Posts Tagged ‘moral relativism’

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Is Morality Determined By Society?

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

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.

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Posted in Christianity and Culture | 6 Comments »

An Inconvenient Truth About Morality

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

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.”

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Posted in Christianity and Culture | 10 Comments »

Absolutely Relative

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Over Memorial Day weekend, some friends of mine brought to my attention an interesting exchange that was taking place between a few college students on Facebook. It all began with a discussion surrounding a movie that had just recently come out.  The first student had rightly pointed out that many things about the movie, including the language, was in very poor taste.  Other comments followed as a few more students joined the conversation.  Most of the students agreed with the first guy and some of them went on to point out that movies which promote such obscene humor not only have a compromising effect on Christians who view them, they have a subtle, yet corrosive effect on our culture in general.

            As expected, not everyone agreed and it wasn’t long before some students began to challenge this idea.  One of those students was “Dave” (not his real name).  Dave, as a non-Christian, identified himself as “Ignostic”, which he said is “not to be confused with ‘agnostic’.”  In any case, Dave made it clear that he was a relativist and he made several comments to try and convince the other students that it’s pointless for them to make moral judgments about such movies because “morality is relative.”  I have no doubt that Dave is a very intelligent guy and he was very persuasive in pointing out several examples from various cultural and historical traditions which, on the surface, give the appearance that morality is “relative to cultures”.  There was one statement in particular that caught my attention as he attempted to summarize his comments by saying, “You cannot escape the context you are born into.” 

            This is not the first time I’ve heard that view expressed.  In fact, I just recently spoke to a woman who teaches political science at one of our universities who stated that this “context” view is quite common within higher education.  While it may be tempting to accept such a view purely on the basis that it’s “generally accepted” today in our colleges and universities, that should not stop us from calling it into question.  In fact, the ability to examine the strengths and weaknesses of an idea is what a good education is all about.  One thing that we often forget is that despite a great education, even a person of great intellect is capable of making egregious errors in reasoning because, just like the rest of us, they’re not perfect.  I believe that this story is an example of that.   

            There is something fundamentally wrong with this relativistic notion that “you cannot escape your context.”  To illustrate, suppose that I’m a Christian student in a college classroom and my professor has just said, “You cannot escape the context that you’re born into.”  If that really is the case, then what would be the point in teaching that to me?  As a Christian, I do not share that view.  So, in order for me to change my way of thinking and to embrace this “context” idea, I can only do so if I have the ability to step out of (“escape the context” of) my Christian worldview.  Yet, my professor has just told me that it’s impossible for anyone to escape their context!  Or suppose that someone was raised in a community that is very racist.  If he cannot escape the context that he was born into, then what would be the point in trying to persuade him that racism is wrong?   It only gets worse at this point.  What about the person who initially came up with this “context” theory?  Isn’t his theory, itself, really nothing more than a result of his or her own cultural context?  Did he come to his conclusions simply because he was raised that way?  If his theory is nothing more than a product of his context, why should the rest of us accept it, even if we could accept it? 

            This “context” view runs into the same problem that undermines all relativistic views-  they can’t live up to their own expectations.  Right from the start, they begin to lose traction because the person promoting the idea is attempting to apply his view or theory to everyone except himself (“the self-excepting fallacy”).  It’s one more example of an idea that has been allowed to take root in our culture, not because it is reasonable, but because we are either unwilling or unable to question the foundation on which the idea was built.  “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools…”  (Romans 1:22)

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Posted in Christianity and Culture | 3 Comments »

Is Happiness the Bottom Line?

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

“Everyone should have the right to do whatever makes them happy.”  How many times have you heard someone make a statement like that?  In fact, there is a good chance that you have even said it yourself.  Although it is not a new idea by any means it is, nevertheless, enjoying a great deal of popularity among our culture today.  It’s not hard to understand why it’s such a popular idea.  After all, who among us doesn’t wish to be happy?  But while this idea may sound reasonable and perfectly harmless at a glance, just a few minutes of thinking it over and following it to its logical conclusion exposes just how harmful this idea can really be.

What I find most disturbing is the number of people these days who have bought into this idea with such reckless abandon that in their insatiable thirst for happiness, they are apparently willing to overlook and even justify the most horrific examples of such faulty thinking.  For example, in three separate conversations that I had with three different students last year, I asked each of them this question, “When it comes to making decisions in your life about what is right or wrong, what do you base it on?”  They all predictably answered, “I base it on doing whatever makes me happy.”  I then asked each of them, “When you consider the events of the Holocaust and the fact that Hitler was exterminating millions of people and worked toward building a master race in the pursuit of his happiness, would you say that what Hitler did was right?”   In each conversation, the student looked at me and said without any hesitation, “Yes.  I guess it was right for him if it made him happy.”  In one of those conversations, I responded by saying, “I really do hope that you’re just being stubborn or that you’re just messing with me because if I thought for one moment that you were actually serious about your answer, I would have every reason to be afraid of you…..and so should everyone else.”

Recently when I was addressing a high school youth group regarding some cultural issues involving sexual promiscuity, I brought up the question of whether or not people should simply “do whatever makes them happy”.  Not wishing to risk using Hitler as my example again, I used the examples of  a student who steals from his classmates and a pedophile who molests children, both of which are examples of someone who is pursuing their own happiness.  One of the girls in the group raised an objection.  She pointed out to me that it really wasn’t fair for me to compare them, because in the case of the pedophile and the thief, they are both pursuing their happiness at the expense of someone else or doing harm to someone else, whereas in the matter of sexual promiscuity between two consenting people, this is not the case at all (although that is even debatable).

I responded to her by saying that I wasn’t trying to compare them, but rather, my intent was to point out some of the dangers of the “do whatever makes you happy” mentality.  I then asked her if she at least agreed with me that molesting children and stealing from someone is wrong.  She definitely agreed.  I further asked her if she agreed with me that we cannot and must not go around these days “throwing the door wide open”  by suggesting that “everyone has the right to do anything that makes them happy” -  that for us to make such broad, sweeping and open-ended statements would be both irresponsible and destructive.  Again, she agreed.  Next, I  asked her if it was reasonable to conclude from this that in the pursuit of one’s happiness, there has to be a limit.  She said, “Yes.”  I finally asked her, “When we say that there is a ‘limit’, aren’t we really saying that there must be a moral boundary line?” – She agreed.

This, of course, leaves us with the most important question of all: When it comes to drawing the boundary lines on ANY issue in life, who ultimately decides where those boundary lines are to be drawn?  Is it up to man, or is it up to God? If we make the mistake of leaving it up to man, I have no doubt that we will end up opening the door to a world that none of us will be able to endure.

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Posted in Ethics | 2 Comments »

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