The Problems of Moral Relativism

Posted: November 16, 2012 in Apologetics, Christians & Culture, Relativism

In response to a question regarding the meaning of life, a person recently responded, “I don’t think there is a right way and a wrong way to live life. There is whatever works for you.” This relativistic mindset has become the new commandment of modern western culture, relegating all moral principles to personal preference. Do whatever works for you, but do not judge me by your standard. I will decide what is right for me. As relativism infiltrates every area of culture, it is incumbent upon responsible citizens to evaluate this philosophy and determine its truthfulness and impact upon society. Are there objective morals or are truth and morality dependent upon the whims and opinions of individuals? If subject to the individual, what are the ramifications?

Objective vs. Subjective Truth

To accurately understand moral relativism, one must first understand the difference between objective and subjective truth. Greg Koukl states, “Subjective truths are based on internal preferences and change according to our whims. Objective truths, in contrast, are realities in the external world that we discover and cannot be changed by our internal feelings.”[1] One’s preference of chicken over beef is a subjective truth, a preference based upon the feelings of the subject. The fact that Frankfort is the capitol of Kentucky is an objective truth – it is true for all people in all places whether one likes it or not.

When moving to the ethical realm, the same distinction can be made of morality. Objective morality posits an authoritative, universal standard of ethics above and outside man – it prescribes how he ought to act. It not only describes the way things are, but the way things should be. Moral relativism or subjectivism on the other hand, seeks to create a new standard based upon the desires or preferences of the subject, whoever that may be (i.e. an individual, group, society, etc.). Relativism rejects the notion of oughtness because it denies a universally binding moral code.

The Problems of Relativism

Moral relativists find it difficult to live out the system they espouse due to the numerous problems the philosophy creates. First, and arguably the most significant difficulty, is that relativists cannot charge others with wrongdoing. If moral standards are based purely upon the preferences of individuals, we must surrender the right to make judgments. Many relativists claim to withhold judgment but their true beliefs are exposed not in how they act, but how they react. If you attempt to steal from a moral relativist, he will quickly decry the action. But his protest is not derived from the fact that you have violated his personal preferences, but rather you have broken an objective moral code – a code he is now appealing to. To be a consistent relativist, one must remain silent in the face of all moral situations; but to do this is to give up one’s humanity.

A second problem for moral relativism is the inability for moral improvement. If each individual moral position is the right position for that person, then everyone is right at all times. Even if a man were to change his mind, his new position would now be the morally correct position. Given the relativistic view, moral improvement is removed from the realm of possibility, since improvement implies a standard that has not yet been attained. Therefore, everyone remains in a state of moral perfection, regardless of his or her thoughts or actions.

A final problem of the relativists rests on their inability to promote equality and tolerance yet remain a consistent relativist. Equality and tolerance are moral qualities highly regarded by most relativists – qualities they often believe others should embrace. “Morals are individual, relativists argue, and therefore we ought to tolerate the viewpoints of others and not pass judgment on their behavior and attitudes.”[2] But in promoting these qualities, they have abandoned their relativism and embraced an objective moral standard, namely tolerance and equality. The relativist has contradicted his own position.

Conclusion

Morality is woven into the fabric of humanity. Our moral intuitions are as real as our consciousness or our physical senses – we need no independent confirmation to verify their reality. To be human is to be a moral creature. The universe within which we find ourselves is a moral one, and this deeply affects every area of life. People regularly speak in terms of good, bad, right, and wrong. To be a consistent relativist, one is forced to live in near silence. The rational position – the position that best comports with reality – is the view that affirms objective morality. But where does this objective morality come from?

This position of objective morality is right at home in the Christian worldview. Christianity believes the source and grounding of all morality is the character of God. The definition of good is his character. Our understanding of right and wrong – our objective morality – finds its source in God, the true and authoritative standard of good. As Jesus said: “I am the truth.” Apart from this source we are left to our own speculations and preferences – to moral relativism, an inhumane and unrealistic system.

Jordan Tong

[1] Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 28

[2] Ibid., 69

Comments
  1. Michiel says:

    Very insightful. I think this subject is very telling of the social situation in The Netherlands. In my opinion what you wrote needs more attention. This ideology is just not right, and its consequences will go from bad to worse.

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