Moral Relativism Versus The Moral High Road

[ Posted Thursday, November 16th, 2017 – 19:33 UTC ]

After writing two columns on sexual misconduct and politics within the past seven days, I never thought I'd be writing about it again so soon. But today's breaking news pretty much precludes any other political discussion, even on a day when the House passed a real stinkeroo of a tax bill. Because on a purely political level, things just got a lot more complicated for Democrats with today's accusation against Senator Al Franken.

Before I get to Franken's case, I'd like to make some wider observations about where we as a country find ourselves right now. The #MeToo movement seems to be spreading like wildfire, which is really going to require us all to decide what sort of rules we should have going forward when it comes to allegations of sexual harassment, sexual attempts at humor, outright sexual misconduct, and clear-cut crimes such as sexual assault or even rape. America is already having this conversation, which really started with the Harvey Weinstein accusations, but sooner or later we're going to have to agree on some basic rules for how such accusations should be considered.

To begin with, there are purely legal rules which might need some updating, to put it mildly. Currently, there are a lot of states with laughably short statutes of limitations on sexual accusations. This is why Bill Cosby is only being prosecuted for what he allegedly did to one woman, and not dozens. This is why none of the accusations against Roy Moore are actionable either. To my mind, at least, this should be the starting point for any discussions about how laws and rules need to change -- to allow more time for traumatized victims to come forward.

There's one particular area where some rule changes are blatantly obvious, and that is how Congress handles such accusations. Congress (because it can) usually exempts itself from all kinds of laws they pass for other entities (private companies, other civil service workplaces, etc.). Their policies on sexual harassment and other sexual accusations are woefully inadequate, because they put an incredible onus on the victim while allowing the accused to escape the consequences that anyone in any private business would certainly face. There is an effort to get these rules changed by new legislation, which should be a no-brainer for members of both political parties right now. If ever there were a time to make drastic changes quickly, this would be it. Merely forcing everyone to attend a sexual harassment training session is just not good enough.

In the wider political arena, there is a whole lot of what used to be called "moral relativism" being espoused right now. I mentioned this in the last article I wrote about Moore, because there is undeniably a partisan filter to how most of us (at least initially) react to accusations made against members of our own preferred political party. Republicans, a few decades back, made much political hay by accusing Democrats of moral relativism on all sorts of issues. This allowed them to take a rather "holier than thou" stance, or (as they would have put it) to "take the moral high road" politically. Back in those days, moral relativism was -- in general -- seen as a very bad thing by most Republicans. Morals (or ethics, if you prefer) were supposed to be absolute. There was right, and there was wrong. Period. Anything less was rejected as the evil of moral relativism.

Back in the 1990s when all these denunciations of moral relativism were happening, there was a much higher standard for believability when it came to accusations of a sexual nature. There was the case of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. On the other side of the aisle, there were the accusers of Bill Clinton. All of the women involved were put through a public wringer, and their stories were denounced as lies by partisans in both cases. If you don't recall this era, try reading an article written back then for the New York Times op-ed pages by none other than Gloria Steinem, who fiercely defends Clinton against all his accusers. There really is no higher feminist icon than Gloria Steinem, which only goes to prove what a different time it truly was. She conveniently omits any mention of Juanita Broaddrick, though, who made the most severe claim against Bill Clinton (that he had forcibly raped her in a hotel room).

Compare the reactions back then to today's standard. Now, as a default position, anyone making such allegations is to be believed absent any hard proof they are lying (or even attempting to gain from their accusations). Feminism has come a long way from where it was during Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, in other words. But does this new standard risk bending over too far in the opposite direction? How long will it be before one false accusation can ruin a political career, and nefarious partisans decide to exploit this fact in the worst possible way?

American sexual mores are changing fast. Last year, there were several accusations made against Donald Trump, none of which prevented him from becoming president. One has to wonder if that would have been true if the Harvey Weinstein revelations had happened one year earlier. New rules are being created quickly, in other words. In Trump's case, the moral relativism on the Republican side was pretty blatant, as all the absolute moralists on the right suddenly decided that hard-and-fast rules didn't necessarily need to apply when enough political gain might be achieved by conveniently ignoring them. Character, all of a sudden, didn't matter at all to them.

As new moral rules are drawn up, one open question worth discussing is what mitigating factors (if any) should be allowed to influence the political outcome. If the accused politician owns up to his or her actions and apologizes, should that matter in any way? Should a politician who apologizes face any different result from one who denies the allegations and attacks the alleged victim? These are questions that are becoming more relevant by the day.

Also, does the severity of the accusation likewise matter, or should any sexual impropriety be seen as a politically mortal sin? Are there degrees to being guilty, or is any transgression a career-ending event? Steinem tries to make this case about Bill Clinton in that article, arguing that Clinton may have been a boor, but he actually did follow the rules feminists had laid down at the time: Clinton knew that "no means no," and after his bumbling attempts at seduction he respected the women's decision to say "no." This is why the omission of Juanita Broaddrick may have been necessary for Steinem to write the article, since she was making a much more severe accusation -- that Clinton did not take "no" for an answer. But putting Clinton's case aside, should a politician pay the same price when accused of rape as one who is accused of forcibly kissing a woman and then backing off when rebuffed? Also, does the fact that most of Roy Moore's accusers were underage at the time of the allegations matter, or should he pay the same price as someone guilty of the same actions with adult women? These are all tough questions, but they do need to be contemplated.

Another broad question to consider is whether political hypocrisy should factor into the moral equation or not. Should a politician who has built a political career around being holier-than-everyone-else on moral issues face a different public reaction than a live-and-let-live politician who has never made political hay moralizing about others' behavior? That has always been a rather large factor for me personally, when considering whether the political punishment fits the crime. The more hypocrisy a politician has exhibited between his personal life and his public persona, the more severely the public should judge him or her, as far as I'm concerned. But maybe that's just me. This is why I think the national discussion needs to begin clarifying what mitigating circumstances should either be viewed more harshly or more leniently, rather than just attempting to make it all up as we go along.

Which brings me back around to Al Franken. Now, I'm not going to make any of the arguments I just outlined for Franken's case. Plenty of others are making these arguments (all based at least somewhat in moral relativism), and we've got plenty of time to hash all of these details out. Instead, what I wonder is whether politically Franken will have to fall on his sword for the good of the Democratic Party.

Will immediately apologizing and cooperating with an Ethics Committee investigation be enough, or will Franken have to step down from his Senate seat so that Democrats can continue making their own "moral high road" arguments? So far it is only one isolated incident, but if others make similar accusations against him then Franken is probably toast no matter what.

Republicans are already cranking up their own morally-relativistic spin, something they used to decry Democrats for doing not so long ago. They will make the attempt to equate Al Franken with Roy Moore, and insist that they be treated the same. This is really a win-win for most Republicans, who shudder in horror at the thought of Roy Moore being allowed to serve in the U.S. Senate. By insisting that Franken resign while denouncing Moore, they could conveniently kill two birds with one stone, in other words.

Democrats are now finding out (as the Republicans did, in the past) that taking the moral high road has its own risks. In fact, they were finding this out before today's news broke about Al Franken, as Republicans began revisiting Bill Clinton's history. But Clinton is no longer president (although Donald Trump is, which Republicans really don't want to talk about right now). Franken, however, is a sitting senator. This makes him a much bigger target to denounce in the current atmosphere.

If Donald Trump had never won the Republican nomination for president, and if Roy Moore had lost his own Republican primary, then Al Franken would probably have survived politically, even in the post-Weinstein era. He did the right thing within hours of the bombshell news -- he apologized and offered himself up to the Ethics Committee. Hearings would likely have been held, and -- if no further accusations had been made by any other women -- at the end of the process perhaps Franken would have been censured by the Senate and allowed to remain. Then it would have been up to the voters of Minnesota to decide whether he was still worthy of their vote the next time he was up for re-election. Franken might have survived the accusation politically at the ballot box, and then again he might not have.

But that's all hypothetical, because the Franken accusation was not made in such a historical vacuum. In the current atmosphere, Republicans are already salivating at the prospects of using Franken as a scapegoat for any and all sexual misconduct by any Republican -- both GOP candidates like Moore, and sitting GOP politicians like Trump. Republicans would make the attempt to lump all such accusations (no matter the actual details) into one finger-pointing frenzy throughout the 2018 campaign season. "Al Franken didn't step down!" they'd insist, while defending their own partisans from accusations.

There is really only one way for Democrats to completely avoid this political bludgeoning attempt, and that is for Franken himself to step down. Again, I am not calling on him to do so and I am seeing this solely through the lens of electoral (rather than moral) politics. But it would be a lot harder for Democrats to cast themselves in the mold of moral absolutists ("always believe the accusers, and any accusation disqualifies you from politics") if Franken is still serving alongside them. Whether the Democrats wanted it or not, they would be forcibly dragged off the moral high road into the swamps of debating just how much moral relativism should be considered allowable. That is a very tough spot for Franken to put the rest of the party in.

However, should Franken resign, it also brings up another issue that both parties should be somewhat wary of embracing. Should one accusation automatically equate to the end of a politician's career? Now, Franken largely admitted that the accusation was true, or at least based in some sort of shared reality. So perhaps his case will be seen differently than someone who denies one single accusation. But if the standard is going to be "believe all accusers, and zero tolerance for any of it -- one strike and you are out of politics," then that's an awfully low bar to agree upon. Because it would mean that one unscrupulous person could derail any politicians' career at any time, just by lying. This could unleash a flood of such false accusations, timed to have the maximum impact on political campaigns.

This is why I feel that in the midst of all the charges and countercharges, we really should be making the attempt to develop consistent moral rules (even if unwritten ones) for politicians looking forward, after sexual impropriety accusations have been made. If new rules can be developed that both feminists and evangelical voters can largely agree upon, then we'll all have some guidelines for future accusations. Because to continue to treat each instance on an ad hoc basis seems to be the very definition of moral relativism. If some rules could be agreed upon, however, it might allow both sides to make the attempt to reclaim the moral high road again.


[Full Disclosure: Years ago, my wife and I had the chance to meet privately with Al Franken after he became a senator, for a 5-10 minute "meet and greet" session, while he was backstage waiting to make a keynote speech. I found him both charming and hilarious, but the meeting was off the record so I have never reported on it in any way. At the end of the meeting, Franken posed for photos with us, and my wife confirms to me that Franken did nothing improper while we posed for the photo with arms around each other. This is our own personal experience and is not even really relevant in any way, but I wanted to make this full disclosure.]

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


20 Comments on “Moral Relativism Versus The Moral High Road”

  1. [1] 
    Paula wrote:

    I wrote this in yesterday's comments: reposting here:

    I think Al Franken did the right thing by acknowledging, apologizing, and agreeing/calling for an ethics investigation.

    In the coming days we will see if more accusers come forward -- that's what establishes the patterns of bad behaviors that amount to predation/harassment. The accuser in this case has publicly accepted his apology, which matters, I think. I had just read his most recent book where he writes about stuff going on during his SNL days and saying that for awhile he was an asshole, and that could mean anything. If there are a bunch of women whom he harassed out there, they'll come forward. And if they don't, that means something too -- "being an asshole" covers a lot of territory.

    Whatever happens, I think we need to establish some ground rules and procedures because he isn't going to be the last. Of equal importance, right now the political stakes are really high and the GOP has a long history of dirty tricks so I would not put it past them to gin up some accusations. I've been worried they would, and on that basis I think investigations need to happen RATHER THAN pols like Al being martyrs and stepping down if they're not guilty or if their behaviors are in a grey zone. Collectively we have to decide what the grey zone includes and what falls outside it.

    Al is willing to be scrutinized so lets do it and then draw our conclusions.

  2. [2] 
    Paula wrote:

    And if Al Franken decides to fall on his sword in an effort to ensure the "moral highground" for Dems, I want him to take as many other abusers with him as he can. But I don't think he should resign.

    As we write, McConnell is trying to find a way to postpone the election in Alabama to try to save it for the GOP. I don't want "gestures" from Dems done in efforts to achieve moral perfection. Those gestures don't protect us from the collective predator that is the GOP. The GOP DOES NOT RESPOND to Dems "doing the right thing" by, in turn, "doing the right thing". They just say "thanks for helping us out, suckers!"

  3. [3] 
    Paula wrote:

    From a KOS Diary, quoting CNN:

    CNN spoke with more than 50 lawmakers, current and former Hill aides and political veterans who have worked in Congress, the majority of whom spoke anonymously to be candid and avoid potential repercussions. With few exceptions, every person said they have personally experienced sexual harassment on the Hill or know of others who have. [...]

    The dozens of interviews that CNN conducted with both men and women also revealed that there is an unwritten list of male lawmakers -- made up primarily of House representatives where there are many more members than the Senate -- notorious for inappropriate or predatory behavior. Several people simply referred to that roster as the "creep list."

    More than half a dozen interviewees independently named one California congressman for pursuing female staffers; another half dozen pointed to a Texas congressman for engaging in inappropriate behavior. CNN is not naming either of those lawmakers because the stories are unverified.

    I want to hear about ALL OF THEM.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    The decline of America accelerates ...

  5. [5] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    CW:Now, Franken largely admitted that the accusation was true, or at least based in some sort of shared reality.

    If by that you mean that he 'admits' that the prank photo with Leann Tweeden playing the role of 'pranked' was in bad taste, you're right to that extent. But even in his lengthier apology letter, he does not say that Tweeden's version of the 'rehearsal kiss' was true.

    He says (in the longer of the two statements that he released), While I don't remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does, I understand why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences.

    That's probably the nicest way to say that someone's lying that I've ever read.

    We have good reason to take Tweeden's statement with a grain of salt. She's appeared on Fox News as a political commentator since 2005, a year before the alleged USO incident occurred. Since then, she's racked up sixteen appearances on Hannity's show alone, according to IMDB.

    In her statement (which I linked to in post [16] in yesterday's column) she states, "I wanted to shout my story to the world with a megaphone to anyone who would listen, but even as angry as I was, I was worried about the potential backlash and damage going public might have on my career as a broadcaster."

    Really? She was worried about backlash on Fox News? Was she worried that her tawdry story about a stolen kiss and inappropriate pic wouldn't go over well with Hannity. Maybe Ailes and O'Reilly wouldn't be happy to see her accusing a Democratic star of groping her. As a result, she says, despite being among literally the most receptive crowd for her story on the planet for the last ten plus years, and in possession of photo evidence to boot, she waited until today to make the story public.

    Maybe it's just me, but I smell a rat. Call it 'moral relativism' all you want, but I reserve the right to suspect everything that stems from the dank ooze of Fox News, double when it's a friend of Hannity's, and triple when the timing is this convenient.

  6. [6] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Don't know if you happened to catch the Rude Pundit's column about the latest Clinton and Juanita Broaddrick rehash, but it's worth a read:

    Once More Into the Clinton Circle of Hell

  7. [7] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    More shade on the Franken allegations:

    Roger Stone — longtime confidant to President Donald Trump and GOP “dirty tricks” operative — appears to have had foreknowledge of the accusations against Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) by Los Angeles radio personality Leeann Tweeden.

    At 1:30 a.m. Thursday, a Twitter account associated with Stone named "Enter the Stone Zone" tweeted:

    QUOTE: Roger Stone says it's Al Franken's "time in the barrel". Franken next in long list of Democrats to be accused of "grabby" behavior.

    That was posted several hours before Tweeden went public with her accusation.

    Stone himself has been banned from Twitter, but apparently gets messages on through accounts like "Enter the Stone Zone".

    The term "time in the barrel" is the same thing Stone said about John Podesta shortly before Wikileaks posted Podesta's stolen emails online.

    Does anyone here still think that I'm being overly-suspicious about this story?

  8. [8] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Looking in the mirror this morning, suddenly it hit me! I can see what the problem is here. All you Democrats are so gawdam ugly that all the women you molest, after stewing about it for 20 or 30 years, inevitably start to scream and holler. All you've gotta do is think Weinstein, Cosby, Franken, our own CW, etc. etc. and it's plain as day!

    Whereas we Republicans, such as I and the Moron-in-
    Chief, are such handsome devils that the women we molest not only do not complain, they keep coming back for more of the same!

    How could it be more obvious??

  9. [9] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Balthasar brings up some very good points. I think it is very premature for Franken to resign. The facts and uncertainties of the incident should be established. Both parties have rights. Unlike the Moore incident, both parties were adults, with successful careers, although Franken was certainly better known through his SNL appearances. I have not seen anything to indicate Franken was her boss on this trip, they seem to have been peers doing a gig. Stupid behavior among peers does not necessarily demand removal - if it did,we would have nobody left in office, or at work, or anywhere. Tweeden still has connections to Fox News and Fox is, in my opinion, one of the leading purveyors of fake news in that exiting and fast growing form of infotainment. Tweeden has potential economic interest (a market stall) in juicing the story - but that doesn't let Franken off the hook. There could be some there there. In summary, don't cut corners. Do it the hard way because it is the best way. Most Republicans seem to be wishing Moore would just go. I don't think Democrats should automatically follow the Republican lead. The two incidents are not equivalent.

  10. [10] 
    John M wrote:

    [4] Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    "The decline of America accelerates ..."

    How so? In what way? Because of this issue finally being brought into the light and dealt with after so many years?

    I think, depending on the outcome, this can only be a good thing for America and will make it a better place. We have front row seats to a rare occurrence, namely a cultural sea change taking place before our very eyes.

    The decline only comes if it leads to consequences being apportioned out based on partisan political and right wing vs left wing culture war considerations only, and not on true justice for everyone.

    If it leads to all such behavior by anyone, in the mold of the likes of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and Roy Moore and Al Franken, being held to account, and prevents any future like minded Presidents, candidates, or public figures, or entertainers, or just regular Joes in the street, being given a pass and from being seen as "acceptable" in any way, then we will have made true progress.

  11. [11] 
    John M wrote:

    [10] C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Man, I know you are perhaps trying to make a joke and lighten the mood, and that is being charitable, but that's not really even funny dude, on what is such a sensitive, critical, serious and important topic that impacts so many women so severely.

  12. [12] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    Yeah, I get all that but I expected to hear it from a dudette, not another dude. Or am I jumping to unjustified conclusions?

  13. [13] 
    John M wrote:

    [14] C. R. Stucki

    If you get all that, then why make inappropriate remarks in the first place? Yeah, I am a dude. Aren't men just as responsible if not more so to speak out against such behavior?

  14. [14] 
    Paula wrote:

    [9] Balthasar: Does anyone here still think that I'm being overly-suspicious about this story? Nope!

    Apparently her story is morphing -- she said she'd agreed to "the kiss" rehearsal but then he overdid it. We don't know yet about the photo as there appears to be false info floating around the web about it. Presumably we'll get the truth, or Al's version anyway, in the Ethics Hearing.

    So, as TheStig said: In summary, don't cut corners. Do it the hard way because it is the best way.

    Yep. Get it all out there.

    You know what else I would like? The NAMES of the currently active harassers on the Hill:

  15. [15] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    What was it that offended you most? That "All Dems are so gawdam ugly", or that "The women we handsome Reps molest do not object"?

  16. [16] 
    John M wrote:

    [10] and [17] C. R. Stucki

    I was not so much offended as I was appalled that someone would think such shockingly tone deaf statements were humorous.

    One problem was the juxtaposition of comparing Democrats and Republicans in the way that you did, making light of and minimizing such an important issue, and trying to partisanize it.

    But even more egregious was that you see nothing wrong with the following two statements? :

    "The women we handsome Reps molest do not object"?

    Really dude? So just because those women were saying no, pushing men away, being assaulted, just because your ego tells you that you are handsome, it is therefore somehow ok and that they really want it? Do you not see the contradiction between "molest" and "not object" (implying consent) being used in the same sentence?

    "We Republicans, such as I and the Moron-in-
    Chief, are such handsome devils that the women we molest not only do not complain, they keep coming back for more of the same!"

    This one is just as bad. Do you seriously believe that anyone really keeps coming back for more abuse because they like or enjoy it when there is no consent, or because of concern for the power held over them and the amount of coercion that is applied? Are unequal power dynamics not a factor in your world view?

    You are all so just so handsome men? You can wrap up things like slavery and prison in pretty gold paper and bows, but just because they look good, doesn't make them any less unpleasant or just as painful a loss of freedom or dignity.

  17. [17] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Warning! Warning! Stucki, it's a trap. Get outta there!

    Don't forget, this is the Caterpillar scandal age, and more shoes are set to drop. The premise,'the women we handsome Reps molest do not object' is false anyway, and if we squint real hard we might find a single handsome GOP rep (Pence looks like one of my old GI Joe dolls - er, - action figures). heh.

    But seriously dude, don't speak too soon. If Trump is behind this, he's got other fish to fry. He's taken a real personal dislike to McConnell, for instance, and his fellow Senator Paul, just to start.

    The problem is, when the standard insists that everything said by the accuser is automatically assumed to be true, the door is left wide open for political mischief. This is one of he reasons that English Common Law insisted upon the opposite - that all accused are innocent until proven guilty. And not in the forum of public opinion, but in a court with rules of evidence.

    Did the Salem Witch Trials and McCarthy Era teach us nothing?

    This tradition has come head-to-head with the wishes of Womens' Rights advocates, who have complained justifiably that victims of sexual harassment weren't being believed (often enough) when they told their stories.

    But I don't think the answer is to throw out our concepts about fairness and justice and law, just to achieve that end. The system should be reformed, most certainly, but the presumption of innocence before the law ought to be sacrosanct.

    So CW, Moral Relativism isn't a bug, it's a feature of the justice system. You are assured by the law to be tried according to the facts as they relate to you, not as they relate to Harvey Wienstein. The standards by which such trial would be conducted are the same for each of you, but, thank goodness, the circumstances that are unique to each of you can and should be taken into account.

    Franken is savvy to all this. He volunteered to 'cooperate' with the Ethics committee, meaning that he can move the matter into a sober forum of fact-finders.

  18. [18] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    In furtherance of [4] ...

    A piece by Tim Egan - We're With Stupid - explains the acceleration of the decline of America, in a nutshell, as it were ... :(

  19. [19] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    How so? In what way? Because of this issue finally being brought into the light and dealt with after so many years?

    The decline of America is a notion that I was in denial about for a very long time. But, it has become far too clear today that America is in a state of deep and possibly irreversible decline by any number of standards of which sexual misconduct is but one small part.

    The problem with "this issue", as with any other challenge facing America and her very tenuous grip on a global leadership role, is the decreasing capacity of a large proportion of the American people for any semblance of understanding of the world in which they live.

    See [20].

  20. [20] 
    Paula wrote:

    [19] Balthasar: Agree that we cannot adopt a policy of "accusation=guilt". NO class/group of people should ever be given the privilege of being able to accuse another of a crime/affront without the accused being allowed to defend him/herself. Doesn't matter who.

    Women have traditionally been marginalized/intimidated/silenced in these matters and that has to stop. THAT would be the positive outcome of this avalanche of unmaskings of predators. Women need to be taken seriously and treated respectfully, and their accusations must be investigated. Women also need to be encouraged to speak, and protected when they do. Which is a big issue. And its entangled in other issues: rank, power, money. This avalanche will hopefully help create an environment wherein women will feel protected enough to be able to come forward. If we work through all this with reasonable intelligence, society will benefit.

    But to treat every accusation as fact opens the door to terrible potential mischief. Not good.

Comments for this article are closed.