The Morality of Warning Labels

Content warnings aren’t new. They tell us what media are family-friendly and which contain mature content. We are warned if a television show contains explicit sexual content or graphic violence. But not all warnings are about violence or sexual content. Early in its launch, Disney Plus added content warnings to the details screen of some of its older shows and movies, such as Peter Pan and Dumbo, for containing “outdated cultural depictions.” Such depictions came under closer scrutiny during 2020 as the United States faced significant racial tension. Thus, in October of 2020, Disney crafted a longer statement that not only appears on the media details screen, but also on-screen before viewing certain movies:

morality of warning labels

Many people believe such warning labels are necessary to heal deep-seated racial wounds in our country and to prevent further negative cultural depictions of various ethnic groups. Others view warning labels as an Orwellian sanitation of the past and a prelude to censorship. We must certainly be concerned about both dangers. But we want to look beyond the discussions of censorship and racism stemming from such warning labels. The specific wording of the Disney Plus message is important; it offers a reflection on the nature of morality: whether it depends on the currents of the culture or whether some things are truly, objectively wrong.

We Might Be Wrong
Disney’s warning label states that “stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now.” The first point this raises is simple: cultures can be wrong. We can recognize through old children’s films that past cultures have been wrong about many things, such as the depiction of people from other cultures. If this is the case, then isn’t it possible that the things we believe have been mistaken all along? The values that our society takes for granted today may be viewed as bigoted and harmful in the future. Modern movies and music that reflect current popular opinions may gain warning labels in a few years. This teaches us that we must always be open to disagreement and correction, holding a posture of grace and humility. Likewise, if our culture could be wrong about some things in the past, we may also be wrong about some things now.

Moral Relativism
The Disney Plus warning label goes on to illustrate an even greater truth. While the beliefs and behaviors a culture considers acceptable may change over time, ultimate morality does not.

Disney films—especially princess films—have been criticized for offering shallow, narcissistic messages to children: follow your heart, be true to yourself, etc. A prime example of this is Frozen’s hit song “Let It Go”, which we have previously analyzed. A key line from the song is “No right, no wrong, no rules for me / I’m free.” This notion of there being no real right or wrong is known as moral relativism, further categorized in this case as individual relativism. This view holds that there is no true moral standard that applies to everyone. Instead, we each determine right or wrong for ourselves. We should all see very clearly how problematic this view is. If everyone truly thought—and lived—this way, our world would be in serious trouble.

A different form of relativism, cultural relativism, is the view that each culture has its own moral system. At face value, it seems obvious that different peoples around the world and throughout history have had their own value systems. Yet, cultural relativism means that each culture’s value system is valid and binding to that specific group and we have no right to judge any other culture’s moral code. This view appears to perfectly match the spirit of our age: tolerance, inclusion, diversity, non-judgmentalism, and multiculturalism. But if we look closely, we see that these values do not all mesh with relativism. In fact, cultural relativism simply expands the problems of individual relativism onto whole cultures.

Let’s look at some historical examples: The Holocaust was permissible and justified within Nazi-run Germany. The enslavement of Africans was accepted by some in America. Were these things okay since they happened within cultures that approved of them? The answer should be obvious. Like Disney’s warning label states, they “were wrong then and are wrong now.” The Holocaust and slavery are great evils, even if the societies (by and large) which committed them believed otherwise.

Claiming that “stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now” violates cultural relativism by casting judgment on another culture, America’s own past culture. Certainly, one who believes in tolerance and inclusion would disapprove of an individual or culture which is sexist or racist. Such moral objections would be casting judgment on others, which is inappropriate, given cultural relativism. Our modern culture dogmatically believes that tolerance, diversity, and inclusion are values that everyone should affirm, and that to deny such things is a great moral evil.

It’s ironic that some of Disney’s films advance a form of relativism, while Disney’s content warning label explicitly rejects it. This shows that although relativism may seem attractive on a surface level, it is not viable as a real moral system.

Objective Morality
If there are some actions that are truly wrong across all times and cultures, then relativism must be rejected. We must accept what is known as objective morality, the belief that certain things are right or wrong regardless of time, location, or individual and societal beliefs. The Holocaust was wrong, even though the Nazis believed it was okay. Colonial slave trade was abhorrent, even though it was legal and accepted within a number of societies.

This raises a critical question: How can there be moral values that are binding on all people and across all time if societies are constantly changing? If this is the case, then morality cannot be dependent upon us at all. Morality must transcend humanity. Just as human laws require human lawgivers, then a transcendent moral law would require a transcendent moral Lawgiver: God. Christians believe that God’s laws are available not just to believers, but are stamped on every human heart (Rom. 2:14-15), which is why even non-Christians can recognize harmful beliefs and behaviors.

Furthermore, if the Christian God exists, then he determines right and wrong, not the culture. Certainly, the Bible teaches us that racism, sexism, bigotry, and the like are immoral, since they reject the intrinsic value and worth of some people. The Bible is also our authority on sex, marriage, human identity, justice, and every other social issue. The culture may get some values right and some values wrong, but God’s Word is the final arbiter on moral truth.

Disney has added warning labels to old films because it recognizes that movies are a powerful means of influencing society. That is why Reflect exists, to show the worldview messages that are latent within everything we read, watch, and hear, and how these messages affect us. Disney’s acknowledgment of negative cultural depictions also defends the nature of morality itself. Certain beliefs and behaviors are always wrong, no matter what the current culture may believe (and in spite of the moral relativism that some of Disney’s own films promote). Yet, far beyond showing the great influence of various media, Disney has inadvertently offered a powerful argument for objective morality and that the current culture does not dictate moral truth.

Timothy Fox

Timothy Fox has a passion to equip the church to engage the culture. He is a part-time math teacher, full-time husband and father. He has an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University as well as an M.A. in Adolescent Education of Mathematics and a B.S. in Computer Science, both from Stony Brook University. Tim lives on Long Island, NY with his wife and children. He also blogs at