September 19, 2006

The Relativistic FogWhy Moral Relativism Can’t be True

Consider the following well-worn slogans:

What's right for you might not be right for me.
Everyone has to decide for himself what's right.
What's right depends on the situation.

Do you agree with any of these statements? If so, you are in good company. A few years ago, pollster George Barna documented that only 22 percent of adults and 6 percent of teens affirmed the notion of moral absolutes. Among Christian youth, the numbers were only slightly higher with one out of ten born-again teenagers holding to an unchanging moral truth.[1] This means that the majority of today's generation has taken to heart the predominant moral philosophy of our day: moral relativism.

According to authors Beckwith and Koukl, moral relativism asserts that "there are no universally objective right or wrong answers, no inappropriate or appropriate judgments, and no reasonable or rational ways by which to make moral distinctions that apply in every time, in every place, and to every person . . . only subjective opinions exist, which are no different from one's feelings about a favorite football team, movie star, or ice cream flavor."[2]

Think about that definition a moment. Are moral decisions like opinions regarding your favorite ice cream? If so, how? If not, why not?

The "Moral Gene" Theory

Worldview thinking provides a way to uncover the underlying assumptions of this view. One assumption that is foundational to moral relativism is biological evolution, which itself is rooted in either an atheistic or pantheistic religious worldview. Atheists believe that since there is no God there can be no transcendent moral law, while pantheists insist that everyone is god. But in either case, the implication for ethics is that the individual must create his or her own moral values and these personally held values will change from individual to individual, therefore making morality a subjective experience (dependent on the person) and not objective (dependent on something outside of one's personal preference).

So based on the assumption of biological evolution, how are moral values explained? The idea is that ethical standards have evolved over time in human sapiens because those isolated populations what by chance mutated with the genetic disposition to be cooperative provided a selective advantage for species survival. I call this the "moral gene" theory.

Problems with "Moral Genes"

There are three major problems with the "moral gene" argument. First, the "moral gene" theory can only be descriptive and not prescriptive. That is, it can only describe how people have acted in the past, but it cannot give a reason why we should act in certain ways either now or in the future. Specifically, it is unable to answer the question, "Why be moral?" The only answer to that question for the "moral gene" theorist is "Because of your neuro-transmitters!" In other words, because your brain has been wired by chance mutations over time to make you feel that way.

But why should anyone feel compelled to "obey" his neuro-transmitters if they just happened to have evolved that way? Since Darwinian evolution postulates a random, chance process of development, your brain could have been wired differently. Why not steal, kill, rape, and pillage for the sake of your neuro-transmitters! These actions also have survival value, don't they? In the final analysis, evolution offers no reliable reason for why we should be moral. It can only describe the fact that we, as a species, do behave in a certain way. This position is inadequate for answering the question of why we should behave morally.

Second, it cannot account for moral laws that seem to stand contrary to the notion of "survival of the fittest." For example, rape would be a very productive way to ensure the survival of the human race, yet we recoil from this act and punish others for committing this "crime" by citing ethical reasons for justifying that punishment. So again, how do we know that rape is really wrong? This is a problem for the moral gene theorist.

A third objection with the moral gene idea is this, the very argument assumes at least one moral absolute-it is always good to do that which will aid in the survival of one's species. But if there is one moral absolute, then this destroys the idea that all moral concepts are relative. Therefore, moral relativism is found to be self-contradictory. If it is true, it is false.

But What about Different Cultures?

To bolster the idea of moral relativism, someone may bring up the point that different cultures have different standards for conduct. For example, historically in Japan, if an owner's business defaults, the honorable thing for the owner to do was commit suicide. In contrast to that, in the United States and Great Britain, it was customary in the past to wind up the business as best one could and pay off as many debtors as possible. Now, the honorable thing is to hire a lawyer and pay as few debts as possible.

However, the above example does not favor moral relativism. That is because while the definition of how to act honorably differs from culture to culture and changes over time, the oughtness of doing the honorable thing remains the same. In his book, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis describes this universal oughtness as the Tao (not to be confused with the religion of Taoism). It is the moral essence of each culture that is common to all cultures throughout all time. You might say that we live in a moral universe. Lewis puts it this way:

Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own 'natural' impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can overarch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.[3]

Turning Relativists into Absolutists!

If you want to see a moral relativist turn into an moral absolutist, all you have to do is take his mp3 player or some other item of value to him. Why would this cause the relativist to rethink his position? He would be forced to admit that he believes in at least one moral standard: STEALING IS WRONG! And if there is one standard, then the person can no longer claim to be a relativist.

Besides, if there is one standard, than maybe there is more than one! Can you think of any other absolutes? Here are a few to get you started: You should never torture babies for fun. You should never burn a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. You should never napalm innocent children. You should never steal from a blind beggar's cup. It is wrong to own other people as slaves.

In the final analysis, what we find is that people are not really moral relativists, only "selective moral relativists." By pointing out the inconsistency of their worldview, maybe they will be open to hearing how a Biblical worldview presents a consistent perspective on morals.

A Biblical Worldview: We Live in a Moral Universe

When the Bible states "you shall not steal" or "you shall not murder," this is not a mere subjective opinion that changes from person to person, culture to culture, or over time. It is an objective moral standard, set forth by God, for all individuals, in every culture, regardless of the era.

An objective moral idea is evident in how we interact and think. God's law is, in essence, "written on our hearts" (see Romans 1:18–20). According to this passage, God has designed the cosmos and human nature in such a way that we cannot help but know certain things about Him-His eternal power and divine nature. Paul continues to reveal what we ought to know from observing the world and ourselves, and his entire list has to do with moral issues. (Read verses 21–34 for the details.)

The Scriptures inform us that God has instilled in humankind a sense of right and wrong, a compelling obligation or "oughtness" of how we should behave. Moral philosophers such as John Locke refer to this as natural law, since it is known through nature. In others words, we live in an objective moral universe where we sense certain acts are right and others actions are wrong. This can be demonstrated in the following way.

Have you ever had someone say things about you that were false? How did that make you feel? How about when something true is said about you? When something true is said about you, that is as far as you can go in that direction, the truth is true!. If something false is said about you, that is as far as that statement can go in the opposite direction. Truth and falsehood compose two poles of a moral category that are a part of our common human condition. People all over the world understand this.

Besides truth and falsehood, there are other examples of moral categories, such as Honor/Dishonor, Justice/Injustice, Love/Hatred, Fidelity/Infidelity, and Honesty/Dishonesty, to name a few.

Why are the above illustrations important? Because many times we may be talking with non-Christians who will not accept your plea to the Bible as the basis for morality. But by using our human condition as common ground, we can help our friends understand that morals are more than social conventions. This, in turn, can lead them to the next step of accepting the God who is the author of our sense of moral "oughtness," and from there, the realization that we fail to live up to His moral standards and, therefore, are in need of a Savior.

Resources for Further Study

  • Barna's February 2002 report titled, Americans Are Most Likely to Base Truth on Feelings.
  • For a popular and insightful treatment of how to refute moral relativism, see Gregory Koukl's commentary, Relativism Self Destructs.
  • An engaging presentation given to a group of medical doctors by John Patrick, M.B., M.D., is called The Myth of Moral Neutrality. Purchase the audio tape by calling 888.231.2637.
Footnotes
  1. Americans Are Most Likely to Base Truth on Feelings.
  2. Quoted by Frank Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Baker Books, 2002), 12–13.
  3. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 84–85.

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