Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Greg Koukl explains how to be a consistent moral relativist

The absolute easiest way to get into a good conversation with someone is to ask them what makes something right or wrong on their view. You have to be careful not to get into a fight about a particular moral issue, though, so you have to choose a clear-case example, not something controversial.

Just ask the person you want to engage two questions:

  1. Is it it wrong to treat people badly just because of their skin color?
  2. What makes it wrong?

Now, as I see it, there are only 3 possible answers to this question.

  1. I personally prefer not to do that – it is wrong for me.
  2. Our culture has evolved a set of customs that apply for us in this time and place, and that set of customs says that members of the society ought not to do that. It is wrong for us, here and now.
  3. Humans are designed to act in a certain way, and part of that design is that we ought not to do that. Acting in line with our design allows us to flourish, (Aristotle’s eudaimonia).

Response #1, is called “moral relativism”. Response #2 is called “cultural relativism”. Response #3 is my view: moral realism. I believe in a hierarchy of moral absolutes that exist objectively, because they are part of God’s design for us and the universe.

I wanted to go over a paper by Greg Koukl from Stand to Reason, in which he critiques moral relativism. His paper is called “Seven Things You Can’t Do as a Moral Relativist”. First, let’s see the list of sevent things.

  1. You can’t make moral judgments about other people’s moral choices
  2. You can’t complain about God allowing evil and suffering
  3. You can’t blame people or praise people for their moral choices
  4. You can’t claim that any situation is unfair or unjust
  5. You can’t improve your morality
  6. You can’t have meaningful discussions about morality
  7. You can’t promote the obligation to be tolerant

You’ll have to read the paper to see how he argues for these, but I wanted to say a brief word about number 1.

Rule #1: Relativists Can’t Accuse Others of Wrong-Doing

Relativism makes it impossible to criticize the behavior of others, because relativism ultimately denies that there is such a thing as wrong- doing. In other words, if you believe that morality is a matter of personal definition, then you can’t ever again judge the actions of others. Relativists can’t even object on moral grounds to racism. After all, what sense can be made of the judgment “apartheid is wrong” when spoken by someone who doesn’t believe in right and wrong? What justification is there to intervene? Certainly not human rights, for there are no such things as rights. Relativism is the ultimate pro-choice position because it accepts every personal choice—even the choice to be racist.

In moral relativism, what you ought to do is totally up to you. Morality is just like a lunch buffet – you pick what you like based on your personal preferences.

I remember one particular discussion I had with a non-Christian co-worker. Both she and her live-in boyfriend were moral relativists. They were fighting because she was angry about his not having (or wanting) a job, and he was angry because when he asked her for space, she immediately ran out and cheated on him.

What’s interesting is that both of these people chose the other in order to escape being judged themselves. I think this happens a lot in relationships today. Both people don’t want to be judged by the other person, but they both want to the other person to treat them well and to honor moral obligations. Isn’t that interesting? I don’t think that you can have something like marriage work when neither person takes moral obligations to the other person seriously.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , ,

10 Responses

  1. John Moore says:

    You’re saying a moral relativist can’t make moral judgments about other people’s moral judgments. For example, “I personally think cats are bad, but that’s just my personal whim. If you think cats are good, though, then you’re wrong!”

    Perhaps this is a quibble on my part, but I think moral relativists actually can say such things. You just have to think a bit more about what they mean when they say it. In the cat example, I don’t think cats are absolutely wrong in a cosmically objective sense, and I don’t think you are absolutely wrong either. In both cases – cats and you – I’m just expressing my personal gut feelings. There’s no logical contradiction here.

    Moral relativists aren’t talking about what’s objectively good or bad; they’re just saying “I don’t like this and that.”

    You might ask whether it’s objectively true that they don’t like this and that, and the moral relativist might just say he doesn’t know and doesn’t care! Objective reality is irrelevant for them.

    I agree with you that this is irrational, but it’s not self-contradictory.

    • Paradox says:

      I take issue with this:
      Moore: In the cat example, I don’t think cats are absolutely wrong in a cosmically objective sense, and I don’t think you are absolutely wrong either. In both cases – cats and you – I’m just expressing my personal gut feelings. There’s no logical contradiction here. Arguably, there is no contradiction, but so what? Is there a contradiction if, when a philosophy test asks “What is time?” the student answers “A weekly news magazine”? Of course not, but you aren’t answering the question either! If value is not objective, then this really doesn’t matter. That is quibbling.
      Moore: Moral relativists aren’t talking about what’s objectively good or bad; they’re just saying “I don’t like this and that.” Not necessarily, but you’re right that we should give a charitable interpretation of the other person. Of course, a good many atheists a) Become atheists because of the evil in the world, then b) Decide that because there is no God, there are no objective values.

      It’s an interesting puzzle nonetheless. Have anything else, this is some very insightful stuff!

  2. Hypocrisy is a corner stone of moral relativism. You can’t shame the shameless or appeal to their sense of honor and fair play.

    So yes, the immoral can indeed judge the morality of others when it suits them or serves their purpose.

    It’s a one sided game that only they can win. Because they don’t care, but they know we do.

  3. Tony Jiang says:

    and if you are a moral absolutist you can never lie to save a life

    • Moral objectivists are not the same as moral absolutists. A moral objectivist believes in a hierarchy of morals, where saving a life is higher than telling the truth in EVERY circumstance. So when objective moral rules conflict, you always go with the one that has a higher importance.

      • Tony Jiang says:

        but moral reletvist is the opposite of moral aboslutist so i believed you held to the contary postion when you spoke against reletvism

        • Sorry if I gave that impression. I am not a moral subjectivist, nor a moral relativist. I believe in a hierarchy of moral absolutes, where you always choose to honor the most weighty moral rule. And the hierarchy is not relative to each person, it is objective.

          • Tony Jiang says:

            but dont the people from AIG hold that postion of “absolute” morality? i read their articles and they said there is no such thing as a “good” lie and if your morality is “objective” is it based on God’s nature/wil?

          • Well, that’s AiG. I’m not a fan of them.

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