Monday, November 09, 2015

The Top 7 Things You Can't Do as a Moral Relativist

Moral relativism is the theory that denies that humans can possess any objective, universally meaningful knowledge, that there are any ultimate and unchanging metaphysical realities or that there are any moral absolutes. Philosopher Peter Kreeft said that "No culture in history has ever embraced moral relativism and survived." If you don't think objective moral values exist, Kreeft can teach you about that. But what's the problem with moral relativism? Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason (who along with Francis Beckwith wrote the book on Relativism) wrote a great article in Salvo Magazine on that topic. Here are 7 Things You Can't Do as a Moral Relativist:
  1. Relativists Can’t Accuse Others of Wrong-Doing
  2. Relativists Can’t Complain About the Problem of Evil
  3. Relativists Can’t Place Blame or Accept Praise
  4. Relativists Can’t Claim Anything Is Unfair or Unjust
  5. Relativists Can’t Improve Their Morality
  6. Relativists Can’t Hold Meaningful Moral Discussions
  7. Relativists Can’t Promote the Obligation of Tolerance
Bonus #8: Stephen Meyer, in the TrueU video series (which is excellent for group study), lists a couple more. Edit: Meyer's number 8 is: Relativists can’t complain about the problem of evil. But his number 2 is: The relativist can't complain about being mistreated.

If you want to know the detailed reasons that Koukl gives for each, read the article in its entirety over at Salvomag.

Want more resources on relativism? Find out what Jesus would say to a relativist, hear Greg Koukl's talk on relativism, or Paul Copan's interview about relativism.

Would you add any more to the list?

18 comments :

Martin Lagerwey said...

The claim is that moral relativism has no moral rules at all. By definition they do. Maybe they improve as society evolves, like freeing slaves and educating women. Since relative morals are still morals, they can be discussed and improved.

Russell said...

Hi Martin,

How can they be improved if there is no ontic referent? I would agree that freeing slaves and educating women is a moral improvement, but who's to say that the person who doesn't is wrong?

Emerson said...

Congratulations to this excellent site. I'm christian apologist in Brazil and I love this site. Greetings from Brazil.

Damian said...

You cannot even say one ought to be relativist.

Neil Shenvi said...

A moral relativist can't claim that believing the truth or seeking the truth is either good or obligatory. In other words, "free-thought", "openness to evidence", "rejection of dogma", and "pursuit of the truth" cannot be held as virtues or commended to others.

Ben And Nick Moore said...

"You cannot even say one ought to be relativist."

I second that.

bobseidensticker said...

I don't think you've thought about this much. The "moral relativist" you imagine doesn't exist. At least, no atheist would call themselves a "moral relativist" if we assume that this means (1) there is no objective morality and (2) my truth is my truth, your truth is your truth, and I have no grounds on which to critique your truth.

http://crossexaminedblog.com/2011/12/19/understanding-morality-its-really-not-that-hard/

Joe's World said...

If you define a moral relativist as someone who believes morality is inherently personal and subjective then relativists are free to judge all these things. They will likely give you their reasons for doing so. Surely "reasons" are a more solid foundation than "somebody said so"?

More than this a relativist is free to say that genocide or infanticide are absolutely wrong (wrong at all times in all places), whereas the theists are left struggling to justify the actions of their chosen god.

It seems that theists are at the disadvantage here.

LDW said...

On what grounds, other than subjective belief, does a relativist come to the understanding that genocide or infanticide are always and absolutely wrong?
You may personally think that genocide or infanticide are wrong but another relativist may believe that one or both of these behaviors can be warranted, on what basis can you prove that you are right and they are wrong. You can not appeal to conscious as each person's conscious allows for acceptance or rejection of different behavior. Empathy doesn't work because that too is subjective. On what grounds then can atheist relativist insist that there are behaviors that are wrong at all times and in all places?

Joe's World said...

They can give you their reasons for holding their moral opinion (and why they consider something absolute). And you're absolutely right, another with a contrary opinion can give theirs. This is exactly what we see when we look at moral interaction in reality.

LDW said...

But an opinion is not a moral absolute and has no binding force against anyone committing any kind of act. At best one can simply say that they find it wrong for themselves to commit such acts, they cannot claim objective moral absolutes exist except in their own personal belief system. If a belief is only held privately and personally it cannot hold the force of deterrent for anyone other than the one holding the belief.
Therefore your previous claim to holding a moral absolute is wrong, an absolute is something that is wrong for all people in all times in all places. You have admitted that all you can do is give reasons for your personal belief and that another of an opposite belief can give their reasons for holding such beliefs. Neither of you can prove the other morally deficient based on your personal opinions.

If one is so committed to their belief that truly hold that they are wrong and all others are wrong then their only recourse to stopping someone from believing something they disagree with is to resort to creating laws that hold the force of deterrent based on the ability to overpower by force, those who disagree .

Art Klym said...

How does a Christian assert that there is such a thing as objective morality? Both secularists and Christians subscribe to a morality that has evolved over time. Infanticide and genocide are not the subjects of blanket condemnation in the Bible. In fact, they are approved and encouraged in some circumstances. If the God of the Bible is the source of morality one wonders why he directs his people to act in a manner that most Christians would condemn today. He acts that way himself in the Old Testament.

Unknown said...

What morals? Moral relativism says what's wrong to you maybe right for me. By that statement there is NO standard so then there is no such thing as right and wrong. You cannot be moral without a standard. Where does the standard come from? If it comes from ones self where did you get it? Then it would pertain to you and ONLY you.

Art Klym said...

Unknown, your argument seems like gibberish to me. If social conventions become nearly universal, your position seems to be that they come from god. Perhaps they (and what we term morals) do come from god. If they do, they do not come from the god of the Bible. Why do I say that? Because most Christians find both slavery and genocide abhorrent. The god of the Bible does not.

Stardusty Psyche said...


Relativists Can’t Accuse Others of Wrong-Doing
I accuse others of doing things that violate my personal sense of ought. I communicate with my fellow citizens and if we agree sufficiently then we hire people to put others in cages for violating our collective agreement on our personal senses of ought. We act absent absolute morals, rather on a consensus of personal sensibilities.
Relativists Can’t Complain About the Problem of Evil
Yes, I can and do, because the problem of evil is not a problem merely of god against an objective standard of evil, but also god as evil in comparison to standards of good expressed within the assertion of god. I complain of the problem of evil on the basis of self contradiction. I also complain that your god violates my personal sense of ought and in my view your god's morals are evil.
Relativists Can’t Place Blame or Accept Praise
On cause and effect and the appearance of free agency I do both. On determinism I can do neither.
Relativists Can’t Claim Anything Is Unfair or Unjust
Things are unfair or unjust in my personal sense of ought. When others agree with my postulates of good such as human flourishing and avoidance of harm I can make claims of having violated mutually postulated principles.
Relativists Can’t Improve Their Morality
I learn how to improve my applied ethics by honing my postulates of good and evil as well as derived ethical behaviors.
Relativists Can’t Hold Meaningful Moral Discussions
I am right now.
Relativists Can’t Promote the Obligation of Tolerance
We all do whatever we want at all times. It is all we can do.

Damian said...

Moral relativists can't claim everyone ought to be moral relativists.

Robert Papy said...

Slavery and genocide were not uncommon due to the decisions of humans in Biblical times.

Robert Papy said...

"We all do whatever we want at all times". This is completely at odds with the concept of objective morality. Please explain how "doing what we want" helps further sound moral reasoning.

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