The Nature of Morals

The position that morals are relative is popular in today’s post-modern society. In this article I wish to lay down what moral relativity is, why it’s popular, and arguments for it. Then I will discuss the self-defeating/inconsistent points of moral relativity, the absurdities that arise when we are logically consistent with the view, and how living a morally relativistic life is actually an impossibility. I will then switch to discussing moral objectivism/absolutism: what it is, why it’s unpopular, but why it’s the (inconvenient) truth.

This article is broken into three parts:

  1. Moral Relativism
    1. What is it?
    2. Why is it popular?
    3. Arguments for
  2. Rebuttal
    1. Addressing argument for
    2. Points of self refutation/inconsistencies
    3. Absurdities that arise when being logically consistent
    4. The impossibility of living a morally relativistic life
  3. Moral Objectivism/Absolutism
    1. What it is
    2. Why it’s unpopular
    3. Why it’s the (inconvenient) truth

MORAL RELATIVISM

What is Moral Relativism

Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. [1]

Why is it popular?

This view is popular as it is seen as more open and more tolerant. I will discuss later how the argument that it is more tolerant is actually ironic.

From the objectivist’s standpoint, moral relativity is also popular due to how it eliminates the possibility of making a personal mistake, and thus absolves everyone of being held personally responsible for their actions.

Arguments for

Moral relativists say that different cultures often exhibit radically different moral values and, because of that, there are obviously no universal moral values shared by every human society.

Another common, albeit negative, reason for embracing moral relativism is simply the perceived untenability of moral objectivism: every attempt to establish a single, objectively valid and universally binding set of moral principles runs up against formidable objections.

REBUTTAL

Addressing arguments for

Concerning radical moral differences in cultures, I have three points of contention. First is that a point of disagreement does not serve as evidence that there is no objective truth. I feel this picture does a decent job of illustrating this:truth

Secondly, although cultures may differ about how they manifest positive values such as honesty, courage, and the preserving of life, they do not promote dishonesty, cowardice, or arbitrary killing (an indication of an inherent understanding that these are “bad”).

Lastly, with this argument relativists typically exaggerate the degree of diversity among cultures since superficial differences often mask underlying shared agreements. It completely ignores the core set of universal values present in every flourishing society and culture.

Concerning the untenability of moral objectivism, the fundamental presupposition is that humans are the creators of morals. It denies the existence of a Moral Lawgiver, transcendent of humans. Denying the existence of a Moral Lawgiver removes the possibility of this transcendent Being writing a transcendent (i.e. universal) Moral Law. This then leads to questioning the existence of a Moral Lawgiver (i.e. God).

Points of Self-Refutation/Inconsistencies

Consistency is necessary within a worldview in order for it to be considered true. In the words of Douglas Groothuis,

“If a worldview affirms X, Y and Z as essential elements of that worldview, and none of these individual elements contradicts another essential element, the worldview may be true because it is not logically inconsistent… If a worldview affirms X, Y and Z as essential elements, and any of these elements contradict another essential element (say X contradicts Y), or is self-contradictory, this worldview is necessarily false because it is logically inconsistent.”

Moral relativists claim there are no universal morals but simultaneously appeal to a principle of tolerance as a universal norm (i.e. it’s “good” to be tolerant, “bad” to be intolerant). Due to this inconsistency, moral relativism is necessarily a false worldview/belief.

Logically consistent absurdities

When we follow through with the logic of moral relativism, the following statements become true:

  • If morals are relative, Mother Teresa is no better or worse than Hitler, Stalin, or Mao Zedong.
  • Things as genocide, rape, torturing, slavery, etc. are no longer evil. They are just simple acts, no more or less abhorrent than filling your gas tank, or giving a friend a hug. Giving your friend a hug and torturing them are equally acceptable forms of treatment.
  • Saving someone from a burning building is no more brave or heroic than quartering a child.

The only way to justify viewing any of these statements as abhorrent and repulsive is to adhere to a objective moral standard.

The impossibility of living a morally relativistic life

The demand for justice, at any level, for any action, is indicative of the inherent moral compass we all contain. The desire for retribution is the tell-tale that the moral relativist inherently agrees that some things are, actually, universally wrong. If the moral relativist truly believed that morals are relative, then they cannot desire retribution. If the “violator” does not think they have done anything wrong, then they are not deserving of retribution. They do not deserve to be punished. And if they are punished for not doing anything wrong, then they are the one that is being violated!

  • (In other words, the desire for retribution cannot be justified without an appeal to a moral standard that transcends themselves and applies universally to all persons, that is, an objective moral standard).

Further, moral relativists cannot avoid being implicitly committed to certain fundamental norms and values, and they presuppose this commitment in the very act of arguing for moral relativism. [1]

MORAL OBJECTIVISM/ABSOLUTISM

What it is

The view that an objective moral standard exists and is universally binding. It is the view that claims “there are obvious moral truths just as there are obvious facts about the world. Cowardice is a bad quality. A man should not have sex with his mother. Heroes deserve respect. Such statements are obvious and objectively true, no more open to dispute than the claim that seawater is salty.” [2]

Why it’s unpopular

  • It’s seemingly intolerant.
  • It’s seemingly rigid and dogmatic.
  • It requires persons be held personally responsible for their actions.

Why it’s the (inconvenient) truth

The Nature of Morals is Inherently Tied to The Nature of Truth:

Since we are speaking of morals truths, we need to know the nature of truth itself. The nature of truth dictates all other variations of truth, whether scientific, mathematical, moral, religious, etc.

We all inherently believe truth is absolute and exclusive. Any attempt to argue otherwise is in itself indicative of this. One cannot claim a truth claim as absolutely wrong without accepting first that truth is absolute and exclusive.

This absolute and exclusive nature of truth transfers over to moral truths. It is impossible to claim one moral truth as wrong without presupposing there is an absolute and exclusive moral standard.

Universal Morals

There are certain values to which all societies either implicitly or explicitly hold.

Positive values, i.e. things that are inherently recognized as good, virtuous, noble, worthy of pursuing:

  • Love
  • Honesty
  • Courage
  • Tolerance
  • Respect
  • Caring for children and the elderly (especially orphans and widows)
  • Justice
  • Mercy
  • Magnanimity
  • Heroes deserve respect

The vast, vast majority of humanity would concur that the above list contains all (universally) good things.

Negative values, i.e. things that societies either implicitly or explicitly deem as bad, evil, vile, and to be actively avoided:

  • Murder
  • Fraud
  • Dishonesty/lying
  • Treachery
  • Infidelity (to a lord, or to a spouse)
  • Thievery
  • Cowardice
  • Incest (a man should not have sex with his mother)
  • Torture
  • Genocide

For cultures, religions, and individuals that do not explicitly condemn such behaviors, it should be noted that they do not ever promote such behaviors. A lack of active disapproval does not mean they believe such behaviors are morally right or righteous.

Neither of these lists are comprehensive, but rather serve as examples of the inherent moral objectivism of societies.

Moral Objectivism Is Necessary For Human Flourishing

Moral objectivism is necessary for human flourishing. In the world of moral relativity, there is no such thing as an absolute wrong. Without absolute wrongs, there is nothing to execute justice upon. And with any act being acceptable and “tolerated,” acts which are generally destructive to the human population and/or individual can (and likely will) ensue.

Without it there is no foundation, no basis, for justice, for retribution. One cannot be punished for murder, rape, theft, etc. if to them that behavior is acceptable. If it is morally acceptable to them, then for another to think it’s unacceptable and demand justice is, in itself, a moral violation. But even in that case, it isn’t wrong, because there is no such thing as an absolute wrong in the world of moral relativity.

There must be a standard to which humans as individuals and a society adhere to in order to flourish and thrive. And as demonstrated earlier, it exists.

From the Christian Perspective

That moral standard exists because it was created by a transcendent Moral Being, also known as God. It only follows that the standard created by a transcendent Being, would itself be transcendent (and thus, universal).

God is a Moral Being, as evidenced throughout the entirety of the written revelation of who He is. We were created in His image, which partly means we have been endowed with a moral conscious (see Genesis 1.27 and Romans 2:14-15).

Every single one of us is, thus, a moral objectivist/universalist. Even those who claim to be relativists live out their morals in an objectivist manner. They claim it’s universally wrong to tell others they are doing something wrong. They can’t escape it because it’s how they were created to be. It’s at the very core of being human.

CONCLUSION

Moral relativity is a popular worldview do to it’s perceived tolerance and open-mindedness. However, it’s unavoidably self-defeating. (It’s also for those who lack convictions and courage). Moral objectivism is the truth, as it is what corresponds to reality. It is observable within societies (moral objectivism is). We are all moral agents, and inescapably so, and so because we were created in the likeness of a transcendent Moral Being.

Published by

Matthew Haverly

I am a God-fearing, knowledge-thirsting, adventure-seeking, travel-craving, life-living, love-giving man. I like to dream big, and encourage/inspire others to do the same. My main passion as of now is to learn how to live, and live to learn.

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