Sunday, September 22, 2013
Part 1: Insulin or Ice Cream?
What is moral relativism? It’s simply the idea there are no real moral facts in the world. Morality is a matter of preference or opinion. Moral views are “true for you” if you believe them. Your views are not universal or true for everyone.
Think about the difference between ice cream and medicine. Is there a single flavor of ice cream everyone ought to affirm as the one best-tasting flavor? Do you spend time trying to convince others they are wrong if they prefer chocolate over vanilla? Of course not. Our choice of ice cream flavors is a matter of personal preference. It’s subjective. My favorite flavor of ice cream is true for me but you might have a different favorite flavor. No problem.
But do we take this same approach when it comes to medical choices? If doctors were to discover you had Type 1 (or Insulin-dependent) diabetes would you ask for a treatment you like or prefer? Of course not. You want what works or what is objectively true. The cure is in no way dependent on your preference or belief. You might believe ice cream can control diabetes but if that’s the course of treatment you follow, you’ll soon be dead. In the case of Type 1 diabetes you need insulin, not ice cream.
So, moral relativism says that moral choices are much like our ice cream choices. Our moral views are personal and private, not objective. There are no moral rules or laws that are true for everyone whether he or she believes in them or not.
Part 2: C. S. Lewis on Absolute Morality
Is moral relativism a good idea? I don’t think so. Remember, the moral relativist’s claim is there are no objective moral truths, no real right and wrong for everyone. We’ll let the clear thinking of C. S. Lewis be our guide to show us two quick problems with moral relativism.
First, no one can live this way consistently. As Lewis states, “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair…’” If one takes morality to be a mere preference, then any moral choice is fine. Just like we wouldn’t fault someone for preferring chocolate ice cream over vanilla, the consistent moral relativist shouldn’t fault the liar or thief. Dishonesty is merely their preference. Of course, this view of morality is unlivable nor would anyone want to live in that kind of world.
Second, if moral relativism is true then we are not justified in calling things wrong, evil, or unjust. As Lewis recounts, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” In other words, if there are no objective moral truths (the straight line), there are no objective moral evils (the crooked line). However, isn’t it just obvious there are “crooked lines” in this world, things that are unjust? An adult sexually molesting a young child. A government committing genocide. Exploiting of the helpless. Racism. Slavery. Rape. If moral relativism is true, none of these things are ultimately wrong. But clearly, these are moral wrongs, whether or not anyone affirms them as such.
Part 3: Understanding Absolutism
If moral relativism is false, there’s only one option: moral absolutism. This is the idea that a moral rule is true whether or not anyone believes it. Remember the distinction we made between subjective and objective truths in lesson one? A moral absolute is an objective truth. It’s true for everyone.
Unfortunately, the word absolute comes with some baggage. When used, people often hear, “I’m absolutely right and I’m absolutely certain and you can’t question me.” Not really the impression we want to give, right? Instead, avoid the baggage and talk in terms of moral reality or moral facts. There are real moral facts “out there” in the world and they are independent from my believing them. Let’s take a clear case example to illustrate: “Torturing babies for fun is morally wrong.” Hopefully, this moral fact is just obvious to you (if not, get help immediately . . . and stay away from my kids!). As a moral fact, it is true for everyone and it does not matter what you believe, what culture you grew up in, or what time period you’re living in.
Indeed, there’s a basic set of moral facts universally found in all cultures. It’s wrong to rape women. It’s wrong to kill innocent people for no reason. It’s wrong to lie, cheat, and steal. In addition, kindness, honesty, and justice are virtues that should be commended. These basic moral facts are self-evident to most people and that’s why they have been universally recognized across cultures.
Now let’s make something very clear. We are not saying that every moral issue is black and white. Not all moral questions have easy answers. Some are really difficult. However, there’s a basic set of moral facts that are pretty clear and form a foundation of morality on which we can build.
Part 4: Responding to Relativists
Last week, we concluded there are real moral facts in the world and God is the objective standard for them. Morality flows out of God’s nature. Of course, God’s a pretty rock solid standard. At the end of the day what we believe about morality does not change the facts of morality. They are grounded in God’s perfect moral character. He’s the standard of right and wrong. But that might sound pretty rigid to some. Certainly people will disagree. Can we hold to moral standards and at the same time let people ask honest questions or raise serious objections? I think so. First Peter 3:15 is instructive in this regard, telling us we should always be ready to answer anyone who asks the reason for our hope and to do so with gentleness and respect. Notice three important aspects of this verse. First, Peter said we should always be ready to give an answer, a reason for what we believe. Always. That requires diligent study and preparation on our part. Not only do we need to know what we believe but why we believe it. When our views are supported by good reasons and evidence, we don’t have to get defensive or irritated when others raise questions or objections.
Instead, we are humbly confident in the truth. Second, Peter indicated that giving an answer and a reason is always done in the context of a particular kind of life. What kind? A life where Christ is set apart as Lord. It’s not merely a matter of offering reasons but doing so in the midst of a life where Jesus’ trans-formative work is increasing.
Third, we see the result of good reasons offered from a transformed life: gentleness and respect. If your encounters with those who disagree are not characterized by these two things, it’s time to step back and see what’s gone wrong. Are you diligent in the study of God’s truth? Are you giving Jesus increasing control of your heart? First Peter 3:15 paints a beautiful picture of what our encounters with the world should look like.