Relativism


I told you about my relativism series in the last post. It is divided up into three sub-series: epistemological relativism (there is no truth at all), moral relativism (there is no moral truth), and religious relativism (there is no religious truth. I finished up the sub-series on epistemological relativism in December, and I’ve posted the first two episodes in the moral relativism sub-series in the last week.
In the first episode I provide an outline for the sub-series, explain the differences between moral objectivism and moral relativism, distinguish moral relativism from moral skepticism, explore how pervasive moral relativism is in our culture, and explain why we should be concerned.
In the second episode, I explain why people reject moral objectivity in favor of moral relativity: (1) It seems to follow from atheism; (2) It gives intellectual justification for one’s sin; (3) They desire moral neutrality and non-judgmentalism; (4) They think moral disagreements means there is no moral truth. After critiquing each of these reasons, I go on to discuss why it is that humans disagree on moral matters.
Give it a listen at https://thinkingtobelieve.buzzsprout.com or wherever you get your podcasts from.

I’ve begun a new podcast series on relativism. I started with the broadest form of relativism – epistemological relativism – which is the idea that no truth can be known. I’ll extend this to more specific forms of relativism: moral relativism and religious relativism (pluralism). In this context, I’ll be dealing with the notions of tolerance and judgmentalism as well. Listen wherever you get your podcasts or at http://thinkingtobelieve.buzzsprout.com.

There is a lot of confusion about what is meant by “moral relativism” and “moral objectivism/realism”

“Subjective” and “objective” tell you about the source of the truth maker; i.e. what makes something true. Is it the beliefs of the subject (the person’s mind) that make it true, or is it an object in the external world? My belief that homemade vanilla ice cream is the best ice cream is what makes it true that homemade vanilla ice cream is the best ice cream for me. In contrast, the curvature of space-time is what makes gravity true – not just for me, but for everyone. Gravity is true regardless of what I believe about it.

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Greg Koukl delivered a lecture at the 2006 Master’s Series in Christian Thought on the topic, “Truth is a Strange Sort of Fiction: The Challenge from the Emergent Church.” While the Emergent Church has morphed into the Progressive Church, the information is just as relevant today as it was in 2006.

Koukl argued that truth and knowledge are essential to the enterprise of Biblical faith, demonstrating this both Biblically and philosophically. Here is a summary of his case:

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When discussing Christianity with a non-Christian, it’s not uncommon for them to dismiss the call to discipleship by saying, “I’ve tried religion and it didn’t work for me.” There are a number of questions you could ask when hearing such a statement.

First, “What religion(s) did you try?” There are many different religions, and most are as different as night and day.

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diversityDiversity is not a value.  Diversity just is.  We don’t value diversity for diversity’s sake, but for what that diversity provides us. For example, we value diversity in food because we enjoy eating different kinds of food.  We value diversity of clothing styles because we like to express ourselves in different ways, and we think it would be wrong to make everyone wear the same kind of clothes or eat the exact same food.  But there are some examples of diversity that should not be valued or “celebrated.”  We should not celebrate diversity in moral views, particularly when some of those moral views entail gross immorality.  The British did not celebrate the diversity of Indians when they burned their widows on the funeral pyre.  They forcibly ended that barbarism.  We should not celebrate diversity in how women’s genitalia is treated – celebrating those who mutilate women’s genitalia alongside those who do not.  We should not celebrate the diversity of killing one’s own daughter after she is raped to preserve the honor of the family.  Not all ideas are of equal value.  We celebrate the diversity of people, but not the diversity of ideas.  Bad ideas should be fought against – first by persuasion, but if that fails, in some cases we must fight those ideas by force.

Empty BedThe predominant sexual ethic today is built on three moral principles: 1) Consent; 2) No harm involved; 3) Whatever feels good.  As long as it feels good, no one is getting hurt, and those involved are consenting to it, it is deemed to be morally acceptable.  Timothy Hsiao has written a great article showing why consent and harmlessness are not sufficient to justify a sexual behavior.

Regarding consent, Hsiao argues that consent ought to be based on what is good for us (not just desired by us), and thus the inherent goodness of the act – not just consent – is required. Furthermore, to give consent is to give someone moral permission to do what they would not be justified in doing absent the consent. Giving consent, then, presumes that one has the moral authority to give that permission to another. But if one lacks the moral authority to grant such permissions, consent is not sufficient to make an act ethical. If the act in question is not morally good, then the consenter lacks the proper authority to give consent.

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“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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