Moral relativism is a philosophy that asserts there is no global, absolute moral law that applies to all people, for all time, and in all places. Instead of an objective moral law, moral relativism espouses a qualified, subjective view of morality, especially concerning individual moral practice where personal and situational encounters supposedly dictate the correct moral position.
What does moral relativism say about ethics and morality?
Summing up this philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, it does not exist."
In modern times, the acceptance of moral relativism has been closely linked to the theory of evolution. The argument is that, just as humanity has evolved from lesser to greater biological organisms, humanity's morals and ethics are also evolving. Therefore, all that can be ascertained at present (and forever) is that there is no absolute or fixed certainty in the area of morality.
This argument, followed to its logical conclusion, causes consternation among many, even those who espouse moral relativism. Paul Kurtz, in the book The Humanist Alternative, sums up the end result this way: "If man is a product of evolution, one species among others, in a universe without purpose, then man's option is to live for himself."
An example of this philosophy in action can be seen in the 2007-2008 meltdown of the American financial and banking industries. Those who had been taught relative morality in their philosophy and business ethics courses proceeded to live out those teachings on Wall Street and in other corporate venues. The outcome was devastating for those who were on the receiving end of their relative morality.
Oddly enough, many who believed in relative morality at that time were outraged and absolutely sure that those who engaged in deceptive business practices ought to be punished for their unethical moral behavior. This type of reaction speaks to an important truth: moral relativists have a rather dim view of moral relativism when it negatively impacts them.
Let the moral relativist be lied to, be the victim of false advertising, or discover that his spouse has been relatively faithful to him, and he instantly becomes a moral absolutist. A person's reaction to what he considers unfair ethical treatment always betrays his true feelings on the matter of relative vs. objective moral law.
The problem for the moral relativists (who are usually secular humanists who reject God) is they have no good answer to the two-part question, Is there anything wrong with anything, and why? A proper answer to the question necessitates that an individual have (1) an unchanging standard he can turn to, and (2) an absolute authority that has the right to impose moral obligation. Absent these two things, morals/ethics simply becomes emotive. Rape, for example, could never be deemed wrong; the strongest statement that could be made about rape is "I don't like it."
If rape is wrong, by what standard is it deemed wrong? What authority has the right to impose a moral obligation on the would-be rapist? The only options available to the secular humanist are (1) the natural universe; (2) the culture; and (3) the individual.
The natural universe isn't a real option, as amoral matter cannot produce moral beings nor prescribe moral behavior. Neither can culture be appealed to, as there are many cultures throughout the world, all with different moral standards and practices; there is no way to ascertain which culture is "correct." Culture merely displays what "is" with respect to morality; that is, a culture reflects society's standard but is not the standard itself. Even the famous skeptic and antagonist of religion David Hume stated that humanity cannot derive an "ought" from an "is" where morals are concerned.
Finally, if each individual is the standard/authority for his own morals, then we have real confusion. The problem of using culture as a moral compass is suddenly compounded exponentially.
Seeing this dilemma, some moral relativists say that science can be used to dictate ethics. However, even secular scientists admit that science is a descriptive discipline and not a prescriptive one. In addition, empirical methods are incapable of answering such moral questions as whether or not the Nazis were evil. Einstein sums up the correct position in this matter: "You are right in speaking of the moral foundations of science, but you cannot turn round and speak of the scientific foundations of morality."
So, is there anything wrong with anything? And why? In the end, the moral relativist has no satisfying answer. He has no standard to turn to and no authority to recognize and respect.
In contrast to the moral relativist's worldview, the Christian's worldview provides a solid standard and authority that can be confidently referenced and followed. The Creator God, who has revealed Himself in His Word, is both the standard and authority for morals. From God's nature comes pure good that serves as the straight line by which all crooked lines can be evaluated.
God's image has been impressed upon humanity (Genesis 1:26-27) so that human beings instinctively know God's moral law and what is right and wrong (Romans 2:14-15). People don't have to believe in God to know His moral law, but, in denying Him, they lose the ability to ground an objective moral law in something that transcends the physical universe. Without that transcendent God, Dostoevsky famously observed, everything is permissible.
The tragic truth for the moral relativist is this: when you hold God's funeral and bury His moral law along with Him, something will take His place. That something will be an individual or group of individuals who take power and, in authoritarian fashion, impose their own moral framework on everyone else. The world has already seen such things in the regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot.
The far better course of action is to thankfully acknowledge God as the true source of all that is good. His objective moral law flows from His eternal character and provides for the well being of His creation.
What does moral absolutism say about ethics and morality?
What does ethical relativism say about ethics and morality?
How does cultural relativism influence society?
How does Christian ethics define morality?
How does the moral argument support the existence of God?
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