Moral Relativism Doesn’t Make Sense

Morality is built into the human person. Human language is infused with terms that convey moral truth, and we can hardly express ourselves without revealing it. Yet, in recent decades many have sought to revise thousands of years of moral wisdom. Moral relativism holds that no objective, universal moral truths exist, but only preferences based on individual or cultural considerations. Conversely, objective morality recognizes an authoritative, prescriptive and universal moral law that transcends time, society, culture and self. Relativists cannot consistently adhere to the principles of relativism, because relativism itself is incoherent. On the other hand, objective morality is an internally consistent explanation of right and wrong that agrees with our personal experience and moral intuition and can be observed consistently in daily life. In this post we will see that moral relativism’s own self-refuting value statements simultaneously demonstrate not only relativism’s incoherence, but also the truth of objective morality.

Forms of Moral Relativism

Moral relativism exists in three major forms. First, descriptive relativism says that morality must be relative, since societies appear to differ on basic moral values. About this form of relativism, philosopher Francis Beckwith and apologist Greg Koukl observe, “Since each culture has a different morality, none is justified in claiming that its own brand of morality is correct. Therefore, there is no objective morality nor any moral absolutes. Morality is relative.”[1] But the conclusion that no society is right or wrong simply because they disagree on individual answers to moral dilemmas is illogical. If two students give different answers on a math test, we can’t say neither student is right simply because their answers are different.

Second, normative ethical relativism says that the society or individual defines what is right or wrong, and people should adhere to the norms of their own societies, or each person should do what he believes is right. Moral reform is unknown in this form of relativism, because by definition, whatever is legal is right.

Third, ethical subjectivism maintains that because morality is relative, what the individual does should be based on personal preference. On this view, “everything is a private judgment call. All morality is personal; none is public. Every moral evaluation is a mere opinion, a personal preference.”[2] Morality reduced to personal preference is dangerous. Because there is no transcendent standard, when group or individual preferences are in conflict, the only way to adjudicate the matter is through the power of one over another. Might makes right.

Contradictory Claims

Relativism is replete with contradictory statements, but we will explore just three. First, relativists show that relativism is bankrupt as a moral philosophy by their reactions. Moral intuition cannot be proved. It can only be evaluated. Therefore, pressing a relativist on a pet issue will reveal that his moral intuition is inconsistent with his relativistic statements of value. Theologian Norman L. Geisler and apologist Frank Turek observe, “The moral of the story is that there are absolute morals. And if you really want to get relativists to admit it, all you need to do is treat them unfairly. Their reactions will reveal the Moral Law written on their hearts and minds.”[3] Geisler and Turek are saying that someone may give lip-service to the idea that no universal set of moral values exists, but if unfairly treated, he will object as if everyone is subject to the same moral standards. Relativism is inconsistent because even its own adherents’ moral intuitions deny its core statements of belief.

Second, by declaiming the virtue of tolerance, relativists suppose that they espouse morality of the highest order. But relativism cannot endorse tolerance because it recognizes no objective moral standard. What can be tolerated but deviation from a standard? Beckwith and Koukl observe, “If there are no objective moral rules, however, there can be no rule that requires tolerance as a moral principle that applies equally to all. In fact, if there are no moral absolutes, why be tolerant at all?”[4] Relativists prize tolerance as a virtue, but in light of the principles of relativism it is nonsensical.

Third, relativism has no way to accuse others of wrong. Both relativists and objectivists seek to correct injustices such as racism, political oppression, slavery, and many others. But on relativism, they have no moral authority to do so. For example, who are we to judge that apartheid is wrong? Shouldn’t we be tolerant of other societies, since no one culture or society is right or wrong? Beckwith and Koukl explain, “This is the first law of relativism: When right or wrong are a matter of personal choice, we surrender the privilege of making moral judgments on others’ actions.”[5] We can hope that relativists wake up to the inconsistency.

Objective morality is the only defensible moral position possible, because subjective, relative morality necessarily leads to contradictions. When moral relativism’s inconsistencies are exposed, in each case the evidence for objective morality is strengthened because there is no middle ground. If morality is not subjective, it must be objective.

Relativism’s Inconsistencies Strengthen Objective Morality

Let us evaluate the inconsistencies of relativism previously cited to see how the case for objective morality is strengthened. First, when a person is treated unfairly, he will react according to principles of objective morality, showing that what he really believes deep in his inner person is that he should not be unjustly treated. As Geisler and Turek observe, “the Moral Law is not always the standard by which we treat others, but it is nearly always the standard by which we expect others to treat us. It does not describe how we actually behave, but rather it prescribes how we ought to behave.”[6]

Second, the often touted virtue of tolerance is actually evidence in favor of objective morality. Tolerance, like respect, is a virtue rooted in the dignity of the human person made in the image of God, and because of its universal acknowledgement, it reveals that objective morality exists. “Even the number one virtue of our largely immoral culture—tolerance—reveals the Moral Law, because tolerance itself is a moral principle. If there is no Moral Law, then why should anyone be tolerant?”[7] Geisler and Turek affirm that tolerance only makes sense if objective morals exist.

Third, in order to combat injustice, there must be an authoritative, prescriptive, and universal moral law to defend the oppressed. We know that slavery, apartheid, the Holocaust, and other grievous injustices are wrong because objective morality exists. As Geisler and Turek summarize, “if there were no Moral Law, then we wouldn’t be able to detect evil or injustice of any kind. Without justice, injustice is meaningless.”[8]

Conclusion: Morality Is Objective

Many more examples of the inconsistencies of relativism could be gathered as evidence for the truth of objective morality. Because objective morality transcends time, society, culture and self, it is the one measuring line we can use to judge society and individuals against man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. We must not forget that the source of objective morality is the infinite, personal God of the Bible. As Francis Schaeffer observes, the early Christians “had absolute, universal values by which to live and by which to judge the society and the political state in which they lived.”[9] Moral relativism is false, and objective morality is true. The moral law is a gift from God.

[1] Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 37.

[2] Ibid., 39.

[3] Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 174.

[4] Relativism: Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air, 69.

[5] Ibid., 63.

[6] I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 175.

[7] Ibid., 181.

[8] Ibid., 177.

[9] Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (1976; repr., Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 22.

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