Sunday, September 22, 2013
What is Moral Relativism?
by Robin Schumacher
Moral relativism is a philosophy that asserts there is no global, absolute moral law that applies to all people, for all time, and in all places. Instead of an objective moral law, it espouses a qualified view where morals are concerned, especially in the areas of individual moral practice where personal and situational encounters supposedly dictate the correct moral position.
Summing up the relative moral philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, it does not exist.”
In modern times, the espousal of moral relativism has been closely linked to the theory of evolution. The argument is, in the same way that humanity has evolved from lesser to greater biological organisms, the same process is in play in the area of morals and ethics. Therefore, all that can be ascertained at present (and forever) is that there is no absolute or fixed certainty in the area of morality.
Following this argument to its logical conclusion causes consternation among many, even those who espouse moral relativism. Paul Kurtz, in the book The Humanist Alternative, sums up the end result this way: “If man is a product of evolution, one species among others, in a universe without purpose, then man’s option is to live for himself”.
A grand example of this philosophy in action can be seen in the 2007-2008 meltdown that occurred in the American financial and banking industry. Those who taught relative morality in their philosophy and business ethics college courses proceeded to live out those teachings on Wall Street and in other corporate avenues, taking risks, not representing the truth properly, seeking monetary gain, etc, with the outcome being devastating for those who were on the receiving end of their relative (and financial) morality.
Oddly enough, many who believed in relative morality at that time were outraged and absolutely sure that those who engaged in deceptive business practices ought to be punished for their unethical moral behavior. This type of reaction speaks loudly to an important truth: moral relativists have a rather dim view of moral relativism when it negatively effects them.
Let the moral relativist be lied to, be the victim of false advertising, or of a crime and he instantly becomes a moral absolutist. A person’s reaction to what he considers unfair ethical treatment always betrays his true feelings on the matter of relative vs. objective moral laws….when things go wrong for him.
The problem for the moral relativist (who is most times a secular humanist that rejects God) is they have no good answer to the two-part question: Is there anything wrong with an action and, if so, why? Appealing to the relative whims of society or personal preferences doesn’t provide satisfying answers. A better response to the question necessitates that an individual have: (1) an unchanging standard he can turn to, and (2) an absolute authority by which proper moral obligation and be defended. Without these, morals/ethics simply becomes emotionally based preferences. Rape, for example, can never be deemed wrong; the strongest statement that can be made about rape is “I don’t like it.”
Three options for moral basis
The only options available to the secular humanist where a standard and authority are concerned are: (1) the natural universe; (2) culture; (3) the individual.
The natural universe doesn’t work since no one has even closely explained how matter, atoms, chemicals, and electricity produce proper moral truths from which moral behavior is rightly derived. Culture doesn’t help as there are many cultures throughout the world, all with differing moral standards and practices; there is no way to ascertain which culture is ‘correct’ — if at all. Culture merely displays what “is” with respect to morality, and even the famous skeptic and antagonist of religion David Hume stated that humanity cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” where morals are concerned. Lastly, if each individual is used as a standard/authority for morals, the problem becomes one of imposing personal preferences on others and asking whose moral opinion is right?
Seeing this dilemma, some moral relativists try to say that science can be used to dictate ethics, but even secular scientists admit that science is a descriptive discipline (explanation) and not a prescriptive one (obligation). In addition, its empirical methods are impotent to answer such moral questions such as if the Nazi’s were evil or not, or is murder really morally wrong, or why is rape morally reprehensible? Einstein sums up the correct position in this matter when he said, “You are right in speaking of the moral foundations of science, but you cannot turn round and speak of the scientific foundations of morality.”
In the end, the moral relativist has no satisfying answer in his/her attempt to respond to the question of if there is anything wrong with anything, and why, outside of his opinion. There is no standard to turn to and no authority to recognize and respect.
The Christian Worldview
In contrast to the moral relativist whose worldview is secular humanism, the Christian worldview provides a solid standard and authority that can be confidently referenced and followed. The Creator God, who has revealed Himself in His Word is both the standard and authority for morals. From God’s nature comes pure good that serves as the straight line by which all crooked lines can be corrected.
God’s image has been impressed upon humanity (cf. Gen. 1:26-27) so that human beings instinctively know God’s moral law and what is right and wrong (cf. Rom. 2:14-15). People don’t have to believe in God to know His moral law, but in denying Him, they lose the ability to ground an objective moral law in something that transcends the physical universe. Without that transcendent God, as Dostoevsky famously observed, everything is permissible.
The tragic truth for the moral relativist is this: when you hold God’s funeral and bury His moral law along with Him, something will take His place. That something will be an individual or group of individuals who take power and, in authoritarian fashion, impose their own moral framework on everyone else. The world has already seen such things in the regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot.
The far better course of action is to thankfully acknowledge God as the true source of good and His objective moral law, which God established only for the well being of His creation.