Relativism


“The person who can’t or won’t discern good from evil is destined to be a victim of those who are adept at disguising one as the other.  Thus, abstaining from moral judgments is not a hallmark of nice people, but of foolish ones.  And the person who makes judgments while insisting that he doesn’t or shouldn’t is naïve, if not hypocritical.” – Regis Nicoll, “Speak No Evil,” Salvo, Issue 25, Summer 2013, p. 14.

thinking manPhilosohpers David Bourget and David Chalmers recently surveyed 931 philosophy faculty members to determine their views on 30 different issues.  Here were some of the more interesting results:

God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%.
Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%.
Mind: physicalism 56.5%; non-physicalism 27.1%; other 16.4%.
Free will: compatibilism 59.1%; libertarianism 13.7%; no free will 12.2%; other 14.9%.
Meta-ethics: moral realism 56.4%; moral anti-realism 27.7%; other 15.9%.
Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.
Science: scientific realism 75.1%; scientific anti-realism 11.6%; other 13.3%
Time: B-theory 26.3%; A-theory 15.5%; other 58.2%.
Truth: correspondence 50.8%; deflationary 24.8%; epistemic 6.9%; other 17.5%.

Notice that although 72.8% of respondents are atheists, 56.4% are moral realists. This goes to show the strength of our moral intuitions. While atheists do not have a sufficient ontological grounding for objective moral values, they still believe in them nonetheless.

I was surprised that only 13.7% believe in libertarian free will. I would expect it to be much higher.  Perhaps this correlates with the high rates of physicalism.

HT: Scot McKnight

Right and WrongIf moral realism (the notion that moral values exist independently of human minds) is false, then there is no reason to talk of “morality” as if it were something distinct from personal preference.  Given moral relativism, moral beliefs are just personal/social preferences.  What we call “morality” is nothing more than a set of personal preferences regarding certain dispositions and behaviors, or a set of normative social preferences – both of which are subjective in nature and can change over time.  Saying “vanilla ice-cream is better than chocolate ice-cream” and saying “telling the truth is better than lying” are the exact same kind of claims: personal, subjective preference.  No oughts are involved.  They are just autobiographic or (to possibly coin a new term) sociobiographic statements.  They describe rather than prescribe.

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In a previous post I noted that while people may pay lip service to moral relativism, no one does, and no one can live consistently as a moral relativist.  Not only do moral relativists fail to live out their moral philosophy, but I am convinced that on existentially deep level (if not an intellectually deep level), they know moral relativism is false.  

If moral relativism is true, and if the moral relativist truly believes it is true, then why do they continue to believe and act as if some things are objectively wrong for everyone?  Why is it that they can’t help but to make moral judgments about what is right (tolerance, fairness, open-mindedness, etc.) and what is wrong (intolerance, homophobia, discrimination, forcing one’s morality on others, etc.), and act as if these truths apply to everyone?  It’s because there is such a thing as moral truth, and they know it.  All of us are made in the image of God and reflect His moral nature.  We all possess moral knowledge.  In the same way all of us possess rational intuitions to distinguish what is true from what is false, we possess moral intuitions to distinguish between what is good and what is evil.  People are free to deny these intuitions, but the fact that they live in the real world in which moral values are an objective feature means they cannot escape moral knowledge and the making of moral judgments to one degree or another.  

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Some people want to reject the testimony of the NT evangelists on the basis that they are biased.  I have written on the problems of this claim before, but here is a brief summary of my argument (with some added insight offered by Greg Koukl in his September 10, 2012 podcast):

  • This is an example of the genetic fallacy – dismissing one’s arguments because of its origin, rather than addressing it on its own merits.
  • Having a bias is irrelevant to the legitimacy of one’s testimony and/or arguments.  One must grapple with the evidence rather than dismiss it because it comes from a biased source.
  • Everyone has a bias, including those who reject Jesus.  The only people without a bias are those who are ignorant of the matter.
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Moral relativism – the notion that there are no moral truths, and thus “morals” are subjective preferences relative to individuals or societies – is widespread in our day, particularly among the younger segments of society.  I would venture to say that moral relativism appeals to so many people because it gives them the intellectual justification they need to engage in their sins of choice.  This cheap form of moral justification is not without its costs, however.

While moral relativism is an easy way to justify participation in acts that others consider morally objectionable, it also makes it impossible to condemn the acts of others that one finds morally repugnant.  And believe me, every moral relativist has a list of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that they think are morally wrong – not just for them, but for everyone!

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A friend of mine made a point the other day that I thought was insightful.  If matter is all that exists, and there is no free will because everything is either determined or indeterminate, then there is no real distinction between rape and consensual sex since the distinction relies on the notion of free will.  If the will is not free, then strictly speaking, no act of sex is chosen—even so called consensual sex is not chosen.  Every act of sex is chosen for us by forces that lie outside of our control.  We may think that we choose to engage in sexual activity or choose to refrain from doing so, but these are just illusions.  Prior physical processes cause us to either have the desire to engage in sex or the desire not to engage in sex.  

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