moral equivalence

Civilisational Fence-Sitters: Is Moral Equivalence a Tenable Position?

31 March 2022

5.2 MINS

The plague of moral equivalence is still with us. Is it a tenable position? Or are civilisational fence-sitters dead wrong?

For those not in the know, moral equivalence is a political concept that states that two sides of a given conflict are basically more or less equal in terms of their moral standing — one is not better than the other, ethically speaking. The phrase was especially used during the Cold War. It is also used elsewhere, as in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

To illustrate, leftists would often seek to argue as follows: ‘Yeah, well, the Soviet Union is not such a great place, but neither is America. Both are equally bad.’ That is, they refused to see any moral difference between godless, tyrannical Communism and the free and democratic West. Never mind that millions of people fled FROM Communist hellholes, and not TO them.

Not the Same

Let me examine this Cold War debate a bit further, and then look at a newer conflict. Back in the middle and latter half of last century, plenty of apologists for the Communists regularly tried to argue that America and the West were just as corrupt and evil. (Some even argued that the USSR was superior!) They argued that we should just shut up about condemning and opposing the Communist Bloc.

Thankfully, others begged to differ. For example, back in May 1985 when the Cold War was still in full swing, Jeane Kirkpatrick gave a talk on “The Myth of Moral Equivalence” at a conference devoted to the same topic.

It was reproduced in Scorpions in a Bottle: Dangerous Ideas About the United States and the Soviet Union, edited by Lissa Roche (Hillsdale College Press, 1986). The volume also contained essays by William Bennett, Peter Berger, Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, Melvin Lasky, Michael Novak, and Joseph Sobran.

I pulled my copy off the shelves and revisited these essays. The President of Hillsdale College, George Roche, said this in the foreword to the book:

The debate over moral equivalence is important because it involves a larger problem confronting Western civilization: the erosion and “systematic redefinition of the terms of political discourse.”

We in the West are losing the war of ideas when we let our language deteriorate. (It doesn’t have to be actively subverted by communists. We are doing the job ourselves.) Our educational system no longer prepares people to defend their own values.

Yes quite so. When Westerners are taught to despise their own culture and history, then they lose the ability to make any sort of moral distinctions. They lose sight of the truth that despite all their faults, liberal Western democracies (with the rule of law, free elections, separation of powers, emphasis on basic human rights, etc) are still superior to tyrannical and dictatorial regimes.

In her essay, Jeane Kirkpatrick said this in part:

The Soviet assault on liberal democratic legitimacy involves a very complex, comprehensive, multifaceted strategy. First, it involves a demonstration of the failure of Western democracies to meet their own standards which are regarded as utopian measuring rods. Second, it proceeds by continuous falsification of Soviet practices and assertions of Soviet loyalty to basic Western values. At the same time that it is suggested that we do not respect our own values, it is claimed by the Soviets that they do. Our flaws are exaggerated, theirs are simply denied. Third, the conclusion is, of course, inexorably arrived at, that there is, at best, not a dime’s worth of difference between these two regimes.

Marxism incorporates, at the verbal level and the intellectual level, the values of liberal democracy in its assault on liberal democracy, and this is precisely why it entraps so many Western intellectuals who are themselves serious liberal democrats.

Thus the slightest restriction on, let’s say, the presumption of innocence of the accused is said to demonstrate the absence of the rule of law. The slightest failure of an electoral system demonstrates contempt for political equality. Any use of force in international affairs establishes the lawless character of the society.

Now, it is a short step from having demonstrated that a country like the United States is not a law-abiding society to demonstrating that it is lost and that it is like any other lawless society. The Soviets can always claim “We are no worse than you. Even if we are a lawless society, you too are a lawless society, we are no worse than you.” This is the “logic” of the doctrine of moral equivalence.

If practices are measured by abstract, absolute standards, practices are always found wanting. The communists who criticize liberal democratic societies measure our practices by our standards and deny the relevance of their practices to judgments concerning the moral worth of our own society.

All this has only gotten worse over the past half-century. Criticism of the West by Westerners has reached an all-time high, and there is no desire or ability to discern just how bad the alternatives are. Sure, as the West allows Biden and Trudeau and Soros and Hollywood and academia and others to do their bit to tear down Western civilisation and values, then it does seem to be less worthy of defending.

Worthy of Defending

But the answer is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Christians of all people should be realists, able to make proper political and ethical distinctions. Generally speaking, freedom and prosperity are greatly preferable to serfdom and poverty. The diffusion of political power is greatly preferable to one-party dictatorships. That the former can be corrupted is no reason to resort to unhelpful moral equivalence.

So the answer is not to renounce the West altogether, and the past millennia and a half of Christendom that went along with it, but to seek to restore what is good about the West while rejecting what is evil in it, and not caving in to so many other rival and inferior political systems.

Putin Supporters

It is exactly because so few are willing or able to do this today that we have all sorts of new forms of moral equivalence. Thus we have countless Westerners — including far too many Christians — actually singing the praises of a KGB officer and thug who has stolen billions from his own people, arrested, poisoned and killed countless political opponents, and is now hellbent on razing Ukraine to the ground — and even threatening to use his stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Yet all I hear from the Putin apologists is: ‘Well, he is no saint, but the West is no better.’ Good grief, we are back to the same old useless moral equivalence, and the same old inability to make basic moral and mental distinctions. Again, I am fully aware that folks like Clinton and Obama and Biden and Pelosi and AOC are working overtime to tear apart a once-great nation like America. I am NOT defending them, of course.

Fight Back

But the answer is not to just write off the country as the moral equivalent of any other tinpot dictatorship, but to seek to resist those who are trying their best to destroy the US from within. Yes, the 2020 elections may well have been interfered with. Yes, haters of America have infiltrated the institutions of power and influence: schools, the media, the judiciary, politics, and even many churches.

But that is all the more reason to become part of the resistance. Some things are worth defending. Some things are worth fighting for. Sure, at the end of the day there is no pure and virtuous nation. But some are and can be better than others. In a fallen world, that may be all we can expect.

Standing up for the better ones, and working to make them even better, is not a waste of time and energy. Yes, one day we may learn that God has forever written off the West as irredeemable. But until we can somehow know that for certain, we should still seek to be salt and light and work for righteousness and justice where we live. And we should also resist tyrannical and power-hungry regimes bent on further destabilisation, enslavement and aggression.


Originally published at CultureWatch. Photo by JJ Jordan.

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