For most of the past several decades, denunciation of “moral relativism” was a mainstay of conservative attacks on liberalism. A moral relativist, by these lights, is someone who thinks that if it feels good, do it; who believes that values are no more than personal preference; who does not believe in fixed notions of right and wrong. Moral relativism, to conservatives, was an engine of American decline, and attacks on this flawed way of living were an engine of Republican electoral success.
The pandemic highlights a different way of understanding relativism. It is not that values are no more than a matter of taste, in the way that you like pistachio but I like vanilla. It is to acknowledge—in a way our politics usually does not—that any important value is inevitably, at key moments, in competition with other important values. Individual liberties are in tension with public order. Respect for tradition is in tension with tolerance for diversity. And, yes, averting some number of tragic deaths from coronavirus is in tension with the need for a much larger number of people to resume life—sometime after it is no longer reckless to do so but sometime before it is perfectly safe.
An honest brand of politics, which we urgently need, admits the tension and tries in good faith—with reference to evolving evidence and with acknowledgment of uncertainty—to resolve it in the public interest.