A serious political ideology, at least as held by sophisticated supporters, is a complicated set of ideas. But an ideology also has a sort of sketch version seen by both supporters and critics as outlining, in simplified form, its essential nature. One part of the sketch version of modern liberalism is tolerance of cultural diversity, sometimes put as moral relativism. We would not want to put our grandparents on an ice floe and shove them out to sea, but if that is how Inuit deal with the problems of their society, who are we to object? It is not as if we have some proof that our values are right and theirs are wrong.
The best critique of this position I have come across, from a psychological more than a philosophical point of view, is one of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, "The Chief Mourner of Marne
." Readers who would prefer to read it themselves without spoilers from me should do so now.
The story centers on James and Maurice, cousins, close friends, almost brothers. Maurice dies, supposedly of a chill caught at the seaside, and James is so afflicted by his death that he becomes a sort of hermit, unwilling to meet even with past friends, encouraged by "the priests" in a sort of religious melancholia.
As the story continues, Father Brown succeeds in getting from an eye witness a more plausible version of the story. Maurice did not die of a chill. The two men became rivals in love, fought a duel, and James killed his best friend and has mourned him ever since.
The response of a friend of the woman both men were in love with:
"You mean to leave him to this living death of moping and going mad in a ruin!" cried Lady Outram, in a voice that shook a little. "And all because he had the bad luck to shoot a man in a duel more than a quarter of a century ago. Is that what you call Christian charity."
"Yes," answered the priest stolidly, "that is what I call Christian charity."
"It's about all the Christian charity you'll ever get out of these priests," cried Cockspur bitterly. "That's their only idea of pardoning a poor fellow for a piece of folly; to wall him up alive and starve him to death with fasts and penances and pictures of hell-fire. And all because a bullet went wrong."
"Really, Father brown," said General Outram, "do you honestly think he deserves this? Is that your Christianity?"
"Surely the true Christianity," pleaded his wife more gently, is that which knows all and pardons all; the love that can remember—and forget."
And then we discover what really happened—and why the winner of the duel fled the country for years and then went into seclusion.
The surviving cousin is not James but Maurice. Knowing his friend was the better shot, he dropped to the ground just before James fired. James, struck with remorse, ran over to his fallen cousin, who shot him dead. Not a duel but cold blooded murder.
"Are you sure of this?" asked Sir John at last, in a thick voice.
"I am sure of it," said Father Brown, "and now I leave Maurice Mair, the present Marquis of Marne, to your Christian charity. You have told me something today about Christian charity. You seemed to me to give it almost too large a place; but how fortunate it is for poor sinners like this man that you err so much on the side of mercy, and are ready to be reconciled to all mankind."
"Hang it all," exploded the general; "if you think I’m going to be reconciled to a filthy viper like that, I tell you I wouldn’t say a word to save him from hell. I said I could pardon a regular decent duel, but of all the treacherous assassins——"
"He ought to be lynched," cried Cockspur excitedly. "He ought to burn alive like a nigger in the States. And if there is such a thing as burning for ever, he jolly well——"
"I wouldn’t touch him with a barge - pole myself," said Mallow.
"There is a limit to human charity," said Lady Outram, trembling all over.
"There is," said Father Brown dryly; "and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness today; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. So you tolerate a conventional duel, just as you tolerate a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven."
"But, hang it all," cried Mallow, "you don’t expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?"
"No," said the priest; "but we have to be able to pardon it."
Which brings us back to moral relativism and the FLDS. What Warren Jeffs is charged with was normal and acceptable behavior in a society, Old Testament Judaism, a great deal closer to ours than the Inuit. It remained accepted throughout the diaspora until, if I remember correctly, about a thousand years ago. It remained accepted in parts of the diaspora, North African and Arabic Jewish communities, up until modern times.
When the Israeli rabbis decided to raise the age of consent from twelve and a half to something more in tune with modern views, their justification was the claim that early pregnancy was more dangerous in the 20th century than it had been two thousand years earlier, a factual claim it is difficult to imagine anyone taking seriously, given the medical progress over the intervening interval.
I have yet to see commentary by anyone identifying himself as a liberal defending Jeffs, or the FLDS more generally, on grounds of moral relativism. As Chesterton points out, it is easy to forgive people for doing things you don't really disapprove of.
Harder when you do.
To be fair, what I am criticizing is the sketch version of liberalism. No doubt someone holding a more detailed and sophisticated version could come up with a justification for making and enforcing the laws that the FLDS is accused of breaking. Making such as a justification consistent with the rhetoric of moral relativism might be a more difficult project.
[I should probably add, to avoid any possible confusion, that I am an atheist not a Catholic. That does not prevent me from admiring Chesterton's writing, including his sometimes brilliant defenses of his religious views.]