Relativism Gone Wild?

, Doug Bandow, Special to AIA, Leave a comment

(A reviewer who reviewed a book for us responds to the author who responded to the initial review.—ed.)

Methinks Dr. Gottlieb is counting angels dancing on the head of a pin. He finds the idea of treating environmental offenders as sinners “attractive,” but worries that doing so “will probably not work.” The fundamental problem is his judgment about moral
equivalence rather than practical effectiveness.

More specifically, Prof. Gottlieb writes that “most religions still have to confront the full seriousness and complexity of the moral demands of environmentalism.” Yet “each religious environmentalist in the developed world, and probably many in other places as well, plugs into the same power grid, drives a
car, eats food produced by unecological agribusiness, and in all likelihood doesn’t recycle every little bit of paper.” Thus, “we
are all involved, all somewhat guilty.”

Pretty strong stuff.

Then, he explains:

On the one hand, it would be an attractive prospect to think of corporate polluters (or your neighbor who drives a Humvee) being no more welcome in religious settings than pornographers or child abusers. One has a hard time imagining the producer of Deep Throat on the board of directors of the local temple or church.

Yet any comparable rejection of those most responsible for the environmental crisis does not occur. If bishops talk of refusing communion to politicians who support abortion rights, surely they could do no less to those who would gut the Environmental Protection Agency, or to the corporate executives whose huge financial contributions pressure the government to do so. Yet, neither the money nor the participation of CEO’s of clear-cutting logging companies or pesticide manufacturers are turned away by religious institutions. The idea, as far as I can tell, has not even crossed anyone’s mind.

It’s apparent that the author thinks these are more than “possibilities,” as he refers to them, but “attractive” possibilities. It is the morally desirable approach, the one justified by the sinfulness of the polluters, suggests the text.

After taking the moral leap of equating flicking a light-switch with aborting a child, Dr. Gottlieb hesitates in mid-jump. The fact churches haven’t been driving EPA critics out of the temple “may be a good thing.” While this strategy is morally justified, he worries that it might not work because the denouncers also
have dirty hands. Indeed, “too much righteousness can make us arrogant, supercilious, and addicted to the pleasures of moral superiority.” With that I agree.

Grant the author’s last minute prudential waiver. His underlying moral assertions remain, which is the basic problem.

Doug Bandow is Vice President of Policy at Citizen Outreach and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (Xulon Press). He is also an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which arranged the publication of this review.