Against Moral Relativism

I was at a Super Bowl Party tonight so I’m tired (And I have to say, the flowers commercial won tonight) and not wanting to write something new. Thus, the following is a copy of an opening post I did on the Theology Web community in a debate defending moral absolutism. Enjoy:

I first wish to offer my thanks to the TWeb community for allowing us to have such a debate and I do appreciate my opponent agreeing to the debate. One reason I choose to debate this point is that I believe that moral relativism is a deadly cancer that will destroy any working body of government in a society it exists in.


One distinction should be noted. I am not arguing in this thread whether some things are moral in a particular sense, such as “Is abortion moral?” That’s for a different debate. I am arguing the position that there are propositions that can be made about morality that are true in the absolute sense. What those propositions are I do not choose to focus on so the question of “Is homosexual practice moral?” will depend on establishing if there is such a thing as moral first. Does the question even have meaning?


Realizing that there are space constraints for the debate, I will be giving my reasons why I believe moral relativism to be faulty and why moral absolutism is a true and far more livable philosophy. I will leave it to my opponent to give the arguments for moral relativism. Note that my opponent has chosen to say that there are no moral absolutes, so in order for his case to succeed, he must not only answer any positions I give, but he must also give his own reasons for why someone should think moral relativism is true.


Throughout history, the view of my opponent has been the minority. The idea of man being the measure of all things is found in Protagoras, whom Plato does not paint in a negative light, although his teachings definitely were shown that way and a writer like Aristophanes in his play “The Clouds,” would show the chaos that broke loose when moral conventions were gone.


When we read Plato, we find his highest form to be the form of the good. We read Aristotle speaking of how one can live a life of virtue to conform oneself to reality. We read that the highest good is that which is desirable for its own sake and that that is ultimately happiness, though not in the sense of “having a good time.” Aristotle was not a hedonist.


As philosophy moves through the ages, we see virtue being emphasized and we get to the medievals like Augustine and Aquinas who say goodness is being. Evil is the privation of that which is supposed to be there by nature. It is no evil that a rock is blind. It is an evil that a man is.


As we keep going into the modern period, we still see morality being accepted. A writer like Kant says that one of the things that holds him in awe is the moral law within. Philosophers have argued different theories of morality, but most have agreed that there is such a thing as morality.


Note that this morality was also seen as binding on persons. Kant called it the moral law. Laws are meant to have an effect on us. Where you live, there are laws on the books and you are expected to abide by those laws. The laws do not make you reply. It is your choice whether you submit or not.


My contention will be that when the philosophers spoke of the moral law, they were speaking of something real that they all knew was binding on them. They might have got their interpretations wrong, but that doesn’t change the objectivity of what they were interpreting any more than different views of the origin of the universe changes the truth of the origin of the universe. If absolute unity is essential to truth, then there is very little that is true and ultimately, we’d end up in relativism as things become true as more people agree.


I will also say that people are making knowledge claims about moral realities. One person can say “I believe God exists” and another can say “I don’t believe God exists” and both of them can be stating the truth because both of them are stating something about something subjective to them.


Let us suppose instead that the first one said “I know God exists,” and the second said “I know God doesn’t exist.” At this point, even if you’re unfamiliar with the arguments, you can be sure of one thing. One of them is wrong. They are making a claim about the world outside of them and claiming that the proposition “God exists” or “God doesn’t exist” corresponds to reality.


Now let’s bring that to morality. One person can say “I believe abortion for any reason is wrong.” Another one can say “I believe abortion for any reason is right.” We would have no problem saying that both of those statements are true. The first does believe abortion is wrong for any reason and the second right.


If they changed the word “believe” to “know” though, we’d be dealing with a claim about reality and at this point, we have three options that we can believe. The first is to say the first person is right. The second is to say the second person is. The third is to say that it’s a meaningless claim so neither of them is right.


Why can’t we say both of them are right? For the same reason both of them can’t be right about the existence of God. He either does exist or he doesn’t. The last option is the one I believe moral relativism will lead to in the end. In fact, it has to. If either of the statements is a moral absolute, then relativism is refuted. After all, if someone holds the first position, then he is not making a truth statement about reality, and yet he is making a moral statement. Moral statements about reality can only be wrong if there is some moral truth to reality.


I contend that one of them is right because there is such a thing as goodness and there is such a thing as evil, though I would contend that evil doesn’t have ontological existence but rather is the lack of goodness, but when I speak about something being evil, I am making a statement about it that I believe corresponds to reality.


One of my first reasons for believing this is that this is the wisdom of the ages. This is what the philosophers have handed down to us for millennia. Now anyone is welcome to challenge a time-honored tradition, but there must be a really good argument to believe it. Let us remember that G.K. Chesterton said that before you take down a fence, the first question to ask is why it was put up in the first place.


The ancients did believe that some things were good and it was man’s task to find what was good. Man was not working so much to control nature but to be in harmony with nature. I don’t mean in some pantheistic sense. I mean that man did not see himself at odds with the world around him. He believed he was here for a reason and part of his task was in seeking the good.


This would mean then that some things are good and if Aristotle’s idea holds, some things are things we ought to desire. This does not mean that we always act accordingly. I have friends at this moment who are trying to quit smoking. They do not see it as a good, but yet, they still do it most likely because they get some good out of it, but they do not get the greater good that can come if they stop. Believing in the moral law does not mean you always follow it sadly. My friends could even light up a cigarette and say “I know smoking’s bad for me.” Someone can say that something is evil and still engage in it. If it wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have groups like AA set up to help people trying to overcome habits destroying them.


But what if nothing is good? Then we can also say nothing is desirable. Why should you desire anything? It brings you pleasure? So what? Who says pleasure is a good? (And there were some in Aristotle’s day he had to contend with on that.) It helps you survive? Who says your survival is a good? It helps to a greater goal? And what makes that goal good?


This is the problem C.S. Lewis noted with subjective moral theories. Lewis proposes that you place yourself outside all moral theories where you supposedly have no morality and decide you want to choose an ethical system. The question arises. Why should you choose an ethical system?


Now you might think you need a system to survive, but there is no basis for which to argue why you should choose a system. The only one would be something pragmatic. You would be arguing for a system that works to some end, even though you will have to assume that end is something that is good. If it is not good, but simply is instead, who cares?


The view of moral relativism will lead to all actions being just actions. There is no good or bad to them. They only produce different results and upon what basis can those results be good or bad? You jump in a pool and save a drowning child. It’s not a good action or a bad action. It’s just an action. You jump in a pool and hold a drowning child down smothering it to death. It’s not a good action or a bad action. It’s just an action.


However, do we really live like this? Are there not actions that we can say we have moral revulsion at? Do we not look at events like 9/11, the holocaust, or Civil War slavery as evil? It is at this point that moral absolutism shows its strength again. Not only can it say that those are evil, it can point to perpetrators in each case and say “You have done evil and for that, you deserve to be punished.” The moral relativist can fight against it, but certainly not on moral grounds. He only fights because he does not like it. One cannot fight on moral grounds when they claim there is no moral territory to fight on. How can you say your opponent is wrong and you are right when there is no right or wrong?


It was these times in our history that also produced great heroes for us. In 9/11, we had young men going to enlist immediately to go fight in a war to stop those who had taken innocent lives. (And note, the concept of innocent lives only makes sense in moral absolutism. If there is no moral right or wrong, innocent or guilty make no sense.)


In the Holocaust, you have stories of men like Schindler who hid away several Jews to keep them safe. There were people who tried numerous times to stop Hitler. In fact, we have a movie out now called “Valkyrie” about just such an attempt. Moral absolutists can do such on moral grounds. They can look at certain actions in the world and say “evil.”


In Civil War slavery, you had the actions of the abolitionists in working to lead as many slaves to the north where they could be free. If moral relativism, there is no reason to celebrate that. You can if you want, but it is simply because they agree with your tastes. Do we think people risked their lives though in each of these cases for their personal tastes, or because they believed that some things are right and some things are wrong?


This also leads to the moral reformers’ dilemma. If relativism is true, there is no such thing as a true moral reformer. People may think they’re moral reformers, but they’re not. Martin Luther King Jr. in being instrumental in turning civil rights around in our nation did not move us to a better system or a worse system. He just moved us to a different system


In fact, if society is the main force in a relativism that says that what society says is moral is moral, then the reformers are actually the problem. They’re telling the society that they are immoral. One could say that then moral reformers’ should be eliminated, but even then, that’s a nonsensical statement in relativism. Whatever happens, it just happens.


If this is the case, then it also means that you have the problem of moral progress. If moral relativism is true, there can be no such thing as moral progress. Progress assumes that you have a goal that you are reaching. If I am running a race, then my goal is to run to the finish line. What if I was running a race though and the finish line kept moving? What if it just jumped all over the place? I would be hard-pressed to even try. That’s not even the way it is with relativism however. If moral relativism is true, there is no finish line at all. You only say you’ve progressed and you say you’ve progressed when you’ve reached the place you are. It’s not progress. It’s just a change.


This also means that the problem of evil cannot be an argument from a moral relativist. If you say that there is evil in the world, then you have become a moral absolutist. Otherwise, you are just saying you don’t like the way things are. Of course, there’s no reason to like the way things are, but there’s also no reason to not like the way things are. They just go against your personal preferences which you have no reason for anyway.

However, the moral absolutist can look at evil and say that evil is a problem. Now how that problem is resolved is a whole other debate, but there is no inconsistency in someone who is a moral absolutist saying that they have a problem with the problem of evil. There is an inconsistency with the moral relativist saying it.


In our world today, if there is one virtue that is spoken of more than any other, it’s tolerance. As a moral absolutist, I can practice tolerance. A moral relativist has no basis. First off, let me state what I believe true tolerance is. True tolerance does not say that all ideas are right. It says all persons have a right to hold to their ideas.


Note that it must be an idea that is disagreed on. I go bowling with friends every Sunday night. I cannot say that I tolerate their bowling. Why? Because I like it also. If I didn’t like it, I could go along and sit and just talk to them, but because I didn’t care for bowling, I would be tolerating their bowling for the joy of talking to them.


It is also normally something that is substantial. If you go out to get a pizza with a friend and you like pepperoni and he likes sausage, you do not go ballistic because of his different taste in toppings. If you did, people would think that there was something wrong with you, and rightfully so.


Now suppose that there is something substantial. Let us suppose I have a friend who is a homosexual. I believe homosexual practice is wrong. However, this person is still my friend. I tolerate them in the classical sense. It is what the Christian means by “Love the sinner and hate the sin.” I love them as a person and do not approve of what they do. That is what tolerance is meant to be. I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.


I can have tolerance in moral areas because I believe there is real moral disagreement. Note that moral disagreement must exist and the only way moral disagreement can exist is if we both think we are right on a certain position concerning morality. In fact, all moral disagreements and all moral dilemmas presuppose that there is some truth to the matter that is being disagreed on. Moral dilemmas are often brought up as arguments against moral absolutism. They actually show moral absolutism. There can only be a moral problem if there is such a thing as moral truth. Consider the question of “Would you rape someone if it meant that if you didn’t, an alien force would destroy the world?” If moral absolutism is true, this is a dilemma. If relativism is true, it’s simply “Whatever happens happens.” The reason we see it as a dilemma is because we know the destruction of the world by an evil force (And note if it’s evil, then moral absolutism is true) is a bad thing, but we also know rape is as well. We are forced to decide between two evils, and remember, two evils is again a moral absolutist position.


My conclusion at this point, as I leave it to my opponent to bring up the arguments against moral absolutism, is that there is such a thing as good and there is such a thing as evil. If a statement like “Loving your neighbor the sake of your neighbor” is a moral good that is absolutely true, then my position is correct. If the statement “Murdering infants simply for the pleasure it brings you is evil,” is true, then my position is correct. If my opponent wishes to say there are no moral absolutes, then he will have to say that statements that are morally absolute such as those do not really have any truth content to them at all. It is certainly a position I would not want to hold to and I would hope no one in here holds to. (And if you do, if I ever have kids, you’re not babysitting.)


I conclude that I have given sufficient reasons to believe in moral absolutism and demonstrated that the alternative is not a viable option. If moral relativism is not true, then it follows that moral absolutism is.


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