Jul16 2011

An Inconvenient Truth About Morality

If you’ve ever listened in on a discussion involving a controversial issue where someone is perceived as promoting “traditional” or “Christian” values, chances are, you’ve heard one or more of the following responses:

“That’s not wrong for everyone, it’s only wrong for you.”

“That’s just your opinion.”

“What’s right for you may not be right for me.”

“Stop pushing your morality on everyone else.”

Whether they realize it or not, those who give such responses are expressing a particular view of morality known as “moral relativism”.  More specifically, they are referring to that view of morality which says that right and wrong are up to the individual to decide for himself or herself.

This concept of moral relativism has been accepted by so many people today that we hear it on a regular basis from the average person on the street (as we’ve just seen in the examples above).  Even though relativism has its share of problems as a moral view, I’m more interested in focusing at this time on the people who have adopted that view of morality-  that is, the moral relativist.  As we will see, those who say that morality is “relative” tend to be very inconsistent when it comes to how, when, and where they apply that principle.  Generally speaking, they will only play by that rule when it’s convenient for them to do so-  when it suits their own self-interests.  This explains why they claim to be a “relativist” when it comes to justifying their own lifestyle or behavior.   Yet, the moment someone does or says anything that offends the relativist, they will react as if they believe in a real, objective standard of morality. All of a sudden, they believe that right and wrong are not up to the individual to decide.

This double standard of the relativist is most noticeable when you listen carefully to the things they say.  For example, consider the following statements that are commonly expressed by the moral relativist:

“I was here first.

“That’s just wrong.

“Christians are such hypocrites.”

“You’re being intolerant.

“People who don’t support gay rights are spreading hate.

“Not allowing same-sex marriage is discrimination.

“She lied to me.”

“Someone stole my iPod.”

It’s important to understand that in all of these statements, the relativist is making a moral judgment-  they are condemning someone else’s behavior as “morally wrong” .  Here’s my point: as a relativist, it would make sense if they meant that such things are only wrong for them, but that’s not what they’re saying.  They’re saying that it’s wrong for others. To put it another way, they’re deciding what’s right or wrong for others, yet they claim to believe that it’s up to each person to decide for himself!

All of this reminds me of a conversation that I had a few years ago with a young lady named “Denise” (not her real name).  It was a few months before the 2008 elections and there was a proposition on the ballot in Arizona that was intended to preserve and protect the institution of marriage as one man and one woman by a “yes” vote.  Denise had been going around the neighborhood putting up posters and signs encouraging people to vote against the proposition because, as she put it, “Such a proposition is discriminating against same-sex couples.”  As I engaged her in conversation I pointed out that if we were going to get anywhere in our discussion, we must ultimately get down to the foundational question of every political, social, and moral issue:  by what standard does one determine what’s right or wrong?  The conversation at that point went as follows:

(Denise)-  “Well, you want to base it on God.”

(me)-         “I think that’s the most reasonable basis for morality.”

(Denise)-   “I don’t believe in God.”

(me)-          “It’s not a question of whether or not you ‘believe’ in God.  It’s a matter of whether or not he really exists.  There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence from both science and philosophy that God really does exist.  But just for the sake of discussion, let’s pretend that he doesn’t exist.  Let’s suppose you’re right.  So, if there is no God, then on what basis are you going to decide what’s right and what’s wrong?”

(Denise)-     “That’s easy.  It’s up to each person to decide for himself.  I can’t say what’s right or wrong for you and you can’t say what’s right or wrong for me.  I can’t push my morality on you and you can’t push your morality on me.  Like I said, it’s up to each person to decide for himself.”

(me)-        “It’s easy for you to say that, but I don’t think you can live by that.”

(Denise)-       “Why not?”

(me)-              “Because a moment ago, you said that not allowing same-sex couples to marry would be discrimination.”

(Denise)-        “It would be discrimination.”

(me)-               “So, are you saying that discrimination is wrong?”

(Denise)-         “ABSOLUTELY.  Discrimination is absolutely wrong!”

(me)-               “That’s what I don’t understand.  How can you say that discrimination, or anything else for that matter, is ‘absolutely wrong’ if you believe that it’s up to each person to decide for himself whether or NOT such things are wrong?  After all, to say that it’s ‘up to the individual to decide’ is to say that it’s up to each person to decide whether or not discrimination is wrong, whether or not intolerance is wrong, whether or not racism is wrong, etc.  Do you really want to live in a world where each person is deciding for himself or herself what’s right?”

She had no response.

Denise, just like every other relativist, finds herself in the unenviable position of trying to make moral judgments, yet lacking a foundation on which to do so.  No doubt, the late Francis Schaeffer had people such as Denise in mind when he described the relativist as having “both feet firmly planted in mid-air.”

10 Responses to “An Inconvenient Truth About Morality”

  1. Dale B. says:

    Marty, another great blog entry. Your exchange with Denise lays it out so clearly. Moral relativists do not believe their own claims. They'd have to agree that widely-condemned attitudes, including racism, sexism, bigotry, you name it, are acceptable, so long as the one who embraces such views reached those conclusions on his own and truly believes it's what is right for him. How could the relativist argue otherwise? Taken to a logical conclusion, we'd end up with anarchy for all. Which I suppose is just fine, if anarchy works for me. Dale B.

    • Jen says:

      I am not saying moral relativism is right, but I would like to point out that the issue that moral relativists have with sexism, racism, bigotry etc is that they affect the ability of other beliefs to survive. In other words, Denise was standing against homophobia because it infringed on the individuals rights and beliefs. Moral relativists wish for a liberal situation which is pro-choice so that beliefs can thrive

      • Jen says:

        In short, I guess all I'm saying is that the only belief moral relativists would feel comfortable encouraging others to adopt is moral relativism :)

  2. Sheri says:

    Excellent, Marty. A great exchange. You're so correct; it's all about the foundation or lack of, which determines our mindset; our decisions. Sheri

  3. Colin Jones says:

    Thanks Marty for another great post. I can actually see the arguments as they were presented and I actually think that you won that debate.

  4. Dave W. says:

    Ah, but what she didn't realise was that you had changed the argument from one about whether there should be a law forbidding same sex marriages, and had her instead arguing about "discrimination". This misdirection is evidenced by YOU presenting a "discrimination" argument for the ORIGINAL case. Your last statement of "Do you really want to live in a world where each person is deciding for himself or herself what’s right?" should have finished as "… deciding for himself of herself what's right for themselves?", in which case the answer would be a categorical YES!!!, and you would then support voting the bill down.

    Misdirection is a persuasive argument.

  5. Marty says:

    Dave W., You suggest that I had somehow "changed the argument" by "presenting a discrimination argument" in order to change the topic. That is not the case at all. If you read it again you will notice that SHE was the one who initially brought up the topic of discrimination as the explanation for why she was putting up the posters and signs. By the way, please note that in doing so, Denise was pushing HER morality- the very thing for which she condemns others! Regarding my statement: "Do you really want to live in a world where each person is deciding for himself or herself what's right?", you suggest that I should have finished it as…."deciding for himself or herself what's right for themselves?" It would have been redundant and pointless for me to include those last two words since they are already implied in the statement itself. Last of all, the fact that you suggest that the answer would be "YES!" tells me that, once again, you've missed the whole point of this. As I said, when Denise and other relativists say that discrimination is "wrong", they are not content with saying that it's only wrong for THEM, they are insisting that it's wrong for OTHERS- thus, they are not REALLY allowing others to "decide for themselves".

    • Dave W. says:

      Hi Marty.
      The reason for her putting up the posters and her point, I'd suggest, was her disagreement with a bill that would specifically prevent people exercising options within their own beliefs. You apparently questioned her actions within this context and directed her responses back to a point about discrimination, to which she responded with "Discrimination is absolutely wrong" – a stance you appear to disagree with, and that is the central point of your topic. Well, I agree, but with a but… I don't believe she's right in being absolute, but I think that this very absolute-ness means she's NOT a relativist in the strictest terms. Therefore your argument may be a strawman. Does she consider herself a moral relativist, or does she just have one opinion that can also be attributable to a moral relativist. I may well like curry, but that doesn't make me Indian?

  6. Marty says:

    Hi Dave. Thanks for your input, as I genuinely respect your views regarding this. Perhaps it would be helpful if I clarified by saying that I never did question her actions. I just happened to encounter her as she was putting up the posters. I merely said, "hello", to which she began telling me what she was doing and , more importantly, why she was doing it. In any case, I don't think that either one of us is going to convince the other on this. : ) Nevertheless, I appreciate your thoughts on it.

  7. Dave W. says:

    Hi again Marty,
    Perhaps I should be clear and state that I agree with your main point, but take umbrage with the general use of the term itself. It seems to be thrown about as an insult without the real meaning being understood. I've been called a relativist myself, though it was as a moral lacking relativist, when I'm nothing of the sort – relativist that is – I do lack some morals as defined by some people. The point I was trying to make was that there are no real moral relativists. Most of us – I'd suspect all, but I wont be absolute about it – believe that some things are wrong (or right?) all the time, for all people. I'd suggest murder is one thing that most people would consider morally wrong all the time (have to be careful here – I'm talking about the planned killing of another human outside of the law), but it's not too difficult to believe there are circumstances where murder may be morally right.
    Anyway, thank you for piquing my interest with this topic, and letting me comment. You've got some other interesting posts and I'll now meander off through those.

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