Posts Tagged ‘values’


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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