Are There Any True Moral Relativists?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

This post is a bit of a rant, but I hope it provides some light on top of the heat.  In 2011 I asked a simple question on the blog and then allowed readers to vote on the answer.  Here is the question: Is the statement, “It is wrong to rape little children for fun,” objectively or subjectively true?

I explained that objectively true means that a statement is “true for all people at all times in all places,” and that subjectively true means that a statement is “a matter of taste, of my personal preference,” like saying that “French roast is the worst tasting coffee.”

299 votes have been cast since I posted the poll question, and disappointingly, only 68% voted that the statement is objectively true.  Think about this: more than 30% of the people who responded to this poll are so morally confused that they fail to recognize that raping a little child for fun is morally wrong for all people at all times in all places.

By casting their votes for the subjective truth of this statement, they are saying that it is possible that for some person, living at some place, in some time, raping a little child for fun is morally acceptable.  But you can’t really feel the total impact of these votes until you read some of the comments left by people who voted for subjective truth.  Here is a sampling:

“Of course I voted for ‘Subjectively’ since there is no objective morality.”

“Morals are subjective, so yes: raping little children is a matter of taste.”

“In my opinion, it is subjective. Everyone has their own sets of morals and values, therefore, their own sets of morality.”

“I voted for subjective because the statement gives an opinion. . . . Many people regard ‘wrong’ in many different ways and the way one regards what is wrong is based on his or her personal opinion.”

“I think it is subjective because to some it is wrong, but to some people, like the rapists themselves, it is good.”

“It’s a matter of fact that it is subjective.  Good or bad is subjective, justice is subjective and many more things that most people assume they aren’t subjective are actually subjective.”

Please keep in mind that I asked about a moral action that is so extreme that there should be no problem arriving at a judgment of its rightness or wrongness.  I didn’t ask about abortion or gay marriage or any other issue where there is moral controversy.  No, I wanted to make it simple.

For a person to say that the moral rightness or wrongness of raping a child for fun is a matter of taste is insanity, not to put too strong a point on it.  The wrongness of raping a child for fun is a fact as much as the fact that 5+4=9.  Only a twisted society could affirm the latter and deny the former.

The only reason I don’t truly panic when I see poll results like this is because 99% of the people who voted for subjectivity are just running their mouths, so to speak.  They don’t really believe what they’re saying.  It’s all about the shock value.  It’s hip to deny objective morality.  Only backward religious folks still believe in that silliness.  We have so moved beyond old-fashioned values.  Can I get a secular humanist “Amen”?

Almost every one of the “subjective” voters really believes in objective morality, and they demonstrate it every day.  They complain when other people talk behind their back, they accuse politicians they don’t like of evil intent, they protest against corporations who profit from child labor, and they demand justice in the courts.  They act, every day, as if there is a common, objective set of moral laws, that everyone should follow.

There have been precious few consistent moral relativists in the history of the world, thank you God.  And the ones who are truly consistent, who truly believe that there is no objective morality and who live that belief out every day in practice, are diagnosed by the psychiatric community.  The diagnosis?  Sociopath.

  • Ggodat

    And morality (or lack thereof) is the one thing that should difinitively prove that macroevolution is just plain false. Our society today is certainly no better off than 3000-4000 years ago. We have the same sick society doing the same sick things. People used to burn their children as sacrafices, today we murder them in the womb. We have just as many diseases, if not many more destructive ones, and our lives are a lot shorter than people from 3000+ years ago. If evolution were true I wouldn’t have a degenerative eye disease. People wouldn’t have high blood pressure or high cholesterol. We would all be in perfect health and have shiny white teeth!
    Evolution cannot be the agent for morality because humanity has not gotten any better.

  • tildeb

    Evolution cannot be the agent for morality because humanity has not gotten any better.

    Steve Pinker would disagree with you, Ggodat, and with compelling evidence to back up. All you have is belief.

  • Let us know, will you tildeb, if you find something else?

  • tildeb

    Although any value statement must be subjective by definition, the various metrics by which we weigh these values can be objective, meaning in place at this time for these people. (There is a whole lot of space between true-for-all-people-all-the-time-everywhere and individual subjective preference.) One of the metrics is our common biology revealing, for example, a very high degree of consistency across all other influencing factors like culture, language, gender, race, and so on. Interestingly, religious belief is potent enough to overcome one’s ‘natural’ (meaning biological) tendency to protect one’s children from harm in the service of divine authority. For those who subscribe to Divine Command Theory, for example, dead children is not a moral problem if god so orders it.

    But this biological metric is not the whole story for objective morality. Far from it.

    Because we can learn, we are able to elevate other metrics for our moral values. Professionals (doctors, police officers, nurses, teachers, engineers, lawyers, etc.) are taught to elevate their professional code of ethical conduct above and beyond their subjective personal preferences (imagine if police officers enforced only subjectively preferred laws!). Citizens are taught to elevate the law (social contract) over their subjective behavioural desires. Military personnel are taught to elevate rank and privilege over their personal use of armed might. Public servants are taught (some never learn) to elevate public policy over personal preferences. And so on.

    Each of these metrics can be considered ‘objective’ in the sense that no one individual is responsible for their creation and all at this time where the jurisdictions are bordered are to operate under their purview. But each metric is also subjective in the sense of non permanence, meaning that that changes over time are to be expected in response to changing environments, legislation, and best practices. Does this impermanence render today’s codes of ethical conduct for all professionals nihilistic (as is often leveled at atheists who do not subscribe to the local religious moral values)? Of course not.

    The problem arises when a certain set of the populace firmly believes that a preferred metric – usually an Iron age one – is elevated by divine fiat, to cover all other metrics, and imposed on everyone everywhere for all time. This is an odious metric of presumed authority with no recognizable boundaries for where this authority ends or any mechanism for correction or evolution. This is why the religious claim for ‘objective’ value superiority consistently yields intractable problems between competing and contrary individual religious metrics (usually instigating violence as the only means for change). The difficulty is getting the religious to appreciate that until they get their own house in unitary order, meaning one global religious belief with one moral value system, they have no business insisting that others – like the professions – should subjugate their ‘subjectively’ inferior value metrics to their ‘objectively’ superior one. This arrogance of belief – and not the atheist secularism – is a recipe for perpetual conflict and strife.

  • tildeb,
    What you are describing is still moral relativism. Each person’s biological makeup is different and if we are saying that biology drives moral prescriptions, then each person’s morality will be different. After all, some people feel strong biological urges to rape and kill; others do not. If there is no standard above biology, then it is impossible to say whether the person who feels biological urges to rape or kill is wrong.

    Your examples of professionals voluntarily adopting moral codes is completely irrelevant, because it only applies within their small group. That is morality relative to professional groups. You still do not have a moral code that applies to all people at all times.

    Finally, when you claim that this iron age metric is odious, what standard are you comparing it to? You have said that there is no objective standard that can applied across time, but in order for you to judge iron age morality as odious, you are assuming that there is a standard that can be applied across time. You are assuming that your current modern moral perspective can stand in judgment of a morality that existed 2000+ years ago. So by judging iron age morality, you are admitting an objective standard, something you deny exists.

  • tildeb

    No, Bill, I did not say objective standard(s) do not exist; I said There is a whole lot of space between true-for-all-people-all-the-time-everywhere and individual subjective preference.

    It is in this space where we can select moral systems with the kind of metric for values we all share, based on sound reasoning and tangible benefits that are not accompanied by the detritus of ancient misogynistic and bigoted systems. We can select a metric of human rights, of human well being, of sustainability, of fairness, and of reciprocity. These metrics do not have to be religious nor do they require some other authority other than their inherited stand alone best reasons. If your morality cannot withstand such equivalent scrutiny, then I think it lacks something fundamentally important to be considered good, and earn its rejection on its lack of reasonable merit. Furthermore, a moral metric that cannot stand alone on best reasons is not improved when we protect them by divine excuses. Advocating for poor morality because its divine is about the worst possible system one can have and we see this endlessly played out throughout the world when religion is left to rule – through secular power – the moral roost.

  • tildeb

    My point – which I forget again to mention! – is that under any of these reasonable moral metrics, we find compelling reasons to judge the raping of children for fun wrong. We do not need a fossilized moral metric to come to this conclusion, nor do do we give up any means to come to a reasonable metric if we disagree that the religious moral tyranny is the only protection from nihilistic moral relativism.

  • tildeb,
    You said, “any value statement must be subjective by definition,” but then you claim that moral judgments can be objective. Which is it?

    In addition, you repeatedly write about divine command theory and iron age morality and ancient, bigoted moral systems, but I never once argued for any of those things in the post. You are arguing against points I never made in this post.

    What you appear to have done is redefine “objective” to mean that which a specific group of people agree upon. The whole point of the post is that raping little children for fun is objectively wrong no matter who agrees – in the same way that 5+4=9 is true no matter who agrees.

    Do you agree with this or not?

  • Boz

    I’m not seeing any arguments in this post, only an assertion of an belief.

    I am currently leaning towards subjectivism, happy to be convinced otherwise, but you won’t convince me by asserting objectivism even more strenuously.

  • Boz

    “our lives are a lot shorter than people from 3000+ years ago.”

    http://krusekronicle.typepad.com/kruse_kronicle/images/2008/03/17/le02.gif

    http://filipspagnoli.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/life-expectancy-through-the-ages.jpg

    Are you sure about that?

  • a) Does “raping children is objectively wrong” mean that it would even be wrong if God commanded you to do it?
    b) Atheists are continually being told by people like William Lane Craig that we’re not allowed to call something ‘objectively wrong’ if we don’t believe in God. Given that I do NOT believe in God, how should I answer the ‘raping kids’ question?

    c) I don’t get how one can compare it to a taste in coffee, even if one doesn’t believe in God. Regardless of whether you believe in objective morality or not, one can accept that the consequences of raping a child is completely different to liking a kind of coffee. The latter doesn’t harm anyone.

    Finally, Bill, I think you’re making a leap to the sociopath label. Dictionary def of that is: “A person a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience”.

    I’d guess that most/all of the people who clicked ‘not objective’ personally abhor kid-rape. Sociopath/psychopath would be people who actively endorse it.

    I can say that I find dog much abhorrent, and that I would expect all other humans to as well, and yet hesitate to say that it is ‘objectively abhorrent’. It would be false for someone else to take that hesitation to as a reason to label me a ‘lover of dog muck, who enthusiastically consumes it at every opportunity’.

  • tildeb

    Bill writes, You said, “any value statement must be subjective by definition,” but
    then you claim that moral judgments can be objective. Which is it?

    Note that you compare value statement (that I say must be subjective) with moral judgement and ask me to choose between them. To be clear, what I am advocating is that the objective part is the moral metric.

    If you think of the moral metric as one of elevation – an agreement to use, let’s say, sea level as our relative starting point for comparison of different elevations, then my hope is to get you to see that the relative and subjective starting point (sea level) does not need to be universally true for everyone everywhere all the time (local airports often use their position as the starting point for local elevation comparisons) in order to accurately and objectively compare elevation judgements (determining which is higher or lower relative to the same starting position. In other words, we can use a local metric and still create valid and meaningful objective comparisons.

    A locally agreed upon relative moral metric (like respecting agreed upon human rights, for example) can produce the means by which we can compare what promotes them and what reduces them. Objectively. From moral relativism we can arrive at objective value judgements. We do not need Either god OR subjective moral value judgements. This is clearly not the only choice and those who present their religious moral metric as the only one that keeps subjective moral judgements at bay is demonstrably false.

    I mention the biblical moral value metric in such terms as DCT, Iron age morality, ancient, bigoted, and misogynistic, because there is compelling evidence from the bible that these are fundamental aspects to any moral metric derived from it. Believers have to account for these aspects of the metric and show why they are somehow superior or of a higher quality producing superior moral judgements than others readily available. This I do not think christian believers can do; at best we see interpretive contortions to highlight these but not those, picking the ones already held in esteem while ignoring those contrary to today’s moral zeitgeist. This reveals why there is no single biblical moral metric but a hodgepodge of morally dubious ingredients flavoured to personal tastes. The moral metric of a catholic is not the same moral metric as a southern baptist even though both claim biblical origins while each creates relative metrics that harm real people in real life when imposed through secular law on those who never signed up for either. One, for example, seems to have produced a global cabal of men protected by the religious organization they served who seemed to have decided that raping little children was indeed fun. Coincidence, I’m sure. But the point is that religious belief of the christian kind, obviously, is no protector from committing morally repulsive acts when in competition with the desires of the individuals involved. We have better moral metrics than the convoluted and often repulsive ones we can gather from the bible. Or the koran. Or any so-called holy book.

  • But that is just your opinion on “moral metrics”, tildeb, as it is a value statement and “value statement[s] must be subjective by definition” — non?

  • ggodat

    You really shouldn’t even try. She is incapable of seeing the self defeating statements she makes.

  • Ggodat

    I have my bible that says people were living well past 100yrs of age. You have data (oops I mean some speculation based on non-observable opinions) that is verifiable do you?? Regardless of age, what about man’s actions and diseases in general?? We have way more and evolution of man should have left us impervious to them all by now. But both of our statements are just subjective anyway so it really doesn’t matter, right tildeb?

  • ggodat

    I guess when i write my book claiming all of Steve’s claims are purely false, you will elieve me right? Especially if i get a page on Wiki???

  • “We have way more and evolution of man should have left us impervious to them all by now.”

    No, because diseases evolve too. Hence antibiotics losing their effectiveness over time. That’s pretty basic stuff there.

  • After all of your words, your answer is, “Raping little children for fun is not objectively wrong,” using the definition of objective I offered in the poll.

    You have simply made the obvious argument that different groups of people are able to set up moral metrics for themselves and then hold people accountable to those metrics. This observation has absolutely nothing to do with the point of the blog post. Rather than dealing with the point of the post, you have just changed the subject to talk about something else.

    Bottom line: your beliefs line up with moral relativism. For you, moral prescriptions are merely conventions that are created for different groups of people as they see fit. There is no over-arching moral law that applies to all people. To the society who decided that raping little children for fun was morally acceptable, you could only say, “I don’t like the moral metrics you’ve set up.” To which they would respond, “Who cares what you think? We have our metrics and you have yours. Get lost.”

  • “To which they would respond, “Who cares what you think? We have our metrics and you have yours. Get lost.””

    How is that in practical terms different to people saying “Your God doesn’t like it? Well ours does. You have your religion, we have ours. Get lost.”

  • tildeb

    No, it’s not a value statement but a factual one. We use a metric in order to evaluate comparative values of right and wrong in the same way we use a metric in order to evaluate comparative elevations of higher and lower. Something isn’t lower by this comparison (a judgement that is objective) and suddenly become higher because someone insists the relative metric – sea level in this case or an airport in another) – isn’t a god-sanctioned universal. That’s just silly.

  • tildeb

    You seem to keep missing my point, Bill: we can have objective moral comparisons even from relative starting points. Contrary to your post, you can indeed have an objective moral judgements even if the moral metric is relative. Your post insists (in spiritus, at least) that we must have an objective moral metric first and this metric comes from god that is then revealed to us in the bible or else we have moral nihilism loosed on the world.

    Pshaw, I say. And I use the analogy of elevation to reveal why your position is wrong.

  • Art

    It is beyond bizarre. Most people who are responding to this post are telling Bill he is, in some way, “WRONG”. When they do that, they loose their membership in the “Moral Relativist Society” and become an absolutist. Otherwise, how is he “wrong”? Wake up, folks! If their is no “true right”, how can their be a “wrong”?

  • tildeb

    Bill isn’t wrong in some moral sense; he’s wrong because he’s factually incorrect. Note the slipperiness of the term ‘wrong’.

  • ggodat

    He’s wrong because you believe he is. Who made you the standard? I believe he is 100% correct and you are wrong. I exclaim it and therefore it must be true, at least in my mind, but that is objective for me….

  • ggodat

    Is your recognition that this post is lacking in arguements and only full of belief assertions an objective truth or just your belief? Please give 100% verifiable evidence to prove your belief…

  • ggodat

    That’s just about the dumbest thing I have ever heard. If the starting point is relative, i.e. you believe rape is ok and I believe it is wrong, how do we arrive at the same Objective conclusion? If the objective moral standard is not defined FIRST by one who has the authority to define it, it just becomes a relative standard dependent on one’s own perceptions, society, culture, upbringing or those in power. That can change and is not objective!

  • tildeb

    It’s only dumb if you assume it means something it does not mean. Again, think of elevation (where you have no vested interest in the comparison). The starting point can be anything – sea level, an airport, a landmark, it doesn’t matter. This point – a relative one – is used all the time when we compare and contrast just about anything for determining objectively what is higher and lower than the other.

    Let’s move away from elevation. Let’s go to the very air you are breathing. The humidity of your air is relative to its temperature, regardless if we use a temperature metric of Fahrenheit or Celsius (or Kelvin for that matter); the relative humidity is the same! This value is given a number expressed as a percentage of volume in any unit of air. Regardless of what temperature metric is used, this relative humidity remains constant! This percentage is an objective result based on a relative starting point. Again, we can deduce objective results from a relative metric. We can do the same with morality.

    Let’s look at your example.

    You start with the conclusion, namely, that one believes that rape is okay, and assumes this conclusion comes from using a relative metric. But is this true?

    What metric must we be using to arrive at this conclusion? We must assume we are using unbridled desire. And are there good reasons for supporting this metric? Not that I can see. Anyway, if we were to use that metric, then rape would be okay. But are we – especially atheists – actually using this kind of metric… one that is based on good reasons? Not any that I know of.

    I assume you are trying to use a biblical injunction to call rape wrong, but I can assure you that there is ample evidence that the bible has many examples were rape is just peachy keen with your god. This raises the question how you can determine with any kind of ‘objective’ accuracy which god-sanctioned rape is okay and which is not.

    What I am saying is that we have much better quality metrics to use for our moral comparisons – metrics based on good reasons and compelling evidence for practical usefulness. We don’t need belief in your god in order to determine why rape is morally wrong. There are overwhelmingly good reasons why we should not use desire to determine the morality of our actions. There are many compelling reasons to not rape inherent in all reasonable metrics concerned with human dignity and human well being and human rights – all secular values, I may add for emphasis.

    I’m concerned about human dignity. I’m concerned about human well being. I’m concerned about human rights. But because I do not share your belief in the historical existence of your god, suddenly you as a believer feel empowered to tell me that my morals are now in question not for what they are but for what they lack: piety! – and claim that yours are magically ‘objective’ compared to my ‘subjective’ metric. Clearly, there are significant problems with this arrogant attitude of moral superiority (leading Bill to conclude his post that those who disagree with his notion of ‘objective’ morals residing only with his belief in his god are sociopaths!). These problems begin with why the believer’s claim that religious morality is ‘objective’ to begin with is factually incorrect. Not only does demonstrated morality precede religious belief, but just among believers is their a chasm of moral differences! This is why I say that until believers themselves can get their moral house in order, stop trying to tell the rest of us how we are wrong.

  • Andrew,
    In this case, we could, at least in theory, argue about which god has the authority to legislate the transcendent moral laws. We could marshall arguments from revelation, science, history, and philosophy to determine which god has a better claim on the authority needed to determine morality for all mankind.

    For tildeb, any argument over whose moral metrics are better is pointless, because each group of people makes up their own. Moral metrics are not transcendent and do not apply to all people, according to tildeb. Tildeb completely rejects the idea that there even exists a transcendent moral law or metric, so moral arguments reduce down to mere opinion and matters of taste. I like chocolate and you like vanilla.

  • a) God would never command someone to rape a little child for fun, so this question is nonsensical.

    b) God provides a ground for an objective and transcendent moral law. Without God providing that ground, it is hard to see where the ground for objective morality comes from. However, there are non-theists who are moral objectivists. They claim that raping little children for fun is wrong for all people at all times in all places. They claim this is just obvious and brooks no disagreement. When you ask where this objective moral law comes from, they may say it’s just part of the furniture of the universe, or that moral laws are a brute fact that need no explanation, or that moral laws are built somehow into the physics of the universe, or a number of other explanations. I don’t think these explanations are nearly as good as positing God, but at least they’re something.

    c) Why should I care about a child being harmed if there is no objective moral law? Your very assumption that we should care about a child being harmed is a value judgment. It is wrong to harm people. That is a moral judgment that is either a matter of objective truth, or a matter of taste. if there are no transcendent moral laws that we can discover, then we are simply talking about our subjective feelings and emotions when we render a moral judgment.

    d) With regard to sociopaths, what I said is that a truly consistent moral relativist would be a sociopath, but that probably none of the people who voted for moral subjectivism are consistent. It’s just something they say because they think that admitting to moral objectivism leads inexorably to God, or to traditional values, or to being Republican, or whatever other horrible consequence they want to avoid.

  • You’re pretty clear that objective truth exists, and yet you only vaguely allude to “well, c’mon–we all just know it, right?”
    Instead, I suggest you make a compelling case. Not having seen one, I reject the idea.
    I’ve written more here:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2012/04/ms-dos-and-objective-truth/

  • Jeremy

    @tildeb – “My point – which I forget again to mention! – is that under any of these reasonable moral metrics, we find compelling reasons to judge the raping of children for fun wrong.”

    Who decides what is *reasonable* as you decide your reference point/elevation/etc for your desired moral metric? How is that reason (or set of) compelling if it also relies on a relative starting point? Why should others listen? How do you-by your own explanations and examples-move from the “is” to the “ought”?

  • Boz

    Is this a poe?

  • ” we could, at least in theory, argue about which god has the authority to legislate the transcendent moral laws.”

    In theory perhaps, but in practice religion just becomes another thing to fight about – it still comes down “Your God doesn’t like it? Well ours does”.

    “We could marshall arguments from revelation, science, history, and philosophy to determine which god has a better… ”

    We can also marshall those forces to arrive at what practices make most sense to achieve our shared values and reduce suffering, which tends to work better than cleaving to ancient dogma.

  • Is it objectively true that you have rejected the idea of objective truth?

  • Bill: If “objective truth” means “universally accepted (or having sufficient evidence so that it can be made so),” then sure. “Bob owns a yellow car” would be in this category.
    But as for the more typical definition–that truth is grounded outside of humanity in some unspecified way, I see no evidence of this.
    I see your question as an attempt to bypass the challenge. I’ve seen no evidence of objective truth. Could you provide some? Show me that objective truth (using the second definition) exists.

  • I defined an objective truth as a statement that is true for all people living in all places at all times, regardless of who accepts it or believes it. It looks like you accept that definition, so I’m not sure what you’re arguing about.

  • I’m not arguing; I’m pointing out that you’ve claimed that this exists without providing any evidence. This is particularly a problem when the natural explanation works just fine. No need to make the remarkable claim that objective truth exists.

  • Is it objectively true that there is “no need to make the remarkable claim that objective truth exists,” or is this just your subjective opinion?

  • I think you’re misunderstanding moral relativism., From a relativist’ perspective you seem to be asking if people’s opinions have some sort of objective reality. But that doesn’t seem necessary.

    I can say in answer to your question, yes I think child rape for fun* is always wrong. That’s my opinion and one that doesn’t seem to be held by child rapists (subjective morality in evidence right there). I think the reasons to oppose it are vastly superior than those to allow it (and most people agree). It is reason in which we ground morality.

    * Of course change the qualifier from ‘for fun’ the to ‘to prevent more child rape’ and it gets interesting.