Relativism’s Attack on Morality
It has been said that on most college campuses it is a basic unargued assumption that all ethical codes are subjectively determined. So as we try to bring our listeners attention to the fact that all morality doesn’t make sense apart from God, we may hear, “morality is not same for everyone, therefore is cannot be objectively binding.” Or, more commonly, we hear it phrased this way, “what’s right for you isn’t right for everybody!” This is moral relativism. Moral relativism is the view that in matters of morals or ethics the individual determines right and wrong. Often a person who believes this (i.e. a relativist) will mention different cultural beliefs across the world and conclude that morality is created by societies and/or they are determined by personal preference, so we shouldn’t judge others. But there are a bunch of problems here, 1) it confuses moral claims with preference claims, 2) The conclusion simply doesn’t follow the data, and 3) It simply isn’t true that the morality of differing countries is all that different.
First, when we say that murder is wrong, we are not simply saying, “I don’t like murder.” While we may be saying that, it goes further than that. In the case of pre-martial sex, many of the people who believe it’s wrong may actually prefer it! The point? Often times what we may prefer is not what we believe to be morally obligatory.
Secondly, even where it’s true (i.e. that different cultures disagree on morality), the conclusion simply doesn’t follow the premises. If anything, it’s an only an interesting cultural observation. This is like saying that since people once believed that the earth was flat and at another time they believed that it was round, therefore the earth has no shape! If two parties disagree, we have two options. Either the first party is right and the other wrong, or they are both wrong and a third party is right. If their conclusions are mutually exclusive, they cannot both be right.
Third, we should also point out that the charge that differing cultures have altogether different sets of morality simply isn’t true. While, yes, there are differences, they are of the low scale, not “bizarro world” differences. C.S. Lewis addressed this objection more than 50 years ago. States Lewis:
There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own. I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might as well imagine a country where two and two made five.
With all the fine work published in the last several years refuting relativism, I believe that 3 chief points stand out. First, relativism usually is held by people for the sake of unity and to promote tolerance. Yet, if this is true it’s self-defeating, because it presupposes that tolerance and understanding are universal, objective moral norms. This is like saying, “There is no right or wrong, and if you disagree with us, you’re wrong!” Did you catch that!?
Next, relativism relativizes itself. As we noted, relativism offers itself as a moral absolute, but this undercuts it’s own position. So we are left to ask, “Is your belief in relativism something you believe all people ought to believe (notice that the term “ought” implies moral obligation), or is it a belief that’s only relative?” If the relativist says it’s only relative to them, then relativism is meaningless, because it doesn’t even have (or rather, it strips itself of) the ability to persuade others to believe it. After all, we do instinctively know right and wrong in most cases. We can proclaim relativism from the rooftops all day, that is, until someone steals our belongings, or hurts our family members. Suddenly we feel that it’s not something that we simply dislike, but rather that it is something that’s truly wrong! Then we become moral absolutists.
Lastly, if we reduce we moral claims to preference claims then we would have to radically change the way we commonly speak. Instead of saying “The Terrorists who flew 2 airplanes into the World Trade Center buildings were wrong, and it was an evil act”, we would have to replace it with, “I personally do not think that the Terrorists attack on Sept.11th was expedient, and it did not accord with my subjective tastes, but I could be wrong. I don’t want to ‘impose’ my morality on anyone!” I feel my point has been made.