Matthew Flannagan

Matt Flannagan, who blogs with his wife Madeleine at MandM, contributes to a New Zealand-based conservative think-tank called Thinking Matters. These ‘conservative think-tanks’ crop up from place to place and the term is usually a euphemism for frustrated and atavistic reactionists who want to take away rights from women, homosexuals, and other minorities and restore power to the patriarchy. Some of the members of Thinking Matters don’t appear to be noticeably different in this regard.

In a talk available on YouTube, Matt Flannagan attempts to argue against that phantom nemesis of all conservative think-tanks, what they term ’moral relativism’. (Everybody together now: ‘Oooooh, yucky!’) His arguments are a mish-mash of illogical nonsense and rhetorical scaremongering. There is much to take issue with in his presentation, so there is no need to dwell on his sleight of hand in presenting obviously unsound arguments for relativism and then (marvelously!) disproving them to his captive evangelical audience – which he does for more than half of his talk.

One thing which is worth thinking about is that, at one point in his talk (Part 4; 5:00ff), Matt’s criticism reveals that he has failed to appreciate what a thoroughgoing moral relativism would look like. He just doesn’t get it. He cannot conceive of moral duties that are not objective. I suspect that this is an all-too-frequent barrier for moral objectivists. Their commitment to moral objectivism is such that they fail to properly conceive of a world in which every moral duty is simply the result of cultural norms. They can’t do it. And as a result, their protests already – circularly – assume moral objectivism.

Matt makes his circular argument when he adduces the following as a premise which he claims is held by some moral relativists:

Now, indulging Matt for a while, let’s ask this question: if a moral relativist did happen to hold to this premise, what would be the nature of the ‘duty’? Too obvious, you say? Well yes, the answer would seem to be too obvious. The  ’duty’ would clearly be relative for a moral relativist.

But Matt doesn’t get it:

“And notice too that the second premise is making a what? An objective moral statement. It’s saying that all people have a duty to be tolerant. But according to relativism there are no objective moral statements.”

Matt falsely attributes moral objectivism to a moral relativist, because he just cannot grasp the concept of moral relativism. However, in moral relativism, a duty, even if applicable to everybody in a particular society, would by definition be morally relative. A prevalent problem with moral objectivists such as Matt is that they haven’t ever grasped what a purely subjective morality looks like, how it operates. They keep trying to sneak back in assumptions of moral objectivity – the very thing that moral relativists deny. And so their attempt to raise an argument against it – by assuming the objectivity of morality – is revealed as a piece of illogical and circular nonsense.