Relativism


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.

 

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