Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

The seven fatal flaws of moral relativism

There are two kinds of relativism, moral and epistemic. The first kind of relativism says that there are no objective moral rules, but only what individuals or groups decide for themselves in certain times and places – like taste in foods or fashions. The second kind says that no propositional statements about reality are objectively true.

I found this list of the seven flaws of moral relativism at the Australian site Faith Interface.

Here’s the summary:

  1. Moral relativists can’t accuse others of wrongdoing.
  2. Relativists can’t complain about the problem of evil.
  3. Relativists can’t place blame or accept praise.
  4. Relativists can’t make charges of unfairness or injustice.
  5. Relativists can’t improve their morality.
  6. Relativists can’t hold meaningful moral discussions.
  7. Relativists can’t promote the obligation of tolerance.

Here’s my favorite flaw of relativism (#6):

Relativists can’t hold meaningful moral discussions. What’s there to talk about? If morals are entirely relative and all views are equal, then no way of thinking is better than another. No moral position can be judged as adequate or deficient, unreasonable, acceptable, or even barbaric. If ethical disputes make sense only when morals are objective, then relativism can only be consistently lived out in silence. For this reason, it is rare to meet a rational and consistent relativist, as most are quick to impose their own moral rules like “It’s wrong to push your own morality on others”. This puts relativists in an untenable position – if they speak up about moral issues, they surrender their relativism; if they do not speak up, they surrender their humanity. If the notion of moral discourse makes sense intuitively, then moral relativism is false.

I sometimes get a lot of flack from atheists who complain that I don’t let them make any moral statements without asking them first to ground morality on their worldview. And that’s because on atheism morality IS NOT rationally grounded, so they can’t answer. In an accidental universe, you can only describe people’s personal preferences or social customs, that vary by time and place. It’s all arbitrary – like having discussions about what food is best or what clothing is best. The answer is always going to be “it depends”. It depends on the person who is speaking because it’s a subjective claim, not an objective claim. There is no objective way we ought to behave.

The whole point of atheism is to pursue pleasure without the bonds of morality – there is no other reason to do anything on atheism except for the pleasure it gives you. You do fashionable things to feel good getting praise from your neighbors, and you do unfashionable things in private to make yourself feel good and you hope that no one who is powerful enough to hold you accountable ever finds out. There’s no way you were made to be.

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28 Responses

  1. Jared says:

    Before people start claiming that WK has wrongly stated the position of moral relativism, here are the definitions from the stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

    Descriptive Moral Relativism (DMR). As a matter of empirical fact, there are deep and widespread moral disagreements across different societies, and these disagreements are much more significant than whatever agreements there may be.

    Metaethical Moral Relativism (MMR). The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.

  2. Michael says:

    However, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says this:”Moral relativism has the unusual distinction—both within philosophy and outside it—of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone.”
    I don’t see, then, the necessary link between moral relativism (which has been rejected as incoherent by atheists such as Eddie Tabash and Shelley Kagan). Can you explain how disbelief in any particular god obligates one to accepting normative moral relativism?
    I’m also curious how you come to the conclusion that the ‘whole point’ of atheism is “to pursue pleasure without the bonds of morality.” You’re essentially equating atheism with a-morality and accusing all atheists of being amoral. How do you come to this conclusion?

    • Are these atheists all wrong then:

      “Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either. “
      – Cornell University evolutionist William Provine, in a debate with Phillip E. Johnson
      Source: http://www.arn.org/docs/orpages/or161/161ma

      The idea of political or legal obligation is clear enough… Similarly, the idea of an obligation higher than this, referred to as moral obligation, is clear enough, provided reference to some lawgiver higher…than those of the state is understood. In other words, our moral obligations can…be understood as those that are imposed by God…. But what if this higher-than-human lawgiver is no longer taken into account? Does the concept of moral obligation…still make sense? …The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone. (Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985), p. 83-84)

      The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory. (Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269).

      In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

      In an accidental universe, in which humans are the results of a random process, there are no human rights, and no way that humans ought to be. We are just collocations of atoms in motion, and when we die, that’s the end of it – on your view. That was the view of atheists like Stalin and Pol Pot and Idi Amin and Kim Jong Il. Atheism means there is no such thing as morality.

      • Michael says:

        Atheism doesn’t obligate one to a particular philosophical outlook, just as Christianity doesn’t obligate the believer to a particular theology.

        One thing you’ll notice though is that the atheists you cited (and I don’t know that Taylor was an atheist), is that they aren’t prescribing a normative morality – they are describing it. And, as I’m sure you know, one can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’

        From Wikipedia: “Descriptive moral relativism holds only that some people do in fact disagree about what is moral; meta-ethical moral relativism holds that in such disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and normative moral relativism holds that because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.”

        However, if any of these thinkers seriously proposed a meta-ethical moral relativism, I would say they are wrong and state my reasons why. And I’m not sure why you would include somebody like Dawkins anyway – he’s a biologist, not a moral philosopher. Besides, to assume they are correct simply because of their stature among the atheist intelligentsia would rely on an argument from authority and be therefore invalid. Unlike dogmatic theists, atheists are free to disagree with one another, so the fact that you’ve cited three atheists who have different opinions doesn’t demonstrate anything.

        Again, you haven’t shown that atheism necessarily excludes morals. Indeed, moral systems and ethics have been proposed for thousands of years in secular philosophy without relying on gods. Aristotle wrote an entire work on ethics hundreds of years before Jesus came along. That we may be merely ‘a collection of atoms’ isn’t a consideration when thinking about social obligations to fellow citizens. The fact that reasons can be given to behave well to one another obviates the need for God to tell us so.

      • Citizen Ghost says:

        May I offer a minor correction?

        Your second quote is from Richard Taylor. Taylor was not an atheist. At least he wasn’t according to his book reviewer (“[Taylor] combines his humanist stance with adherence to what he calls a kind of ‘theism.’”) and according to Taylor’s profile on philosopedia.org.

        And that makes sense when one reads the quotes.

        Taylor states that “the concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God.” That’s a very different view from the one expressed by the nonbelievers quoted (Provine, Ruse and Dawkins).

        • Richard Taylor defends morality on an atheistic (non-supernatural) worldview in this debate:
          http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/craig-taylor0.html

          • Citizen Ghost says:

            An easy mistake to make.

            In his debate with Craig, Taylor is arguing for a naturalistic foundation for morality, but he’s NOT arguing for an “atheistic worldview.” (Admittedly, those conceptions are often linked though it remains unclear – to me at least – what is meant by an “atheistic worldview”).

            Taylor clearly believed in a higher power – just not in the conventional form provided by organized religion. (Though he actually was a Quaker).

          • Naturalism means that the natural world is all there is – no supernatural. Taylor is an atheist, he thinks there is nothing supernatural. All the atheists I cited agree that without God, there is no objective moral value or moral duties.

          • Citizen Ghost says:

            I invite you to read the transcript of the very debate you cited:

            In the rebuttal of his debate with Dr. Craig, Taylor leaves no room for error:

            “I am not an atheist; I believe in God. Once when I was giving a public lecture, one of the members of the audience said, “Do you believe in God?” It had nothing to do with what I was talking about, but he wanted to know the answer, and I replied quite truthfully, “It’s the only thing I believe in.”

            Taylor described himself as a theist. Others familiar with his work have described his a “fidest.” His reviewer said “He has a belief in God that “springs from an awareness of the profound mystery of nature and of life.”

            The one thing he clearly was not – was an atheist.

          • Here’s the excerpt, people will have to decide if this is robust theism for themselves: (i.e. – is “mystery” an adequate grounding for a knowledge of God as Creator and Designer and author of the moral law)

            First Questioner: Hello, I’m directing my question to Professor Taylor. My question is, you mentioned you believe in God, and I think it would help me get a better understanding if you’d tell me why you believe in God?

            Taylor: I could answer your question, but it won’t help you. The answer is: because I can’t help it! David Hume, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, said at one point, “When you look at these things, when you think on these things, doesn’t the idea of God flow in upon you like a sensation?” That’s part of what—I am overwhelmed by the mystery of life, I am overwhelmed by the mystery of the world. The heart of religious attitude is a sense of mystery. That is what I—in the mere fact that it is mysterious is why I said maybe you can’t answer the question. If I said, “Look, this is why I believe in God: (1), (2), (3),” that would be equivalent to saying I didn’t believe in God, just as Kierkegaard said. As soon as you say, “Ah! Now it’s been shown, hasn’t it? It’s very probable, yes!” Kierkegaard aptly said at that point you cease to believe. It is totally irrational. But I can’t help it. I believe it. When I said to that student, “It’s the only thing I really believe,” that was true.

            However I won’t use him as an example any more. I don’t consider Kierkegaard or Kant theists either, FYI. Postmodern subjective belief in God is not theism – theism is the claim to know that God exists and there needs to be more justification than feelings. John Dominic Crossan claims to be a theist, but when asks if a being known as God existed prior to the existence of humans, he said NO. When I say God, I mean a real being whose existence is knowable.

          • Citizen Ghost says:

            I think it’s fair to apply this more narrow definition of theism – God as a personal Being. Certainly, Taylor was not a theist in the way that most Christians or monotheists are. You’re definitely right about that.

            Interestingly, William Lane Craig takes a much broader view of theism. Even a deist is a kind of theist in his view.

            One of the things I found very interesting about Taylor’s views is that they serve to remind us that when people say they believe in God – they don’t all mean the same thing. One can believe in God while believing that morality comes from nature. (One can also NOT believe in God but believe in supernaturalism).

            Kant may not have been a theist. But he sure wasn’t an atheist either.

            But I don’t think there’s anything “postmodernist” about this kind of faith in a higher power. It resembles not only the God of Einstein or Spinoza but also a much earlier tradition.

            For example, William of Ockham was a Christian who thought the ontological arguments were all garbage. He didn’t think that God could be known through reason. Yet he was certainly a theist and a Christian. There’s nothing post-modernist about that. That’s the God of Paul – it’s faith as evidence of the unseen. That’s the stuff.

      • James says:

        Wintery,

        What Ruse is arguing is that evolutionary ethics undermines *any* attempt at moral realism. If Ruse’s position is credible, it undermines the position of both the theist and naturalist alike. In that same chapter that you quote he says:

        “My claim is that the recognition of morality as merely a biological adaptation shows that there can be no foundation of the kind traditionally sought, whether by evolutionists, Christians, or others! I do not mean that ethics is a total chimera, for it obviously exists in some sense. But I do claim that, considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, it is illusory.” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989, pp. 268).

        One of the discussions in meta-ethics is to what degree evolutionary ethics plays a part, and some philosophers (such as Michael Ruse or Richard Joyce) argue that it supports moral anti-realism.

        However, in meta-ethics most philosophers arguing for moral realism do not invoke a God and see no problem in not doing so.

        • I get that, but it is impossible on atheism to ground objective moral values and objective moral duties rationally. So an atheist can assert they exist with no explanation, and that’s fine. But in a materialist universe, there is no rational grounding for objective moral values, which would be non-material. Similarly, there is no one to whom objective moral duties would be owed. It would just be like asserting a brute fact. E.g. – saying that objective moral values and duties are compatible with atheism is like saying the existence of a cake is compatible with no baker. It’s incoherent.

          • Citizen Ghost says:

            If, by “objective moral vlues and duties” you mean values and duties that derive from a transcendent or supernatural agency then you’re perfectly correct.

            But if what one means by “objective” is the more traditional notion of moral realism (or universal morality) and values an duties which are rooted in truths in the world and which exist independent of individual opinion, then it’s not hard at all to explain morality independent of God. Moral philosophers have been doing exactly that for centuries.

    • Jared says:

      I’ve read chapters of Kagan’s work and listened to his debates. From what I understand he holds to objective morality, but basically says “It’s just there.” Obviously, atheists are recognizing the incoherence of moral relativism and, when pressed, give the explanation that it’s a mystery or say something like objective moral values just exist with no reason whatsoever. Kagan even said in a debate that if one needs a meta-narrative, then imagine that sometime ago there were purely rational being(s). A purely rational being would just know these moral facts and prescribe these facts/laws to society. Why go with that meta-narrative when Christian theism has a much better one? But, I guess that would be chasing a rabbit.

      Anyway, if these unexplained moral-facts are “just there” why would care about them? Really? I ask this because these unexplained moral facts would be independent of the natural order. Unnatural moral facts wouldn’t have a binding force on us because these moral facts wouldn’t be personal, they would be impersonal. If unexplained moral facts are “just there” or “just exist” I don’t understand why we would have any reason at all to believe in them. Further, I don’t understand why would we able to know what they are at all.

      Like WK cited, there are atheists who don’t hold to objective moral values/facts, instead they take the high road and accept that moral values/facts are illusory. Given darwinian evolution, over time the human race’s belief structure changed in a way to be more beneficial to society, useful for survival and reproduction, and some extra beliefs that were labeled “moral code.” However, these beliefs have nothing to do with whether these beliefs are true or not; they are merely useful and nothing more. (Nietzsche covers this in his book Beyond Good and Evil)

      I have no reason whatsoever to suppose that the moral facts we do know is a result of our species evolving in just such a way that we could know these facts. What’s interesting is that guys like Dawkins recognize that evolutionary morality cannot explain acts like giving blood and sacrificing one’s life for a stranger, except to say that it’s disinterested altruism.

      Anyway, to end my rambling, moral relativism is an incoherent position, so one is left holding to 1) objective morality grounded in a good, true, and beautiful God (a personal, non-natural being) 2) Mysterious, perhaps platonic, unexplained objective morality, (this position has serious flaws) or 3) morality is illusory and nothing more than societal beliefs useful for survival.

      • Michael says:

        Thanks for your comments Jared, I always appreciate when there’s an open dialogue about these issues. Morals and ethics aren’t easy subjects for anybody, so having good discussion benefits us all.
        I know the debate you’re talking about. However, Kagan was describing a particular moral framework, which he admitted he was only sketching, called Contractarianism. His point about ‘perfectly rational beings’ was about the mindset in which we create moral laws, not how we understand them. He asked us to image ourselves as reasoning perfectly and then making moral rules on that basis. But he didn’t mean it literally. Kant, for example, had a similar idea with his ‘categorical imperative’ – that we should adopt only those rules for ourselves which we would want everybody else to follow as well. Obviously, not everybody can or will follow a particular rule and, in some cases, that would even be desirable [for example if everybody only purchased goods from recycled materials, we'd eventually run out since such materials need to be recycled in the first place]. Kagan was commenting on having a basis or grounding for morality and it makes sense that that basis be an ideal. He’s saying that morality needs to make rational sense and that we ought to make them for the best reasons possible.

        And why we would want to follow moral rules? I think that’s the whole point of a ‘social contract.’ If I want to live in a society where I’m safe from physical harm by others or having my possessions stolen – I need to agree to the same rules. By option into the contract, I’m saying that I see the benefit of having those rules. You’ll notice that in most dictatorships, the choice to opt out is not given. The rules that follow are those that benefit the elite and the powerful. You’ll notice that Kagan addressed that too. He said that such rules should be made behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ so that those who decide upon the rules won’t know whether they themselves would unduly benefit from it.

        Actually, the evolutionary basis for altruism can account for personal sacrifice. Consider that when these notions evolved we were living in much smaller communities – nobody was a ‘perfect stranger.’ It makes sense that helping members of the community helps the community as a whole. It was a lot easier when the community was a small tribe, but the problem is much more abstract in the modern world of billions of citizens. I’ve given blood and I felt good for the fact that I may have helped someone who needed it. It goes back to the idea of the contract because I want to live in a world where someone would do the same for me. I must participate to benefit.

        Whether Christian, or any theistic morality is more coherent – I don’t know. One question I’ve always had is whether, apart from God commanding it, there was any good reason for following a particular moral rule. If there’s at least one good reason that I can appreciate as a thinking human being, it seems like the fact that God commanded it is unnecessary. I’ll follow the rule because I have good reason to. After all, we existed for millenia ‘knowing’ it was wrong to murder – indeed, prohibitions against murder has existed in all cultures at all times – so what made it special that God suddenly commanded it.

        Anyway, this is a very complex issue and we’re not likely to change any minds here, but I’m thankful for the forum and the lively debate.

        • JaredJ says:

          Hey Michael, I’ve been on vacation and when I’m on vacation, I try not to jump on the internet except for checking weather or movie show times, which makes for a nicer vacation I think. :)

          I have problems with Kagan’s view that all perfectly rational beings would agree about what our moral obligations should be. Kagan just assumes that perfectly rational beings would agree on the moral obligations. Kagan assumes that other moral theories like nihilism, relativism, etc. are irrational. Why? I can’t see any reason to think that the ideal committee would agree on such things, but even they did I can’t see any reason why this is an actual grounding of objective moral values and duties.

          Kagan would need to show why atheistic moral nihilism (in the absence of God, all things are permitted) is an irrational moral philosophy. If he can’t then, I would think, he’s begging the question. As long as it’s rational to think if God did not exist, objective moral values would not exist, then moral philosophies like atheistic nihilism, relativism, and others cannot be excluded from Kagan’s “ideal committee” so the committee would not agree on what our moral obligations should be. That is my problem with the perfectly rational moral committee/ideal committee that Kagan offered.

          • Michael says:

            Hi Jared. No worries, I’ve been slow in getting back to this one myself. These are great questions to think about.

            Kagan set out to answer the debate topic very precisely: is God *necessary* for morality. He laid out a ‘sketch’ of a secular moral system, explained its basis, showed how it was objective and noted it was only one among several secular moral systems. There was no need to defend his moral system against objections that were not raised. He essentially left that to Dr. Craig – as he stated at the beginning of his speech.

            However, Kagan really did answer moral nihilism and relativism by laying out a moral system that has an objective moral basis (negating relativism) and how, from that basis, we could establish moral rules and obligations (negating nihilism). Kagan went on to answer every point that Craig threw at him – some of which touched on nihilism and relativism.

            In thinking about the questions you raised – it made me wonder how a Christian who insists upon an ‘objective’ moral standard from God goes about deciding upon moral rules that aren’t explicitly spelled out in holy texts. Doesn’t he use the same cultural consensus that we all rely upon? For instance, there is no direct prohibition against rape in the Bible (esp. compared to murder and theft which are specifically named offenses). On the Christian view, why would that be wrong? No divine authority specifically said so. Yet according the Kagan’s moral code, we could state an objective basis why rape is wrong. It is wrong because it harms the victim and we, as rational beings, can appreciate the reasons not to do it. And, as Kagan pointed out, those are the essential ingredients for a secular objective morality. One could easily turn moral nihilism against the Christian at this point and say, ‘if God didn’t say so, then those things are permitted.’ And there is a great deal that God didn’t say or, at the very least, left unclear (meaning we would still have to interpret and decide for ourselves using that electro-chemical wiring in our brains). On this view, if Kagan has to answer to moral nihilism and relativism, then so does Craig.

            So in Kagan’s ‘perfectly rational’ world where we are all reasoning perfectly (not as a realistic goal, but an ideal to strive for) – systems that do not rely on reason could safely be excluded. Nihilism and relativism have thus been dealt with. And that ‘ideal committee’ is us – all of us. We are supposed to be the rational consensus who make rules to govern our lives together. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years, both with and without appeal to divine authority.

          • Jared says:

            I’m glad you replied! I was hoping you would. I rarely am able to discuss moral philosophy with people who care about such things. If I do get responses it’s usually, “Christian theism sucks and I don’t like it.” Or from Christians “All I need is faith.” :\

            One of things that convinced me most about Christian theism (minimalist Christianity, what have you) is the moral argument for God because it doesn’t depend on the Bible or a moral epistemology instead, it is a moral ontology. I’m still not convinced (I’m a young Christian so it could be my own ignorance – 2 1/2 years) that everything in the OT is permitted by God, but that is a totally different discussion so I won’t go there in full detail.

            All fully functioning human beings (those humans who are not morally handicapped – sociopaths) are capable of being virtuous/moral. The Christian is not the only person capable of being an outstanding moral being. The atheist/skeptic/different religious person is totally capable of flourishing in moral actions and thoughts. There are some atheists who are probably 10x more moral than some Christians (the opposite is probably true too of course). So, the moral argument for God is not an argument that says Christians are the only moral beings. What’s interesting is it also doesn’t say human beings know what is good and evil from reading the Bible. Or even from the 10 commandments. The 10 commandments didn’t come around until moses. Pre moses, the theist and atheist alike knew or was aware of good and evil.

            The moral argument (or Craig’s version) focuses on moral ontology. If God exists, then moral values exist. If He doesn’t, then moral values don’t exist. Objective moral values are obvious. The Christian says we are aware of moral values because we have been made in the image of God, therefore our minds have been stamped with a moral code. Must we follow this code? No. It can be suppressed. There are even some folks who are morally handicapped. Does this undermine objective moral values? Not at all.

            I also hold that moral values are discovered. I’m not sure if Craig does, maybe WK would know, but I don’t think it complicates the morality on Christian theism. Given that moral values are discovered and not created like Nietzsche held, then moral progress still makes sense on Christian theism. Moral values are discovered, not created, so it is perfectly legitimate to say that there is moral progress in civilization. This wouldn’t undermine that objective moral values and duties exist, because it’s a position that states these values exist even if no one acknowledges said values and duties.

            To cut my rambling (I think I did…possible fail I don’t know) I’m saying that our moral reasoning and discovering faculties are stamped on us by God. Moral values and duties flow from God’s morally perfect nature. Of course, we aren’t perfect, our image is distorted due to the Christian understanding of man’s fall, but this distortion doesn’t stop us from understanding moral values and duties. A person doesn’t need to read the bible to learn that murder, stealing, slander and such are wrong or that selflessness, love, and herois are good. These are things built into us that we know just like we know we see a physical world in front of us. Not to get off topic, I think this is somewhat relevant to our conversation, but it’s helpful to remember that OT Israel was under a theocracy and not a democracy, so there were certain laws only for OT Israel. I guess you could think of those things as civic law (if that is the correct term) for Israel and not necessarily a moral law.

            So the moral argument focuses on moral ontology, which Craig kept his focus on whereas Kagan focused on ethical theory and applied ethics which aren’t incompatible with the moral argument for God. Kagan missed the grounding factor. Kagan didn’t go deep enough. Why are these hypothetical rules we’d give ourselves if rational and ignorant of our lot in life categorical reasons for action? Why not something else? He didn’t answer theses questions. Especially if we are the ideal committee, I’m not convinced we would all agree on these things. Yes, Kagan, would disagree with a nihilist and relativist, but just because Kagan does doesn’t make his moral system objective it’s just one way of living. Kagan might like beets, while I don’t. Because Kagan likes beets, doesn’t make beets objectively good. Without God, it’s perfectly rational to think objective moral values don’t exist, which means moral nihilism is a rational moral theory and would not be excluded from the ideal committee.

          • Jared says:

            Sartre’s 1946 lecture on existentialism is one of my favorites.

            “The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that ‘the good’ exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote: ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted’; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself.”

            A lecture by Sarte (1946) printed in Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufman, Meridian Publishing Company, 1989;

            He makes a point that we cannot say anything is objectively good or evil because we have nothing to ground these values in.

  3. Citizen Ghost says:

    I agree that moral relativism is problematic for a number of reasons.

    But it makes no sense to say that a moral relativist can’t make a moral judgment or engage in debates about morality etc.

    For starters, you are equating moral relativism with some kind of nihilism – or the view that moral values aren’t real or dont’ exist. Those are not the same thing. Not at all.

    Second, moral relativists don’t all believe the same thing about morality. When someone you think is a moral relativist makes a moral statement, ask yourself (or better yet…ask them), relative to WHAT? Armed with that information, you can then perhaps illustrate why their view is wrong (or wrongheaded). But to say that they are incapable of rendering a moral judgment or participating in a conversation about morality is intellectual laziness at best. At worst, it looks like an attempt to shut down dissenting or troubling views.

    Finally, let’s suppose I am a moral relativist (I’m not). Do YOU think that morality is real? If you think it is, then my own statements about morality or moral judgments are either correct or they are not and can be evaluated on their own merits. Surely, the correctness of my statements don’t depend on my ability to provide a particular foundation for morality.

    Also, by now it should go without saying that there is nothing at all that requires an atheist to be a moral relativist. When you explore this issue (or do an informal survey) you’ll find that nonbelievers can and do subscribe to any number of moral theories. But that’s another can of worms….

    • John says:

      In the debate word, they presuppose you understand that content. You can’t make a self-sustaining argument of morality with moral relativism.

  4. Phil Lost says:

    Outside of the internet, I have yet to meet someone who is an actual moral relativist.

  5. [...] recently read a post, “The Seven Fatal Flaws of Moral Rel­a­tivism,” in which Win­tery Knight lists seven “flaws” of moral rel­a­tivism. He quotes them from [...]

  6. rkae says:

    I think the real key to it all is #5: Relativists can’t improve their morality.

    And it’s even worse. They can’t notice their morals or the morals of their culture slipping downward.

  7. Jared says:

    If I said, “Look, this is why I believe in God: (1), (2), (3),” that would be equivalent to saying I didn’t believe in God,

    I fail to understand why giving reason to believe in God is the equivalent to saying I don’t believe in God. Someone please enlighten me.

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