Responding to Moral Relativists
Now that we have examined moral absolutism let’s consider how best to respond to those relativists who regard us as intolerant and judgmental.
First of all, how often have you had it said to you, or heard it said to someone else: “You shouldn’t force your morality on me.” The proper response is: “Why not?” After all, he is forcing his morality on you by insisting that you have no right to force your morality on him! He has a strong moral conviction, namely, that no one should force their morality on anyone else. But “he’s going to have a hard time explaining why you shouldn’t impose your views without imposing his morality on you. This forces him to state a moral rule while simultaneously denying that moral rules exist” (Beckwith/Koukl, 145).
This same principle can be applied to a number of scenarios (see Beckwith/Koukl, 145-48):
“You shouldn’t force your morality on me.”
“Because I don’t believe in forcing morality.”
“If you don’t believe in it, then by all means, don’t do it. Especially don’t force that moral view of yours on me.”
“You shouldn’t push your morality on me.”
“I’m not entirely sure what you mean by that statement. Do you mean I have no right to an opinion?”
“You have a right to your opinion, but you have no right to force it on anyone.”
“Is that your opinion?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, it is.”
“Then why are you forcing it on me?”
“Because you’re saying that only your view is right.”
“Am I wrong in saying that?”
“Is that your view?”
“Then you’re saying that only your view is right, which is the very thing you objected to me saying.”
“Don’t push your morality on me.”
“Why not? Don’t you believe in morality?”
“Sure, but I believe in my morality, not yours.”
“Well, then, how do you know what’s moral?”
“I think people should decide individually.”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing. And I’m deciding that you are immoral. Why do you have a problem with that? After all, live and let live is your value, not mine.”
“You shouldn’t push your morality on me.”
“Correct me if I’m misunderstanding you here, but it sounds to me like you’re telling me I’m wrong.”
“Well, you seem to be saying that my personal moral view shouldn’t apply to other people. But that sounds suspiciously like you are applying your moral view to me. Why are you forcing your morality [which says no one should push his/her morality on others] on me?”
“I believe your homosexuality is immoral.”
“But you can’t push your morality on me.”
“In point of fact, I’m the only one who can even talk about morality in this conversation because I believe in an ethical system that allows me to make moral judgments. You are a relativist, so you can’t even say that my judgments about your morality are wrong.”
“Who are you to say that abortion is wrong?”
“Who are you to say, ‘Who are you to say’?”
The point here is that “she’s challenging your right to correct another, yet she’s correcting you. Your response to her amounts to ‘Who are you to correct my correction, if correcting in itself is wrong?’ or ‘If I don’t have the right to challenge your view, then why do you have the right to challenge mine?’ Her objection is self-refuting; you’re just pointing it out” (Beckwith/Koukl, 146).
“You Christians bug me. You seem nice at first, but then you get judgmental.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“What’s wrong with it is that it’s not right to judge other people.”
“Well, if it’s wrong to judge other people, why are you judging me by telling me I’m wrong for being judgmental?”
“O.K. How about this? It’s O.K. to judge people, as long as you don’t force your morality on them. That’s crossing the line.”
“May I ask you a question?”
“Is that your morality?”
“Then why are you pushing your morality on me?”
“This isn’t fair!” (with a sound of frustration in his voice!)
“Because I can’t find a way to say it so it sounds right.”
“But it doesn’t sound right because it isn’t right; it’s self-refuting.”
Remember also that moral relativists will often appeal to tolerance as a way of promoting their viewpoint as superior to that of an absolutist. “Our ethical system is better than yours because we believe in tolerance of everyone’s beliefs rather than intolerance.” There are a couple of problems with this.
· First of all, the relativist claims that there are no moral absolutes. But he is now in the position of advocating at least one: tolerance. Tolerance is itself promoted as a value or virtue, indeed the highest one imaginable. But to do so undermines the very foundation of relativism which is that no such values or virtues exist.
· Second, “tolerance can only be a virtue if we think the other person, whose viewpoint we’re supposed to tolerate, is mistaken. That is to say, if we do not believe one viewpoint is better than another, then to ask us to be tolerant of other viewpoints makes no sense. For to tolerate another’s viewpoint implies that this other person has a right to his or her viewpoint despite the fact that others may think it is wrong. To be tolerant of differing viewpoints involves just that – differing viewpoints, all of which cannot be equally correct at the same time. . . . Consequently, real tolerance presupposes someone is right and someone is wrong, which implicitly denies moral relativism” (Beckwith, “Philosophical Problems with Moral Relativism,” CSR, Fall 1993, 23,39).
· Third, all moral relativists end up denying the virtue of tolerance when they are confronted with situations they find morally intolerable. Few, if any, moral relativists would say that we should tolerate a Hitler and his pursuit of genocide. The Holocaust was a morally intolerable event that should be opposed. Thus even so-called moral relativists believe that some things are absolutely wrong and thus intolerable.
6. Related questions for discussion:
a) What makes “good” acts “good” and “evil” acts “evil”?
b) Does God do (ordain) things because they are good, or are things good because God does (ordains) them?
In other words, do God’s commands make something right or do they merely indicate that it is right? If God commands or ordains an act because it is good, this would imply that good is something independent of God, perhaps even higher than God, to which He himself is bound and obligated. But if an act is good simply because it is God who commands it, this makes God appear arbitrary and opens the door for him to command anything. For example, “if things are good because God commands them, then he could command that we torture babies, and that would be good, simply because he commanded it” (Rae, p. 32). Or as Pojman has said, “if God’s fiat is the sole arbiter of right and wrong, then it would seem to be logically possible for such heinous acts as rape, murder, and gratuitous cruelty to become morally good actions – if God suddenly commanded us to do these things” (196). How do you respond to this?
This obviously raises the question: “Is God free to command us to do anything? Or is He only free to command what is consistent with his character? Or is He obligated to command what is already, i.e., eternally and intrinsically, good?”
That form of biblical absolutism known as the divine command theory of ethics (also called voluntarism), may be formulated in the following ways:
Good = what is willed by God;
I ought to do A means God commands A, and
I ought not to do B means God forbids B;
A is right means A is willed by God;
the good = that because of which God rewards, and
the evil = that because of which God punishes;
or, yet again,
Major premise - what God wills is right,
Minor premise - God wills X,
Conclusion - therefore, X is right.
Pojman defines the divine command theory as follows:
“Morality not only originates with God, but moral rightness simply means ‘willed by God’ and moral wrongness means ‘being against the will of God.’ That is, an act is right in virtue of being permitted by the will of God, and an act is wrong in virtue of being against the will of God” (195).
One is here reminded of the comment by Ivan Karamazov: “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permissible” (The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky).
c) Is a person morally guilty for failing to do what he could not do (which is different from what he would not do) or for doing what he could not help but do? How does this affect the so-called “insanity plea” in criminal cases?
d) What role does motive or intent play in the fulfillment of a moral duty? Were the Pharisees moral?
e) Must we have an explicit Biblical prohibition or command to establish a universal moral norm?
f) To what extent should Christians seek to have their moral convictions concerning what the Bible says is right and wrong reflected in American law and public policy? A related question is this: "Should we ever seek to legislate morality?" The answer is: all legislation is morality! Carter explains:
“If I happen to believe that private property is immoral, and also happen to covet an automobile that you are driving, it is only an imposition of your morality on me that calls the car your property and allows the state to punish me should I act out of my morality instead of yours. And if you answer that most people agree with you that I cannot take the car you say is yours, all you are saying is that the majority should be able to impose its moral sentiment on the minority. . . . [P]ractically all laws, whether they forbid me to take your car, outlaw racial discrimination, or coerce the payment of taxes, impose somebody’s morality on somebody else. Every law either prevents me from doing something or forces me to do something” (Civility, 208).
People often mistakenly appeal to the First Amendment as grounds for denying that you can legislate morality. The First Amendment reads as follows:
“Congress shall make no Law respecting an Establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the free Exercise thereof; or abridging the Freedom of Speech, or of the Press, or the Right of the People peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a Redress of Grievances.”
Many have argued that the guarantee of those freedoms mentioned here precludes the idea that morality can be legislated. But as Geisler notes:
“While the First Amendment clearly forbids the federal government from establishing a national religion, it does not prohibit the government from establishing a national morality. In fact, the First Amendment itself is a law that helps establish a national morality: it clearly implies that it is wrong for Congress to establish a religion or to prohibit the free exercise of religion; it also implies that any congressional attempt to abridge freedom of speech, the press, or assembly is morally wrong. The Founding Fathers obviously were convinced that it would be immoral for Congress to restrict these freedoms. In other words, they believed these freedoms were morally right and needed to be protected through legislation” (Legislating Morality: Is it Wise? Is it Legal? Is it Possible? [Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998], 22).
As we have noted before, those who loudly insist that you can’t legislate morality do so because they believe (inconsistently) that it is morally wrong. What they are saying is: “You ought not to legislate ought nots.” Their position is self-refuting. Thus “the people who are supposedly against ‘legislating morality’ are trying to impose on everyone else the moral position that moral positions should not be imposed on everyone!” (Geisler, 42). These people do not really want to eliminate all moral standards from our laws. They only want to eliminate those standards they don’t like! The issue is not whether we will legislate morality. We must. The issue, rather, is whose or which morality should be legislated.
g) Is there a point of contact or moral common ground between Christians and non-Christians on the basis of which the Church should hold the world ethically accountable? In other words, is there such a thing as natural law?
Scott Rae defines natural law as follows:
"Natural law posits that moral precepts exist prior to God's commands, and that objective moral values exist outside of special revelation. These concepts are logically independent of Scripture, and are thus indirectly revealed by God in creation. The Christian notion of goodness includes more than just what is revealed in the Bible. It also includes what God has revealed by general revelation, too. Just as God has revealed truths about the sciences outside of Scripture, he has also revealed truths about morality outside of Scripture. Natural law is simply general revelation in the area of moral values" (33).
Biblical justification for natural law is found in Romans 1:18-32, and 2:1-16, esp. vv. 14-15. How can God hold Gentiles morally accountable for their sin unless they have access to a divine standard of morality outside the pale of special revelation (i.e., outside Scripture)? See also the oracles of judgment against pagan nations in Isa. 13-27; Jer. 46-51; Ezek. 25-32; Amos 1-2.
It should be pointed out, however, that no purported universal ethical norm discovered apart from Scripture can ever be contrary to Scripture. Any alleged ethical principle must be compatible with or a necessary inference from what is explicitly stated in the Word of God.
[For an excellent study of natural law, see Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), by J. Budziszewski.]