true, nor adhere to in their lives. And I certainly don’t think that politics was ever really grounded in truth.
But today, it’s both the blatancy of the lying, and the fact that it doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore that people are lied to, that is striking. This is not confined to the US. It’s prevalent in the UK, and, as demonstrated by Peter Pomerantsev’s recent book about modern Russia, Nothing is True, and Everything is Possible, it’s going on there, too.
Moreover, the open willingness of people to deny established truths is particularly prominent. You see this very clearly with Trump and his support for ‘birtherism’, the quasi-campaign asserting that Obama was not a natural-born US citizen, and was therefore ineligible to be president. Yet, having long advocated the birtherist case, Trump simply dropped it as a cause, as if the claims he’d been making for years didn’t matter anymore. So if post-truth politics does have a meaning, it’s to the extent that there’s a newly perceived indifference to truth.
review: You talk of the brazen mendacity of contemporary politicians, but do you think someone like Trump is actually lying or simply mistaken?
Lukes: I think the great thing about Trump is you just don’t know. The extent to which the untruths are a calculated strategy, and the extent to which it’s just the way he is, nobody really knows. It’s part of his power. Indeed, it’s part of his style to leave the question of his sincerity hanging.
review: You say that politics has never really been grounded in truth, which I think is right. But there did seem to be a period over the past 10, 20 years when politicians would appeal to the facts, to ‘the science’, for authority – that is, to authorise the decisions they were about to take. Climate Change was the most obvious field in which this happened, but social sciences were also being used to legitimise and authorise political decisionmaking. Behavioural economics, or so-called nudge theory, for example, was a prominent recourse for policymakers a few years ago. It was a seeming science that assumed that people made irrational decisions, and that policymakers should therefore design so-called choice architecture to encourage them to make more rational decisions. So while there was not a moment when politics was grounded in truth, there was an era in which facts, and expertise, tended to be called upon to legitimise and authorise political decisions…
Lukes: Yes, we’re talking about very recent times. I think here the social sciences – and this affected journalism, too – suffered a huge loss of authority by getting the recent election results, in both the UK and the US, so wrong. And the other key moment for the undermining of this appeal to social sciences and the facts as the ground for political decisionmaking comes with the financial crisis in 2008, and the failure of economists to anticipate it. So it has become very easy to discredit the social sciences by saying ‘look how wrong they were’. And it’s become politically easy to make those sorts of claims. So we had then UK government minister Michael Gove saying ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ in the run-up to the EU referendum, and counselor to President Trump, Kellyanne Conway, claiming there are ‘alternative facts’. So there have been a few key phrases among politicians indicating a shift away from the era of the politics of facts and truth.
But even this deviation away from the facts is not without precedent. I remember, in the early 2000s, Karl Rove, one of George W Bush’s main advisers, saying ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality’.
What seems to have changed is that there’s a new explicitness about inventing and actually lying without embarrassment. I think that’s key: people no longer pay the homage to virtue. It’s become easier to be indifferent to truth. There’s a wonderful little book by Harry Frankfurt called On Bullshit, where bullshit is defined as not caring about the truth. And that seems to be more evident in political life than it ever was.
review: What’s interesting is that today’s debates about post-truth and so on come after a half a century or so during which relativism, especially moral relativism, already appeared to have gained the upper hand. Why do you think moral relativism is so prevalent today? After all, as you point out in Moral Relativism, the fact of moral diversity, of the existence of different communities with different moral customs and so on, which is the precondition for moral relativism, was known to the likes of Montaigne and, later, Herder, yet they didn’t advocate relativism.
Lukes: There’s no single answer to this question. What is true is that relativism is a relatively new phenomenon, so to speak. And it probably goes back to the late 19th century. I think if you had to pick a particular progenitor, perhaps it would be Nietzsche, because before him, this awareness of diversity, which is the precondition for relativism, had long been in existence. So while, in the mid-17th century, Pascal was prepared to say that what’s true on one side of the Pyrenees is error on the other, he was never any kind of relativist. Yes, he doubted his Catholic faith, but he never thought it was merely as true as any other position. And likewise, Montaigne in the 16th century and Herder in the 18th century, hinted at relativist ideas, but they were never relativist.
I think the moment that thinking took a relativist turn comes with the idea that what’s true can be brought about through power. That is, there’s a will to power which underlies what we believe to be true. So in that sense, the relativist turn does pick up momentum with Nietzsche. But even he wasn’t a relativist exactly. He believed in a higher morality, and he was a great believer in science.
In fact, often when you look more closely at thinkers associated with relativism, such as the culturally relativising anthropologists, like Ruth Benedict, who came to prominence during the 1930s, even they were not full-blown relativists. Rather, their motivation was anti-racist and anti-imperialist. That’s what drove them to say that we must not impose our way of living on other communities or societies. That was Ruth Benedict’s idea in Patterns of Culture – that there are other ways of living.
So, even those who seemingly advocate relativist positions never really stick to them. Because you can’t live under the idea of relativism – you can’t live a life as a relativist. And it can’t happen because if you believe in something, then, actually, you believe it.
review: Accepting that no one really, when pushed, advocates relativism, perhaps another way to pose it, then, is to ask why has there been a tendency over the past half century to be uncomfortable with asserting, say, the universality of a particular moral worldview, or of asserting the superiority of a particular cultural era?
Lukes: Yes, when I was talking about people who advocate (or don’t advocate) relativism and so on, what attracted those to what look like relativist positions was the following question: ‘Who are we to judge?’ That is, ‘who are we judge, especially those whom we’ve oppressed, the victims of our civilisation, the Third World?’, and so on. So post-colonialist thinking, which has been very prominent over the past 50-odd years, has led to this conviction that we are not in a position to judge. For instance, Provincialising Europe, by Dipesh Chakrabarty, urged the West to look to the sources of our own dominance, and ask the question, ‘who are we to judge others?’. This has been a very powerful motivation, especially among those on the left, and it can lead to a relativist attitude.
review: You talk about a tendency to refrain from judging others. How does moral relativism differ from the idea of tolerance?
Lukes: There is a real difference. What is tolerance? If you tolerate something, it means there’s something you don’t accept, something you don’t like, but you forbear from intervening. You say, ‘There’s a difference, I don’t accept it, but I’m not going to interfere with it, and I’m certainly not going to punish it’. It’s the inhibition that goes with something that you forebear – that’s what I think toleration is. And that seems to me to be the opposite of what relativism is. Relativism seems to be a relaxed attitude, in which you say, ‘I believe this, you believe that, there’s no way to judge between the two beliefs’. Toleration, rather, incorporates the judgement alongside the prevention of interference.
review: Similar, largely social-constructionist arguments are made for relativism in both the cultural and scientific spheres. Why is it, then, that relativism seems to have found itself far more at home in morality than science?
Lukes: In respect of science, I’ll go back to what I said before. There are plenty of thinkers who look as though they’re relativists, thinkers like Thomas Kuhn or Paul Feyerabend or Richard Rorty. But when you read their work, they’re not relativist after all. They always withdraw. They always say, ‘Of course, I didn’t mean that!’. You can’t be a scientist if you’re relativist. You wouldn’t be able to do it.
Besides, our medicines can cure people, our airplanes can fly, and so on. There all kinds of things that presuppose an understanding and controlling of the world that really do work.
But with morals, it’s different. You perceive diversity in morals, values and beliefs everywhere. And this can prompt the question what’s right and what’s wrong, and, because these different moral systems tend to work, there isn’t the same kind of compulsion as there is in science to get it right.
review: In Moral Relativism, you mention the popularity of the idea of value pluralism, and how, in reality, it’s impossible. People with different beliefs, really do believe that they are right, and they tend to clash…
Lukes: I think these things go in stages. There was a time in 20, 30, 40 years ago when people were more relaxed about pluralism. The great advocate of pluralism was of course Isaiah Berlin, and he expounded these ideas living in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. This was a relatively peaceful time: there was no sense of really dangerous, mutually destructive conflict. And, again, if you think of another thinker like John Rawls, who talked about overlapping consensus – that although people with different values clash, it’s possible to find points of agreement from different perspectives so we can all live peacefully together – he lived most of his life in prosperous later 20th-century America. So I think the idea of value pluralism reflects relatively peaceful times. And I feel we’re moving into a time that is not so peaceful, where we’ll hear less about value pluralism as a way of life, other than something we all hope for. The sense that values are clashing in ways that are troubling is going to be much more prominent.
In fact, I feel we’re moving into what Hannah Arendt called ‘dark times’. And I think value pluralism somehow reflects a relatively more peaceable world, compared with either today or, indeed, the earlier part of the 20th century. Little wonder that the idea of value conflict was very evident, for example, to Max Weber, who wrote most of works in early 20th-century Germany. For him value conflict was a tragic affair.
Compared with Weber, the way in which thinkers have talked about value pluralism over the past 50 years or so has been irenic. It’s focused on how we can all live together, how, despite our differences, we can be mutually cooperative. That’s how the great philosopher of that period, Rawls, was able to envisage an overlapping consensus. It’s a great aspiration, but I think it’s looking a lot more difficult now.
review: Could you say a bit more about Weber’s attitude to value pluralism and conflict?
Lukes: Well, Weber was very influenced by Nietzsche. The major difference between Weber and Berlin, both of whom were focused on the clash of values, the fact that different priorities of values don’t fit together, was that Weber had a much more tragic view of that conflict, that we just had to face up to the fact there was no escaping the conflict.
He was of course a nationalist, but he saw no way values could fit together. So while he wasn’t an advocate of war exactly, he felt that you had to try to find solutions – he was an advocate of the Weimar constitution, for instance. But basically he felt that value conflicts in politics were inexorable.
Berlin, although he sometimes adopted a more melancholy attitude to value conflicts, in general had a much more irenic view that all conflict could be solved in a liberal democratic society – a society like England’s, like Britain’s, where he lived.
I just think that the liberal thinkers of the past 50 years, with Berlin and Rawls to the fore, were very optimistic. Rawls even described the US of his time as ‘nearly just’. And when you think of that now, it’s an amazing assertion. Today, that sense of an overlapping consensus or overall consensus is diminishing. That’s true in the UK and Europe, too.
review: In terms of a diminishing sense of a shared consensus, do you think that while people tend to think that the old-style Culture War, between traditional small-c conservatives and their liberal, permissive counter-cultural opponents, are over, we’re in the midst of new culture wars, new value conflicts?
Lukes: Yes, but I don’t think it would be right to call them culture wars anymore, because they involve much more than lifestyle now. I don’t want to focus too much on Trump, but I do feel that many of the debates exercising people’s minds over the past year – transgenderism and so on – have been superseded by far more urgent issues, like the threat to deport immigrants. The culture wars are affecting more people’s lives in more ways now. You can no longer call them culture wars – I think they’re cultural and material, and sometimes life-threatening when you get to arguments about healthcare.
What we called the Culture War was about things that mattered a great deal to people, and rightly so, but I think that what’s happening now is encompassing more people and more of aspects of their lives.
review: Returning to Moral Relativism, you make a fascinating, Kantian case for a universal form of morality on the grounds that one must be able to justify a moral law to, and for, others. Does that allow us to exercise moral judgement on the morals or values of others? Take, for example, FGM, which you mention in Moral Relativism…
Lukes: To call it female genital mutilation, or FGM, is already to take a moral view of the practice. Some people prefer to call it cutting so as to avoid making precisely that judgement.
In Moral Relativism, I do end up talking about Kant, but also about Aristotle. So it’s not just the idea that there are universal principles you can uphold, it’s also about ways of thinking, pace Aristotle, about what constitutes a full, flourishing life, which is what you get with Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen’s idea of functioning, flourishing human beings as something you can talk about cross cultures, in ways that make sense.
We can’t avoid making moral judgements. We can’t live our lives otherwise. To be a relativist is to indulge in abstention. But to live your life in abstinence is not possible. By abstaining from judgement, you’re taking sides anyway when faced with a dilemma or a question. Ultimately we make moral judgements, even though we don’t always acknowledge it. And given that, it’s better to be self-conscious about it, to think about and justify that moral judgement, and recognise where the grounds for the moral judgement are. For example, take an issue like abortion – you’ve got to figure out what you think is right, and argue for it.
With FGM, you’ve got the further dimension of cultural difference, but with abortion, it’s right there at home.
review: What’s interesting about your appeal to a moral law that ought to be universalisable, is that it’s a way of overcoming what appears to be the reality of relativism, that is, the existence of seemingly intractable, irresolvable differences-cum-conflicts between people who hold different values. Do you think this represents a way forward?
Lukes: I don’t know about a way forward. But put it this way, I think the refusal to aspire to making moral claims about really important things is a kind of copout. Take FGM, for instance, as something that is awful, injurious to women’s health. Imagine there’s an instance happening next door. It’s in my neighbourhood, so I’m going to care about it, and want to prevent it. But if I hear that it’s happening in some other part of the world, in Myanmar, perhaps, am I supposed to care less about it because it’s happening so far away? No, that’s a copout. Geographical distance should make no difference to my moral judgements. (As for cultural distances, that’s where relativism enters the picture.)
There’s one area where universalism doesn’t work: the application of our moral judgements to the distant past. Sometimes you can do it, but sometimes it doesn’t make any sense to, for instance, criticise the Ancient Greeks for their misogyny. We can certainly talk about, for instance, the function of slavery in Ancient Greece or Rome, but to condemn the ancients for it is irrelevant.
But, as for today, we live in one world now, so you have to be a universalist, otherwise you’re neglecting that fact.
review: So moral judgement is necessary?
Lukes: Yes, I think it is. It’s no good to say that’s happening far away, I’m not going to judge that. But that’s different from thinking you can do anything about it.
So, the first question is, can we make moral judgements? And as Mary Midgley argues in Can’t We Make Moral Judgements?, not only can we make moral judgements, we must. That doesn’t mean that we should act in any particular way, because not only might we be quite unable to do anything about it, if we try to intervene, we might make things worse. So the question of whether to intervene, is a very different question to can we make judgements.
Take FGM again. NGOs and Western activists are massively involved in this issue, and they figured out that those practices are changeable, but changeable best through local action, especially regarding the conditions of marriageability. And often you will find that there’s a great deal of conflict going on in the communities themselves about it. So Western activists trying to enter the scene and change things by telling the locals how they should live is extremely ineffective and counterproductive. The question of whether and how outsiders should intervene is a much discussed and open one. As the anthropologist Sally Merry suggested, it’s about, ‘rendering human rights in the vernacular’, which usually means local people doing the work, not external people imposing their values on to them.
Moral judgement and external intervention are two very different things.
Steven Lukes is professor of politics and sociology at New York University. He is the author of many books, most recently, Moral Relativism (2008).