The Problems with 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, Frederick Nietzsche wrote, "You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, it does not exist." [1]

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, however, causes consternation among many, even those who support 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." [2]

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 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, resulting in a devastating outcome for those who were on the receiving end of their relative morality.

Oddly enough, many who believe 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 impacts them.

Let the moral relativist be lied to, be the victim of false advertising, uncover the fact that their spouse has been relatively faithful to them, and they instantly become a moral absolutist. A person's reaction to what they consider unfair ethical treatment always betrays their true feelings on the matter of relative vs. objective moral laws.

The problem for the moral relativist (who is often a secular humanist who rejects God) is they have no good answer to the two-part question: Is there anything wrong with anything, and why? A proper answer to the question necessitates that an individual have: (1) an unchanging standard they can turn to, and (2) an absolute authority that has the right to impose moral obligation. Absent these two things, and morals or ethics simply become emotive. Rape, for example, could never be deemed wrong; the strongest statement that could be made about rape would be, "I don't like it."

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 isn't an option as amoral matter cannot produce moral beings nor prescribe moral behavior. That rules out the physical world.

Culture cannot be appealed to as there are too many cultures throughout the world, all with different moral standards and practices; there is no way to ascertain which culture is "correct". 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. There goes the cultural standard.

Lastly, if each individual is used as an authority for morals, then the precise problem seen in using cultures as a moral compass is suddenly compounded exponentially.

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, not a prescriptive one. In addition, its empirical methods are impotent to answer such moral questions such as, "Were the Nazis evil?" Einstein summed 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." [3]

In the end, the moral relativist has no satisfying answer in his attempt to respond to the question, "Is there anything wrong with anything, and why?" There is no standard to turn to and no authority to recognize and respect.

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 measured.

God's image has been impressed upon humanity (cf. Genesis 1:26-27) so that human beings instinctively know God's moral law and what is right and wrong (cf. Romans 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 than transcends the physical universe. Without that transcendent God, as Dostoevsky famously observed, everything is permissible.

Oddly enough, Dostoevsky's statement was chosen by the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre as the beginning of his existentialist philosophy: "Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky said, "If God didn't exist, everything would be possible." That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist." [4]

The tragic truth for existentialists like Sartre and all moral relativists 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.


Image Credit: Julia Manzerova; "a dilemma"; Creative Commons

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Published 9-26-12