The Lotus Eaters Reject Objective Moral Values

This is a bit abstract, but as it involves issues about the objective reality of moral values and justice against moral relativism, it needs to be tackled. A few days ago the Lotus Eaters published an essay on their website by Helen Dale, which denied that there were such things as objective moral values. This followed an conversation on YouTube between Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Gasbag, and the philosopher Peter Boghossian, in which Sargon was also arguing that objective moral values don’t exist. People, including myself, have taken the mick out of Sargon, pointing out that he’s not university educated and that at one point his standard response to his opponents seemed to be to ask if they hadn’t read John Locke. But Sargon’s bright and is well-read in political philosophy, albeit from the Conservative, Libertarian perspective.

Which seems to be where his denial of objective morality comes. Conservatives since Edmund Burke have stressed the importance of tradition, and from what I remember of Sargon’s debate with Boghossian, he was arguing that concepts like human rights and democracy are the unique products of western culture. These notions are alien and incomprehensible to other culture, such as Islam, which have their own value systems, notions of justice and ideas about their ultimate grounding. Now Sargon does have a point. Human rights seem obvious to us, because we have grown up in a society in which such notions have developed over centuries, dating back to the 18th century and beyond, going back to the Roman idea of the Lex Gentiles, the Law of Nations. This was the idea that there were fundamental assumptions about justice that was common to all nations and which could be used as the basis for international law. And the Enlightenment philosophers were confident that they could also discover an objective basis for morality. This has not happened. One of the problems is the values which are to be regarded as fundamental also need supporting arguments, and morality has changed over time. This can be seen in the west in the changing attitudes to sex outside marriage and homosexuality. Back in the early 20th century both were regarded as immoral, but are now accepted. In the case of homosexuality, moral condemnation has been reversed so that it is the persecution of gays that it rightly regarded as immoral. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin was aware of the changes in morality over time, and deeply influenced by the 17th century Italian philosopher Vico. His solution, as someone who bitterly hated Stalin’s USSR and its tyranny, was to argue that although objective moral values didn’t exist, there were nevertheless moral values that acted as such.

I can see some positive aspects to Sargon’s position. If it is accepted that western ideas of truth and justice are just that, localised western notions, that it prevents them from being used as pretexts for foreign imperialist ventures like the Neo-Con invasions of the Middle East. It brings us back to the old, pre-War American conservative values that held that America had no business interfering in the political institutions and concerns of other peoples. But it also leaves the way open for cultural relativism and the justification of despotic regimes. If there are no objective moral values, then there can be no firm moral objections to obvious injustices, such as the genocide of the Uighurs in China or the Taliban’s recent decision to deprive women of university education. From what I’ve been reading, Chinese nationalist communists dismiss such ideas of democracy and human rights as baizuo, which translates as White liberal nonsense. And the Fascists and Communists Sargon despises were also moral relativists. Both Mussolini and Hitler also declared that each nation had their own set of unique moral values and that liberal notions of justice and humanity did not apply to their regimes. In a number of his speeches Lenin denied that there were any eternal moral values, but that these changed instead with each historical epoch, as determined by the economic structure of society at the time. This opened the way to the horrendous atrocities committed by the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

The Lotus Eaters are also staunch enemies of wokeness, but Critical Theory in its various forms also relativizes traditional morality and attitudes arguing that these too are merely the local intellectual products of the west, and specifically White heterosexual elite men. This has led to Postcolonial Theorists betraying feminists and human rights activists in nations like India, by refusing to criticise these cultures repressive traditions, or instead blaming them on western imperialism.

My own belief is that there are indeed objective moral values although human moral intuitions have changed over time. Notions of democracy and human rights may have their origin in the west, but they are nevertheless universal and universally applicable. This does not mean that other cultures may not adopt and adapt them according to their own cultural traditions. In the case of Islam, there are any number of books by the Islamic modernists arguing that modern notions of human rights are perfectly in accordance with Muslim values.

For the sake of genuine humanity and international justice and the eradication of tyranny, we have to believe that there are objective moral values protecting human life and freedom.


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3 Responses to “The Lotus Eaters Reject Objective Moral Values”

  1. Brian Burden Says:

    Interesting discussion. Perhaps the emphasis shd be on human rather than moral values. Shakespeare wrote in an age when torture was routine in Britain for political offenders, yet the only character in his plays whose torture he appears to approve of is Iago, who has ruined his boss’s marriage and career and incited him to strangle his innocent wife. It was human values which the 19th century abolitionists stressed – Walt Whitman inviting his readers to imagine how they would feel if it was their mother up there on the auction block.

  2. Mark Pattie Says:

    Sargon of Asshole does seem to have a point about democracy being a Western (ancient Greek) invention, and about many Islamic countries not being the most liberal. ‘Cept, Blairite and Bushite “interventions” and the hysterical overreaction to 9/11 (and no, I do not blame Israel for that tragedy, only Al-Qaeda) are probably as much to blame for this as rabid-nutcase Sunni mullahs.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Definitely. Democracy emerged in the west, and it took a very long time for modern democratic concepts to be accepted here. And Muslim countries aren’t the most liberal because of this, but this should be no reason to relativize morality or consider that certain values – freedom of speech and thought, equality of the sexes and so on – aren’t universally valid.

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