Aug16 2011

Is Morality Determined By Society?

In my previous post, I was taking a look at a popular approach to morality known as “moral relativism”, specifically the kind of relativism which says that right and wrong are up to the individual to decide.  I had pointed out that most relativists are not consistent when it comes to actually applying their relativistic view to real life.  In the end, they attempt to relativize any values that they don’t like, while absolutizing the values that they do like.  For example, they will often tell us that modesty, sexual purity, and abstinence before marriage are only “right” for some people (it’s “relative”).  Yet, when it comes to anything that they personally find offensive such as hate, discrimination, intolerance, or homophobia, they push their morality on others by insisting that such things are wrong for everyone-  absolutely.  As I said, this is hardly in keeping with their claim that right and wrong are “up to the individual”.   When faced with the fact that they are not living consistently within their own view, the diehard relativist will often seek refuge in another brand of relativism which says that right and wrong are determined by society.  As it turns out, this approach to morality is plagued with many problems as well and it raises a number of questions.

For example, when someone says that morality is “determined by society”, the first question we need to ask is, “Which part of society?”  This is an important question for several reasons.  Before World War II, the Jews were certainly a part of German society.  So, if society determines what’s right, then how did the Jews ( being part of that society) end up in the prison camps?  Right now, even within American society, we are split almost 50/50 on everything from same-sex marriage to abortion.  As a side-note, this “split” within American culture is the reason why it’s no longer reasonable nor meaningful for a politician to claim that he or she wants to represent “the people”, because the question could always be asked, “Which people?  Those for abortion, or those against it?  Those for same-sex marriage, or those against it?”  The point is, how can a society that is so sharply divided over moral issues be said to “determine” what’s right or wrong?

There are other problems with the notion that morality is based on whatever society says.  If something is right or wrong based solely on whatever society says, then moral reformers, by definition, would be “immoral” because they are defying that which society says is “right”.  Based on that sort of reasoning, we would have to condemn German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer for standing up against Hitler and the Nazi party when he spoke out against their crimes against the Jews.  We must also condemn Corrie ten Boom for going against society’s wishes by hiding and protecting Jews from the Nazis.  William Wilberforce would have been a “criminal” for defying society and fighting against the slave trade.  In our own country, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been considered “immoral” by that definition because he disobeyed racial segregation that was put into place by a society that had already determined what was “right”.  By the way, this is why I often ask the relativist if they believe that racism was wrong before the Civil Rights Movement.  If right and wrong are simply determined by a majority vote, then we lose the only foundation on which to say that racism is objectively wrong or truly wrong.  At best, we would be forced by our own twisted logic to say that racism is only “wrong” for now, but that may change in the future as society changes.  Now that is a frightening thought.

If there is a lesson to be learned in all of this, it is best learned by looking back in history at the Nuremberg trials in 1945 where the leaders of the Nazi party were put on trial for war crimes.  Throughout the proceedings, the defendants insisted that the Allies had no business trying them for war crimes because they (the Nazis) were operating according to the laws of their country-  they were doing what was “right” for their society.  If that’s true, if right and wrong are determined by society, then the International Military Tribunal would have never been in a position to bring charges against those who masterminded the Holocaust.  The only way that any society can be judged as “immoral” is on the basis of an external standard of what is right-  a Moral Law that transcends culture.

I am convinced that a Moral Law of such supreme authority and power can only come from God as the Supreme Lawgiver.  Undoubtedly, there are many people who will stridently disagree with me.  I would only remind them that in disagreeing with me, they are also disagreeing with Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, ten Boom, and Dr. King, all of whom shared my conviction.  One thing is for sure, justice would have never been served if the Nazis had succeeded in convincing the Tribunal and the rest of the world that right and wrong are determined by society.

6 Responses to “Is Morality Determined By Society?”

  1. Drew Ryan says:

    I'll never understand why people think moral relativity is a tenable belief. I have met people who believe in a sort moral relativity in the sense that it only exists as we believe it, meaning they accept there is no morality at all. Such people can at least see the logical conclusion of moral relativity, and as far as I can tell there is no way to show them otherwise, since knowledge of morality relies on intuition and assumptions unless one accepts divine proclamations as valid, which I can't see any moral relativists doing.

  2. Dave W. says:

    No Drew, its completely the other way round. Moral relativity exists because it works! If I hit him and he hits me back, perhaps harder, I think thats bad, and I don't do it again (if I've got any survival sense!) Same goes for murder, lying, stealing, cheating, being lazy, glutinous, lascivious, unwashed, rude, lewd, crude, vulgar, and oh, I dunno, maybe Australian!
    Point is, if I do something that others don't like, enough for them to respond badly, then I'm going to consider NOT DOING IT. These then become our morals or mores. Pretty simple when you think about it properly, and without a bias.


  3. Dave W. says:

    Hi Marty!
    Ah, but see relativism is relative – you have to consider it from the relativists perspective – and as you've recognised it WAS working for the nazis till they peeved people off enough for someone else to apply their brand of morality on the nazis. Sometime after their fall, the few (ex!) nazis left had a different morality. (And for the record, if Germany had won, they intended holding their own war crime trials)


  4. Drew Ryan says:

    Moral relativity can't work if it's not true. The Nazis had the Jews killed and felt justified in doing so. To no one's surprise, the Jews held the contrary belief that they should not be killed. Contrary claims can't both be right. The only conclusion is that one of them was right (objective morality) or that they were both wrong, which only makes sense under moral nihilism. That they can both be right is nonsense. One of them can be right, or neither of them can be right, but it sure can't be both.

  5. Drew Ryan says:

    As a philosophy student, I'm going to make my point with a simple truth table. Let K be the statement that killing the Jews is morally acceptable or morally good. Let ~K be the statement that killing the Jews is morally unacceptable or morally bad. T and F will of course describe the truth value, true or false, respectively, of the propositions. K&~K will be the proposition that both are correct.

    K ~K K&~K
    T F F
    F T F

    As you can see, it's a contradiction (in philosophical terms this means there is no interpretation in which it is true) to say that both the Nazis are correct in their moral assessment and that the Jews are correct in theirs. The only condition under which the proposition K&~K would be true would be if both K and ~K both had truth value T in the same row, which is true in neither instance. The point is, a basic tool of logic from a 100 level philosophy course can show that contrary claims cannot both be true. If one is true, the other is false. Therefore, contrary moral claims cannot both be true, which discounts moral relativity, but not moral nihilism.

  6. Drew Ryan says:

    For some reason the truth table didn't come out the way I wrote it, the two Fs in the first row were under ~K and K&~K, and the T and second F in the second row were likewise under ~K and K&~K, respectively.

  • In today's world, there is a great deal of confusion when it comes to matters of truth, meaning, morality, our origin, and our destiny. The purpose of Renewed Thoughts is to bring clarity to such issues by examining them in light of a Biblical worldview, using the tools of science, philosophy, and critical thinking.