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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I have a question for my non-theist readers: Why is it that I can chop up a tomato and eat it, but I cannot do the same to a human being?

One of the arguments moral relativists use to support their view that moral values are not objective is what I call the “change and diversity argument.”  It is reasoned that since moral values have changed over time (we once thought slavery was moral, but now we don’t), and moral opinions even differ from culture to culture at the present time, morality cannot be objective.

This is not a good argument for several reasons.  First and foremost, the presence of contrary opinions does not imply the absence of truth.  Just because people disagree on what is moral does not mean moral values are not objective, nor does it mean that no one is capable of possessing knowledge of moral truths.  Consider a mathematical problem posed to 10 students.  If each student provided a different answer to the same problem, would it follow that no one was right or that there is no right answer?  No.  Relativists who offer the “change and diversity” argument against objectivism are confusing moral epistemology for moral ontology.  While it may be that people can be mistaken about what is right and wrong, that no more implies that there is no moral truths than the fact that people get their sums wrong implies that there are no mathematical truths.

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Recently I listened to a dramatic, scripted dialogue between Peter Kreeft and a student on the topic of objective morality.  Using the Socratic method of inquiry, and posing as Socrates himself, Kreeft critically evaluates the arguments for moral relativism—and in so doing, argues for an objective moral standard of values.  In addition to the arguments often advanced against relativism and for objectivism, Kreeft had a few points worthy of sharing:

1.  When you argue that some moral value X ought to be followed and a relativist responds by saying, “You should not impose your morality on me,” they are assuming moral relativism is true (not to mention imposing their own moral point of view on you as if their moral point of view has a universal application independent of one’s personal preference, and thus they are guilty of committing the very “error” for which they accuse you).  Point out to them that if moral realism is true (as you claim), then X is not “my value” but “our value,” and you can no more impose them on the relativist than you can impose gravity on them.  Both are objective features of reality that impose themselves on us.  You are not imposing these moral values on others, but merely drawing their attention to what already exists.  Objective moral values impose themselves on us in the form of moral commands and obligations.

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When someone says to you, “You shouldn’t impose your morality on other people,” proceed as follows:

YOU:  “So you think it is wrong to impose one’s moral point of view on other people?”
THEM:  “Yes.”
YOU:  “Then why are you imposing your moral point of view on me?
THEM:  “What?”
YOU:  “To say it is wrong to impose one’s moral point of view on other people is itself a moral point of view, and you are imposing that moral point of view one me by morally condemning me for morally condemning the actions of other people.  You are guilty of doing the very thing you say should not be done.”

The fact of the matter is that we all have a moral point of view, and all of us apply that moral standard to others and judge them accordingly.  The question is not whether we have moral standards, or whether we will apply them to other people, but rather whether or not our moral standards are true.

True tolerance is how we treat people, not how we treat ideas. All people are equal, but all ideas are not. I am glad we live in a society that allows people the freedom of mind and conscience to believe as they choose, but we must not confuse one’s right to believe what they choose with the absurd notion that beliefs are true. Some beliefs are true, and others are false.  That is why all beliefs should be critically examined, including our own.

 

In May of this year Gallup polled Americans to determine what behaviors they found morally acceptable and unacceptable.  Sixteen behaviors were evaluated, and here are the results:

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Updated 1/19/10

Greg Koukl has a really good response to those who say “Who are you to say?” in response to our disapproval of same-sex marriage:

Who are you to say?”  That challenge works both ways.  First, if my disapproval isn’t legitimate, then why is my approval legitimate?  If I don’t have the right to judge something wrong…, I certainly don’t have the right to judge it right….  Second, why is it that I can’t make a moral judgment here, but apparently you can?

The appeal for a change in marriage laws is an attempt to change the moral consensus about homosexuality.  You invite me to make a moral judgment, then you challenge my right to make a judgment when I don’t give the answer you want.

Building on Greg’s thoughts, I think the most concise, tactical response to the “Who are you to say it’s wrong?” challenge is simply to ask in return, “And who are you to say it’s acceptable?”  This response makes it clear that both parties are making claims, and those claims need to be justified.  The burden of proof is not just on the person in favor of prohibition, but is also on the person in favor of permission.

42-16341014To determine if someone believes morals are merely social constructs ask, “If no humans existed, would objective moral values exist?”  If they say “no” then they are moral constructivists.  If they say “yes” then they believe morals exist in some objective sense independent of the human mind and human culture.

If they do exist in some objective sense independent of the human mind and human culture, what exactly is their source?  God…maybe?!?!

Closed Mind2It’s common for those who reject the Christian worldview to accuse Christians of being closed-minded.  Often this retort comes on the heels of a Christian’s outspokenness about his/her beliefs.  How can you respond when someone tells you you’re being closed-minded, or that you need to be more open-minded?

The first thing you ought to do is ask the person what s/he means by such terms.  S/he could mean one of several things, so we should not presume to know the answer.  In fact, s/he may not even know exactly what s/he means, and our inquiry may force him/her to think it through for the first time.  The truth of the matter is that those who use such terms often sling them blithely at anyone who disagrees with their point of view,[1] never stopping to think about what exactly it is that they mean.  And since the accusation is usually effective at silencing their opponents they continue to use it over and over again as the trump card of choice when discussing religion with “right-wing, fundamentalist wackos” such as ourselves.  If we can respond thoughtfully to his charge, not only will we rescue ourselves from a distasteful allegation, but we may disarm him/her from using this unfounded charge on other Christians in the future.

While there are several ways people define closed-mindedness, typically it is a label given to anyone who comes to a conclusion on a controversial matter, and believes that conclusion is true to the exclusion of all others.  We are told we must be open-, rather than closed-minded, which means we have an intellectual obligation to remain “on the fence” of all divisive issues, never taking a definitive position, and never claiming that one position has more merit than another.  There are a few ways to respond to this understanding of open- and closed-mindedness.

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twist-of-faithWe find ourselves in a world in which religious truth-claims have been demoted to private, subjective opinions or values.  Religious knowledge is not considered “real” knowledge.  In fact, religious truth-claims are not even testable, and thus must be taken on blind faith.

How did it come to this?  Here I offer a very condensed, if not simplistic path to how we privatized faith, drawing largely on Dr. James Sawyer’s work in this area.

It started with Renee Descartes.  He demanded that what we claim to “know” we know with the same level of certainty as mathematical principles.  This drove a wedge between faith and knowledge, because religious claims cannot be known with that degree of certainty (virtually nothing can).

Then came the opposite extreme offered by David Hume.  Hume argued that there are no innate ideas or truths that serve as a foundation for knowledge.  The mind is a blank slate upon which our sense perceptions are received, and from which we gain knowledge.  Knowledge, then, does not correspond with reality, but is simply a well-ordered, coherent system within our minds created by sense perception.  This left no room for the idea of truth.  There is no correspondence between reality and what we perceive to be reality.  Each person’s perspective is as valid as the next person’s perspective (relativism).

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ToleranTolerancece is a two-way street, but in today’s world its application is typically one-way.  In the name of tolerance we are told we must tolerate those who do not believe in God, are pro-abortion, pro-same-sex marriage, etc.  Interestingly, however, those who hold to those viewpoints often refuse to tolerate us.  We are forced to take down religious monuments because somebody is offended that they are forced to look at it.  We are forced to forego prayers at school graduation ceremonies because someone who doesn’t believe in God may feel like an outsider.  Guess what?  The Constitution protects rights, not feelings.  Frankly I’m not concerned with how they feel.  It’s called disagreement.  Everybody experiences it, and the mature person learns how to deal with it.

When you disagree with someone you have one of three options: persuade them to adopt your view, pursue change through democratic initiatives, or suck it up and deal with it.  Christians have to suck it up all the time.  I disagree with atheists, and I disagree with the way religion is being forced out of the public square because of a few cry-babies supported by an out-of-control judiciary, but you don’t see me shouting “offense” because I didn’t get to participate in a public graduation prayer.  No one seems to be concerned about how Christians feel.  We are told to lump it when we cry, but when atheists and adherents to minority religions cry they get the whole world changed for them.

While liberals tell us we need to be tolerant, they have need of their own medication.  They need to learn to tolerate public prayer, religious talk, religious monuments, and national recognition of the Creator on our money and in our pledge.  It’s time they learn that tolerance means “deal with it!”

In a day and age in which religious claims have been demoted to mere personal, subjective opinion rather than public knowledge, any suggestion that someone’s religious views may be mistaken is perceived as a personal attack.  Why?  It’s because they cannot separate themselves from their beliefs.  To attack one is to attack the other.  Their beliefs are not something that stand outside of themselves to which they subscribe, but an autobiography about their personal tastes.  Beliefs do not have a reference “out there” to which we can appeal and evaluate, but are wholly subjective, describing the person who holds them.  To say their beliefs are wrong, then, is to say there is something wrong with them.

People believe that so long as they hold to their beliefs sincerely, they are true (for them), and no one else has any business telling them their truth is not true.  Of course they have no problem telling us that our sincerely held belief that people can be wrong in what they believe to be true is a wrong belief.  This is self-refuting.

If you find yourself in a situation where someone is objecting to your objection to their truth-claim, ask, “If I sincerely believe that sincerely believing something does not make it true, does that make it true that sincerely held beliefs can be false?”  If they say yes, then ask why they objected to your objection.  If they say no, ask them why it is that their beliefs are made true by their sincerity, but your beliefs are not.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Religious pluralists often claim that religious beliefs are culturally relative: the religion you adopt is determined by where you live, not the rationality/truth of the religion itself.  If you live in India you will probably be a Hindu; if you live in the U.S. you will probably be a Christian.  One’s personal religious beliefs are nothing more than a geographic accident, so we should not believe that our religion is true while others are not.

This argument is a double-edged sword.  If the religious pluralist had been born in Saudi Arabia he would have been a Muslim, and Muslims are religious particularists!  His pluralistic view of religion is dependent on his being born in 20th century Western society!

A more pointed critique of this argument, however, comes from the realm of logic.  The line of reasoning employed by the pluralist commits the genetic fallacy (invalidating a view based on how a person came to hold that view).  The fact of the matter is that the truth of a belief is independent of the influences that brought you to believe in it.  While the observation that one’s religious beliefs are often determined by where they live is valid from an empirical standpoint, what follows from that observation?  Nothing.  While I may be a Christian because I live in a society in which most people are Christians, it does not mean that my Christian beliefs are not true.  The truth of Christianity depends on the veracity of the claims themselves, nothing more and nothing less.

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