The Myth of Moral Relativism

Moral relativism is the social norm in today’s world. The anthem is something similar to, “As long as you’re happy then it’s okay by me.” Some times the caveat, “As long as you aren’t hurting anyone,” is added. All done in the spirit of inclusivity, neutrality, to appease everyone while offending no one: the epitome of the new tolerance. But in reality there's no such things as moral neutrality.

In order to understand moral relativism let's compare and contrast it with the existence of objective moral values found in a system such as Christian theism. The theist claims that morality relies on universal principles (natural law, conscience). More specifically, the Christian theist believes that God is the ultimate source of that common morality. The Christian perspective also entails a moral system, which is unchanging because the moral law giver (God) is unchanging. Moral relativism claims that morality is not based on any absolute standard. They claim that a persons situation, culture, someone’s feelings, etc. decide what is ethically true or not.

We can see where the relativist goes wrong by examining the arguments they bring to the table. While many of the arguments used in the attempt to support relativism might sound good at first, they all ultimately contain logical contradictions. For example they themselves claim to know the “right” moral scheme. After all they claim that as long as you're happy then who are you to object. In doing this they're professing the one way we all ought to live. In doing so they subscribe to an objective moral system. Simply put, it's self-defeating.

What's more is that in most cases even the self-confessed relativist rejects the very moral stance they profess. Would the relativist say that a man who rapes and kills his five-year-old daughter should be free from guilt so long as he hasn’t violated his own moral standards (relative standard)? Of course not!

You see, the relativist argues that because different cultures have different values, morals are relative to an individual culture. However, it’s clear that the moral relativist is confusing the actions of a person with an absolute standard of whether that action is right or wrong. If the culture of the day decides what’s right and what’s wrong, how could the Nazis have been judged for their actions? Weren’t they only following the cultural norm within that society? But, if murder is wrong universally, and only if murder is wrong universally, were the Nazis wrong. Because they had their own set of moral standards does not change the fact that they committed murder and needed to be brought to justice.

You see just because people from different backgrounds have different practices of morality doesn’t mean they don’t share a common morality. In fact they do. For instance, pro-lifers and pro-abortionists agree that murder is wrong, their disagreement is on whether abortion is murder or not. Even in this fiery debate, absolute universal morality shines through and is shown to be true.

Now the relativist might say that changes in situations cause morality to change. Meaning, in certain instances actions, which would otherwise be considered immoral, could be justified and as a result judged as morally right. But is this true? When judging an act we look at the situation, the act, and the intention. A good example can be pulled from our legal system here in the US. Let’s look at a case of attempted murder. Here, someone is convicted even if they fail to actually kill anyone. In this case the person had intent to commit an act (actus reus in combination with mens rea). We can clearly see that the situation plays a part in the deciding of whether an act is moral or not by setting the context in which a certain moral act is chosen but the situation itself doesn't make the act moral or immoral.

One of the more common arguments brought by the relativist is one of tolerance. They claim that by correcting someone on moral grounds or telling them their morality wrong is somehow intolerant. The relativist claims that all views should be tolerated. But is this true? The first thing that comes to my mind is that evil should never be tolerated! For example, should the view of a child molester that it’s acceptable to touch and have sex with children be tolerated? I think we would all agree absolutely not, even the relativist. It should also be pointed out that the new tolerance is self-defeating from the very start. You see, the fact that we should be tolerant has roots in the objective moral standard that we should treat others equally and fairly.

Ultimately in the absence of objective moral truth there can be no goodness. We are all born with a conscience and we all know what is right and wrong, which can be exemplified by the fact that we all know when someone has wronged us! If I steal your stereo you most certainly know it was wrong, even if I think theft is moral. This is how we all live our lives, expecting other’s to do the same. In fact it takes really bad philosophy to convince the moral relativist he is right. In the end “[m]orality grounded in God explains our hunger for justice—our desire for a day of final reckoning when all wrongs are made right, when innocent suffering is finally redeemed, and when the guilty are punished and the righteous rewarded.” (Greg Koukl, Relativism: Feet firmly planted in mid-air. p. 170)