What Are the Flaws of Moral Relativism? – Part 1

Post Author:  Darrell

Re-post from Aug 2, 2010

Moral Relativists hold to the position that morals, i.e., that which is right versus that which is wrong, are not absolute or objective in nature.  Instead, they are dependent upon what an individual believes and/or a community deems appropriate. As a result, an action can be morally wrong for person “x” and morally right for person “y” at one and the same time and in the same sense simply due to the fact that they hold different beliefs or their community deems different things to be appropriate.  To the relativist, moral principles are not transcendent in nature, and as a result, they do not apply universally to all people at all times.

In Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air , Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl cite seven fatal flaws of Moral Relativism.  In the next few posts, I will list and explain these flaws in an effort to demonstrate the challenges inherent in the philosophy of Moral Relativism.

Flaw Number One: Moral Relativists are logically incapable of accusing others of doing wrong. Many moral relativists take the position that morals are a matter of personal definition, i.e., something is only wrong if it is deemed to be so by that particular individual.  This places relativists in quite an untenable position, for then an individual who believes murder to be morally acceptable would be morally appropriate in murdering.  The moral relativist may personally believe that murder is wrong, but this is of no effect when defining what is morally wrong for the murderer.  The murderer’s actions are only wrong if the murderer himself believes them to be wrong.

Some moral relativists believe that morals are not defined by an individual, but are instead defined by one’s community.  However, this position is equally untenable, for if morals are defined by ones community, Hitler and Germany were acting in a morally appropriate manner when they slaughtered millions of Jews.  After all, their community deemed these actions morally acceptable.  In fact, one might even say that the Allied forces were morally wrong in forcing Germany to stop, for they were forcing their community’s moral beliefs upon Germany.

Obviously, next to no one is willing to say that murder is acceptable or that the holocaust was morally appropriate, yet both of these positions are a logical consequence of moral relativism.  Consequently, moral relativists are in the position of affirming the moral acceptability of these horrific actions or are forced to maintain the belief that at least some actions (murder and genocide) are morally wrong despite what an individual or community believes.

In the next post we will look at a few more flaws inherent in Moral Relativism.  Stick around.

  • Bill Pratt,

    So how do moral relativists address this issue? (They do recognize this problem, you know.)

  • Whoops! Sorry. This should have been addressed to “Darrell”

    My bad.

  • Darrell


    From what I have seen, most moral relativists attempt to ground morality in evolution, stating that the reason things are “moral” is because evolution has taught us. Therefore, it is immoral for someone to murder because we have learned through evolution that murder is not good for society. There are several problems with this analysis. It is descriptive (tells us the way things are) not prescriptive. It doesn’t say that we shouldn’t do something, only that we have learned not to do it. In addition, it doesn’t truly tell us what is “morally wrong.” It only tells us what is “pragmatically appropriate” for the survival of a species. So what if evolution teaches us that murder is not pragmatic, (BTW, a good argument can be made for murder being very pragmatic for the survival of the fittest), I still want to do it, and if there is nothing to ground why I “morally” shouldn’t do it, then “morally speaking” I am appropriate in doing so.

    More will be coming on this it the next few posts.


  • Darrell,

    Curious. The articles I have read on moral relativism demonstrate a much greater in-depth understanding of the difficulties of the position (as well as responses to objectivism and absolutism) than merely “evolution making what is impractical to be immoral.”

    I was more wondering if you (or Beckwith and Koukl) had read something written by a moral relativist philosopher giving new insight.

  • If you have read in-depth articles outlining the moral relativist grounding for morality, why are you asking me about it? Not sure if you are trying to play a game of “gotcha” here?

    Of course the explanation is more involved than my short summary above. I wasn’t trying to give a wholesale explanation for their position (of which there are more than one). Nevertheless, I do find that everyone I have read fails when it comes to grounding morality.


  • Boz

    Darrell, are you a moral absolutist?

    if so, can you please give some specific examples of moral rules that you hold to be absolute?

  • Darrell,

    I wasn’t trying a “gotcha” as much as wondering whether you understood the Moral Relativist position you were claiming is “untenable.” I understood this was more of a summary—it is why I asked a question with a bit more depth. To see if you did understand the position, but glossed over it for time/space considerations.

    Imagine I was doing a series on Christianity, and I stated, “Christianity is logically contradictory because passages in the Gospels contradict regarding alleged historical events.” I would think (I would hope!) you could respond with, “Wait a minute. Christianity does recognize the claim of contradictions and has provided a variety of responses.”

    In the same way, many meta-ethical positions—including moral relativism—recognize the problem of how to impose one community’s moral position over another. I have not seen “evolution” as a justification, though. If you saying Moral Relativists claim Germans evolved different than Americans, and that is why their community accepted holocaust as morally acceptable–this seems…odd.

    Further, moral relativists understand the struggle within the concept of “community determination.” What is “community”? Is it one’s tribe? One’s village? One’s state? One’s region? One’s country? One’s religion? One’s political affiliation? The entire world? I noticed in the blog entry, you limited “community” to country border lines—Germany vs. America. Moral relativists understand this is an inadequate way (and they struggle to define) to determine “community.”

    The reason I asked was to see if you understood the very position you were claiming is “untenable.” Much the same way I would hope you would question me regarding Christians being logically contradictory regarding contradictions—to see if I understood what the Christian position really was, rather than attacking a straw person.

    Darrell, you are correct that moral relativism has difficulty grounding morality. (Whether it fails is a matter of perspective.) ALL meta-ethical systems have difficulty grounding morality. It is the reason the debate has continued for 1000’s of years by countless philosophers. There aren’t easy solutions. Even theistic absolute morality has difficulty (and in my perspective—fails) grounding its morality. (The Euthyphro Dilemma.)

    I didn’t mean to get into any depth in this conversation. I asked one question to see if you understood the position of a Moral Relativist. It appears to me you do not. No “gotcha’s.” I’m not offering debate; I was looking for clarification and unfortunately found what I suspected.

  • Dagood,

    Thanks for your comments. What I do or do not understand is really not the point. (although I believe I have read enough to understand the relativist argument fairly well). My response to your question was a quick summary – typed in all of about 30 seconds on my cell phone – of some of what I have read on the subject.

    Most relativists think of morality as man-made… something forged through community and/or individual experience. Many naturalistic materialists attempt to ground this in evolution. For many reasons, I don’t consider this tenable.

    Instead of presenting an ad-hominem (claiming I don’t understand the moral relativist position.. when what I do or don’t understand is really of no effect when it comes to whether or not the relativist position is tenable), perhaps you could outline how morals are grounded under this position? We can discuss that in light of the theistic position. Show me how their position is tenable.


  • Boz,

    There are some morals which I consider absolute.

    For example, rape is wrong.

    Do you think rape is morally acceptable?


  • Darrell,

    What, specifically, do you mean by morals being “grounded”? Define “Grounded.”

    (Trying to make sure we are on the same page. No “gotcha.”)

  • Boz

    Yes, I agree that rape is wrong.

    Is that an absolute rule for you? Is your position that you would never rape a person, no matter what the circumstances are?

    Or is your position that in most circumstances you would not rape a person, but there are some circumstances that you would?

  • Dagood,

    I would define “grounding” as “providing the sufficient foundation or basis for.”


  • Boz,

    I can’t really answer that question because morals aren’t defined as what a person (I) would do or has done. They are defined as what a person “should do.” Talking about what I “would do”in a certain hypothetical situation really says nothing about what I “should do” in that situation. Morals are prescriptive not descriptive.


  • Yes, I agree that rape is wrong.



  • Boz

    Darrell, Maybe I can rephrase the question.

    Is your position that you should never rape a person, no matter what the circumstances are?

    Or is your position that in most circumstances you should not rape a person, but there are some circumstances that you should?

  • Darrell: I would define “grounding” as “providing the sufficient foundation or basis for.”
    Good enough—we can interact with this definition. So the question before us is: “How does a moral relativist system provide the sufficient foundation or basis for morals?”

    However, before we begin, it is extremely important to note this definition creates an inevitable escape hatch (one which all meta-ethics suffer) in that it fails to answer the important question: “Sufficient to whom?” Obviously, if it was sufficient for all, we wouldn’t be having this debate, and there wouldn’t be alternative meta-ethical positions. Hence all meta-ethical difficulties in grounding morality as previously mentioned. With such a definition you could correctly state a particular system is not “grounded” because it doesn’t provide a sufficient basis to you much the same way I could claim a theistic systems is not “grounded” because it doesn’t provide a sufficient basis to me.

    With that concern in mind, we shall press on.

    I am particularly enamored with Social Contract Theory — a philosophical claim that morals are dependent upon an individual’s agreement to form society with other humans. Hobbes enumerated the concept humans are basically selfish creatures, but at times we withhold our individual selfish concepts for the benefit of a society, in order to achieve greater goals—while equally selfish.

    A good example is a four-way traffic stop. When approaching an intersection, we would (selfishly) determine the fastest way through is for me to NOT stop, while the other three cars do. However, those other drivers would equally recognize (selfishly) they have the same benefit, and would equally attempt to go through when the others do not stop.

    We end up with a snarled mess as each driver attempts to beat out the other three. Therefore, we put aside our own selfish need (for the moment) and devise a system of taking turns because we end up ultimately gaining a greater selfish need—that being safe when driving cars at four-way stops.

    I hope that made sense.

    I like Rawls refinement by the “veil of ignorance.” Basically the concept is this: imagine you are setting up a society. A society you will be living in. However, you don’t know what you will be in that new society. You could be male or female. White or Native American. King or shoe-maker. City or country or suburb. The idea is that such a person, setting up such a society, would attempt to institute morals equally protective of all. You wouldn’t want to set up a society where rape of women is acceptable, and then enter such a society as a woman.

    When faced with a moral question, ask the question, “If I was possibly either of these people involved, what would I choose to do?”

    We utilize (on rare occasion) a similar concept if divorced parties cannot resolve their differences in dividing assets. We have one person who gets to decide the two piles; but the other person gets the first pick of which pile they get. This prevents the first one from dividing the stuff into a $100,000 and $10,000 pile, because the second person would then pick the $100,000 pile. You would be amazed at how fair and equitable such a division ultimately turns out.

    This meta-ethic provides grounding for morality. When addressing the question in this blog entry—“How can a social contract moralist claim the Holocaust was wrong?”—they could simply point out, under the “veil of ignorance” that no one would set up Nazi Germany for fear they would be a Jew, homosexual, or handicapped person in such a society and therefore it was morally wrong.

    Now, because you indicated we could discuss this in light of the theistic position, I have a question for you.

    1. All the information we have regarding a God-established morality comes through humans. All.

    2. Humans can lie; humans can be misguided; humans can be misinformed.

    How can we independently verify the prescriptions of a God-morality, when the humans presenting it could be lying, misguided or misinformed?

  • Raphael Wong


    (1-2) I would take “sufficient” to be “sufficient for logic”.

    (4) Yes, Social Contract Theory is wonderful. However, Social Contract Theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. All social contract theories beg the question of why a social contract theory should be formed in the first place.

    In addition, Hobbes’ view is a little too negative. In most cases, the “snarled mess” would be avoided because – selfishly or altruistically – people will not want others to get hurt.

    Rousseau added a refinement to social contract theory, which is that people naturally form contracts for their own benefit and survival.

    Even Rousseau’s amendment does not solve the prescriptive/descriptive problem, otherwise known as the naturalistic fallacy.

    (7) Again … “would” versus “should”.

    (8) Yes, they could. But then they need to explain how this same “veil of ignorance” allowed Hitler and the Nazis to set up Nazi Germany in the first place.

    The other alternative would be to say that everyone has a different “veil of ignorance”; but that deprives the concept of any meta-ethical explanatory power.

    I sense that an escape hatch for the relativist is to claim that the Nazis operate by a different system of morality, so that the “veil of ignorance” applies to us, but not to them. However, this ends up back at the Naturalistic Fallacy again: This makes Nazism wrong to you under your social contract model, but what qualifies you to prescribe behaviour for Neo-Nazis since under their morality system, they are doing the right thing?

    No matter how much “how” is answered, “why” is not answered satisfactorily by any relativist theory.

    (9-12) Yes, they could be any or all of the three; but then, they are not always all or any of the three.

    The “bashing” claims against Christianity that you are proposing can be re-worded to fit any philosophy, including contractarianism. How do we know that contractarians are not lying, misguided or misinformed? Does not everything about Contractarianism come through humans too? (This is the negative side of the argument.)

    On the positive side of the argument, there is Anselm’s definition of God: the Being of Greatest Perfection. That gives you an independent quality in which to compare the prescriptions against, to see if those prescriptions are worthy of God.

    This is a truncated argument, basically because I am too tired now.

  • Raphael Wong,

    I’ll pick on you a bit regrinding this tactic of declaring a meta-ethical position as “descriptive not prescriptive.” All moral positions initially start with observation (obtaining a description) and derive a prescription. Even theoretical moral questions involve event descriptions—they just haven’t happened yet.

    Because of this intermingling of description and prescription, we could simply dismiss the other side’s position as being “descriptive” (as I could say, “theistic morality merely describes what God does, it doesn’t indicate why God does” thus entering the Euthyphro Dilemma) but I would like to get beyond that and actually engage what the other side is declaring.

    Or, for lurkers who like a simpler touch: If you think social contract theory is descriptive and not prescriptive, try running a stop sign at a four-way stop with a police car nearby, and you will find out very quickly how “prescriptive” it is!

    I’m not following you regarding the Holocaust. The “veil of ignorance” provides a moral code to determine how a person should act within a society. I am saying the Nazis breached that moral code, and had they followed the “veil of ignorance” they would not have instituted a Holocaust.

    I am not saying they had a different veil of ignorance. The “veil of ignorance” is a hypothetical goal—just like the law sets standards for what a “reasonable person” would do. We aren’t saying it is a particular person—rather a hypothetical standard that we expect every person to live by. If I walk through a parking lot, looking at the sky and slip on ice, we do not find the parking lot person liable because I was NOT acting as a reasonable person. Reasonable people look ahead and at the ground when they walk—not the sky.

    I don’t say, “Well, my reasonable person is different than other peoples,”—no, we say I breached this “reasonable person” standard.

    In the same way, I am saying the Nazis breached the “veil of ignorance” standard. Not that they had a different one.

    As to my questions, I quite agree the Humans could be telling the truth about God. So they could be lying; they could not. They could be misguided; they could not. They could be misinformed; they could not.

    That was the point—how do we independently determine whether they are or are not? The fact this creates difficulty for other philosophical positions is merely cumulative—it creates a difficulty for a theistic moral position.

  • DagoodS,

    The Rawlsian “Veil of Ignorance” employed by some believers in the Social Contract Theory is a nice attempt to ground morality, but it truly fails in the process because it fails in answering “why.”

    “Why” should we do what we might come up with behind some supposed veil of ignorance?

    In addition, why should someone be forced to honor such a hypothetical contract employed from behind the veil of ignorance? This is precisely what happened in Nazi Germany… they, as a society, came to a different conclusion on their “social contract.” They really didn’t care about some supposed “veil” and felt that what they were doing was perfectly moral.

    What right do you have to declare their decision not to employ the veil wrong? What external standard do you appeal to in order to claim their decision not to do this was wrong?

    Bottom line, if you can’t come up with one, you have no basis or foundation to make the moral claim that Nazi Germany was wrong.

    BTW, your example of running a stop sign and being pulled over by a cop is hilarious, for it can lead to the ridiculous conclusion that the only reason one should obey the law is to avoid being punished. So, the only reason I shouldn’t murder is because I might go to jail? While this is very pragmatic of you, this goes back to my point of “why.” If why is reduced to “not getting caught,” morals don’t exist.

    How can we independently verify the prescriptions of a God-morality, when the humans presenting it could be lying, misguided or misinformed?

    It is “logically possible” that all humans who have claimed to speak for God have been lying, misguided, or misinformed. Of course, it also logically possible that we are all living in our minds as part of the matrix. However, it is not practically likely that this is the case.

    Morality is a fairly universal human concept,. Virtually every religious system on the earth today, while they disagree on who God is or what He is like, agrees on the basic understanding of what is moral. Even those who don’t adhere to religion/God agree on the basics of morality. Morality is written into the fabric of human beings… the question is why is it written into us and from where does it come. Unless we can ground this in something external from ourselves, we truly have no basis for claiming that someone who slaughters millions of humans is being “immoral”… we can only say that we disagree with them.


  • Is your position that you should never rape a person, no matter what the circumstances are?

    I think I know what you are getting at here, but just to make sure, give me an example of a situation where you think someone should rape.


  • Also Boz, you didn’t answer my question… “Why do you believe that rape is wrong?”


  • Raphael Wong


    (1) Yes. But my point is that the link between the descriptive and the prescriptive is not at all clear, i.e.the Naturalistic Fallacy. While description can be “relativist”, when you use prescription, you are claiming that it is binding on others as well. This goes just as well for Relativism as it goes for other philosophies. My point – and I believe Darrell’s too – is that the descriptive doesn’t necessarily imply the prescriptive; for all we know, we might be describing a problematic situation, for instance the Nazis.

    I am sure you would agree that no amount of explanation for how Hitler acquired his Nazi ideology will exonerate him from the Holocaust. But that is effectively what Relativism does: Once we can explain how Hitler came by his ideology, then we can excuse him from the Holocaust, because the presence of an explanation excuses him from all accusations of atrocity.

    (2) Me too; I really want to engage properly. It is not directly relevant to this topic, but I’ll just point out quickly that the Euthyphro Dilemma is is a modern concept based on a misunderstanding of the original dialogue. The Euthyphro Dilemma is all about man (Euthyphro), and nothing about God or gods. Also, the “Dilemma” is about “what”, not “why”, so your usage of it is quite inaccurate.

    (3) This kind of comment does not engage a conversation at all. What you describe is the prescriptivity in “practical” or “vulgar” ethics. That is irrelevant for a discussion on meta-ethics, except to provide a phenomenon for which an explanation must be sought.

    So, we need to question, why do people act this way, and more importantly, why should people act this way? This is the theoretical level of prescriptivity we are discussing here. The issue with Relativism is that it leaves the second question unanswered, the question of the necessity or desirability of the action under question.

    For more information, you might want to read Russ Shuffer-Landau’s “Moral Realism: A Defence”.

    (4-5) And what accounts for the prescriptivity of your standard?

    (6-7) The problem with that is that relativism will not allow you to be so strictly normative. From a relativist perspective, I would ask you: How dare you be so totalizing and implement an absolute “reasonable person” standard? Don’t you know that this is a form of logocentric imperialism?

    So yes, this might be contractarianism you are talking about, but such a contractarianism is based on moral objectivism, not moral relativism.

    (8-9) Religious doctrines that survive a long time usually derive ultimately from a religious experience of some sort. People who have these kinds of experiences are usually moral perfectionists, even if their perfectionism only shows up after the experience.

    It seems rather unlikely that a moral perfectionist would lie, because lying would make one non-prefect morally.

    Similarly, such people usually do a great deal of personal reflection and meditation, the purpose of which is to remove temptations or – to use a more secular term – sources of misguidance. So that they being misguided would or misinformed would be equally unlikely.

    Quite often, these people also leave behind their methods for achieving these states and realizations. So one way would be to use precisely these methods and see if your results match theirs. That would be a way to independently verify what they teach or have taught.

  • Again, the question posed by this blog entry: Can a relativist moral position (such as Social Contract) “ground” morals to the extent it can indicate the Holocaust was immoral (i.e., violated that moral positions’ code)? Darrell further clarified “grounding” as “providing a sufficient foundation or basis for.” Raphael Wong indicated “sufficient” would be defined as “sufficient for logic.” (I am presuming I can shorten this to just “logical” and if I am incorrect, please feel free to point that out.)

    So, mashed together, we have, “Can Social Contract provide a logical basis to indicate the Holocaust was immoral—i.e., violated Social Contract theory?” I apologize, but I have yet to see where there is a logical inconsistency. Yes, it may not be persuasive (I never expected it to be, as you can see by my previous reference to the “escape hatch”)—but it still is logical within the Social Contract paradigm.

    Look, every meta-ethical position (theist, non-theist, absolute, relativist) shares at least two properties:

    1) It indicates a code whereby a violation of that code is considered “immoral;” and
    2) It recognizes humans have and will breach that code.

    Each meta-ethical position recognizes humans breach the code established by the meta-ethical positions. Humans commit immoral acts.

    Darrell, you are partly correct that social contract theory does not fully and completely answer the question, “Why should we do that which we would do behind a veil of ignorance?” Yet (as I said initially)–this is a problem with EVERY meta-ethical theory. Why should we follow utilitarianism? Why should we follow what a human claims a God says? Why should we do the most reasonable action? Why should we follow the law?

    Part of the reason I prefer naturalistic approaches to ethics, is that it takes what we already know and observe, rather than relying upon what humans claim an unknown, unobservable, unverifiable entity allegedly states. Social Contract theory observes humans act in their own selfish interests. You stated, “Morality is a fairly universal human concept… Even those who don’t adhere to religion/God agree on the basics of morality. Morality is written into the fabric of human beings…”

    Couldn’t I equally say, “Self-interest is a fairly universal human concept… Even those who don’t adhere to religion/God agree on the basics of self-interest. Self-interest is written into the fabric of human beings…”? (And I now see why you brought up evolution. I can see why a naturalist would rely upon evolution to respond to “Where does self-interest come from?”)

    Based upon the self-interest observed, Social Contract theory says, “Look—you want to do what’s best for you. We will attempt to persuade you to act in conformance with this societal rule, because the end result will produce what is best for you.” Social contract utilizes the observed human behavior to influence human action in order to produce a system of morality.

    Darrell, it is interesting you started using the term “external.” Twice. When I asked for your definition of “grounding” you did not use the term.

    Having had these conversations before, I did anticipate this concern. This is exactly why I asked the questions about theistic morality. How can theistic morality be “external” to humans—when the only way we can derive this moral system is by what humans claim a God says or does?

    I notice no independent system has been proffered to determine what a God says/does—everything we know comes from humans. In the past (and some in the present) we have observed humans claim God orders or allows:

    1. Polygamy.
    2. Murder.
    3. Genocide.
    4. Rape.
    5. Slavery.

    Of course, other humans claim God did no such thing, and still others claim God did order these things, but they aren’t immoral when God orders it. So which human should I believe? And how is this “external” to humanity beyond semantic assertions without demonstrative argument?

    Again, every meta-ethic is “internal” to humans. Some (such as theism) attempt to subscribe it to what they claim is “external” yet in the end, observation shows us it is just as “internal” to humans as any other system. It has the same problems as to “Why should I follow what YOU claim a God says?”

    Simply saying “It is external because I (a human) declare a god says it” does not make it external without independent verification. No matter how many times it is said; no matter how loudly it is stated.

    Raphael Wong: Once we can explain how Hitler came by his ideology, then we can excuse him from the Holocaust, because the presence of an explanation excuses him from all accusations of atrocity.
    I’m sorry, but I am not following this. Hitler came by his ideology by an incorrect and pathological use of reason, coupled with a megalomaniac desire for power. Social Contract theory states if a reasonable person utilized a veil of ignorance, they would never do what Hitler did, because they could potentially have been a Jew in such a society and thus killed. It would not be in their self-interest. Finding an explanation still allows for that act to violate the moral system, and be immoral.

    As to whether Euthyphro refers to “what” or “why”—I see that more as an issue of semantics. It could be “What is moral—is it what God commands, or is it what God must follow?” or it could also be stated, “Why must we abide by God’s moral system? Is it because God orders it (thus rendering it relativistic!) or is it because God must follow it as well?” Yes, I am making the Dilemma extremely simplistic, but I don’t want this comment to stretch into multiple pages.

    Raphael Wong: Quite often, these people also leave behind their methods for achieving these states and realizations. So one way would be to use precisely these methods and see if your results match theirs. That would be a way to independently verify what they teach or have taught.
    I have (as best as possible.) Mine didn’t. Thus, according to this method, they were not independently verified.

  • Raphael Wong


    (1) Technically, “logical” could also mean “necessary for logic”, but I’ll let this pass.

    (2) Not really. The mashed-up question is whether a Relativist Social Contractarianism can provide a logical basis to assert that the Holocaust was immoral.

    I would like to point out that – unlike Darrell – I am not disagreeing with any points you have made so far about Contractarianism. My only beef to pick with you is that you are describing a Realist Social Contractarianism, not Relativist Contractarianism. And this is a point about philosophy, not mere semantics. If you call this distinction mere semantics, then you need to seriously read more philosophy.

    (3-6) That is where you err. Realism and Quasi-Realism (Subjectivism) posit the existence of a Code, which is breached sometimes. The key argument of Relativism is that such a Code does not exist.

    Since we are on this as well, your classifications are off the mark. The main schools of meta-ethics are Realism, Subjectivism and Relativism. Divine Command Theory, which is the proper term for what you call “Theist morality”, is a species of Normative Ethics, a level that includes Utilitarianism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics (ala Aristotle) and Pluralism. Divine Command Theory is grounded in Moral Realism, but is not moral realism in itself.

    (P.S.: Just in case, this comment applies to you as well, Darrell.)

    (7) Darrell’s point, I believe, was while all these theories answer this problem, relativism doesn’t do so. To come to Darrell’s defence, this is not merely a theist argument. The philosopher Russ Shuffer-Landau, who is in no way a theist of any sort, argues too that Relativists fall into “Frege’s Abyss”, a graphic illustration of the lack-of-grounding problem.

    (8) Naturalistic models of ethics don’t tend to deal with the Naturalistic Fallacy very well.

    (9-11) I’ll let Darrell answer these.

    (12) Sigh. That is untrue. That is somewhat like spitting in the face of all the saints and religious people who bothered to write down long discourses on how to personally reach God and discover God’s wisdom.

    (13-14) It could be argued that meta-ethical views are an internal response to an external phenomenon. It is like when you say something is beautiful, you are responding to sensory stimuli you receive from an external object.

    (15) Agreed. But saying “It is external because I (a human) observe God saying it” has a different quality to it, and suggests that it can be independently verified. Whether or not you are then willing to perform the independent verification is a separate question.

    (16) (a) Why should self-interest be the principle here? (b) Why should the “veil of ignorance” be prevailing if it is only one of many moral systems? (c) So it is immoral to the relativist, but how is it immoral to anyone else?

    (17) One very simple problem: The real Euthyphro dialogue – which I have read – has as its subject piety and is not whatsoever interested in what God or gods think about piety, but rather what man thinks about it. Socrates’ point in the dialogue is to convince Euthyphro that the latter is not being pious to his father because he totally misunderstands what piety is. Socrates’ point isn’t to question the existence of piety itself, let alone the gods.

    Even if you were to give a multi-page analysis of the “Dilemma”, it would be inaccurate because you are barking up the wrong tree, given the way you have summarized it.

    Ironically, the last argument that Socrates rebuffed was the idea that piety is a contract; take that as a rebuttal of contractarianism.

    Here is a simple answer to the original Dilemma:

    Piety is not a creature of legislation; it is a relation between the person performing the pious action and the person/agent receiving the pious action. The Olympians do not decree an action as pious because of something within the action itself, nor do they merely recognize the piety of actions based on some higher law.


  • Raphael Wong


    Rather the piety of actions is determined by the gods’ perception of the character of the person performing those actions. In which case, Euthyphro is not being pious because his lawsuit is done out of spite of his father, not love for his father or the gods.

    In the Biblical context, this is exemplified in the story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis. God rejects Cain’s offering and approves of Abel’s although both of them followed similar ritual procedures. And in the New Testament, in Jesus’ comment about adultery.

    (18) And other people have, even unexpectedly. If they managed to verify it, and you didn’t, might it indicate that you didn’t exactly follow the principles properly?

  • Thank you for the discussion, Raphael Wong. Unless some amazingly new statement appears that compels my fingers to keyboard—this will be my last comment to cover a few points. (I intended my previous comment to be last.)

    I like to discuss these topics with people. I tend to utilize their words, even if they would not be the words I choose. I would agree Social Contract is not a relativist position, yet (because no God is involved) I generally see Christians perceive ANYTHING non-theistic as relativism.

    When originally responding to Darrell, I didn’t intend to defend any particular meta-ethic, but once asked, decided to take up the challenge. I think non-theists need to understand their own foundations as well and thus took up the interaction.

    When discussing Euthyphro, I was utilizing it as addressed in modern times, such as be Bertrand Russell or Greg Koukl.

    Raphael Wong: And other people have, even unexpectedly. If they managed to verify it, and you didn’t, might it indicate that you didn’t exactly follow the principles properly?
    So if I follow the principles properly, I will independently verify God’s morality. But I will only know I have followed the principles properly when I independently verified God’s morality. Bit of a No True Scotsman, there. Not to mention an insurmountable trial-and-error.

    I was being straightforward, Raphael Wong. I tried everything I know to determine a method to verify God’s characteristics. If you are saying I did something wrong, without any further suggestion as to how to do it correctly, then I guess I’m pretty stuck, eh?

  • Raphael Wong


    (2) I tend to lurk around atheist forums quite a bit, and a post I see frequently is “don’t lump us all together”. I wonder why this distinction should apply only to atheists.

    (3) You shouldn’t have presumed to lump me with Darrell then.

    (4) Well, my argument is that Bertrand Russell was too inflamed that he mis-analyzed the Euthyphro, and contributed to a great deal of misunderstanding from then onwards. I, on the other hand, read more cutting-edge publications.

    Anyhow, foundations are important, and the original dialogue is a foundation for its modern adaptation. Thus, I did the same in my reply to you above.

    (5) No, there is no No True Scotsman Fallacy. I merely observed that many other people succeeded, so perhaps you are doing something wrong. But that something wrong can be analyzed out, I am sure, if you are persevering enough.

    (6) Well, this is not exactly a counselling session, so I don’t want to push this too far. But I can’t actually help you if I don’t know what you have tried.

    But I might offer you a suggestion, hopefully one you haven’t tried yet. Go and find a copy of Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. If you can read French, take the French version as well. Then read through the Meditations as if you were reading a novel; treat his argument narratively as opposed to analytically. And see what you get.

  • Darrell


    I used the term “external” when referring to moral standards precisely because unless the standard lies outside of “you” or “me” it is not a standard to which we can logically claim all are bound.

    How can you rightfully claim the Nazis were bound to follow the “Veil of Ignorance” theory for morality? You might like the “Veil of Ignorance” standard, but what if someone doesn’t? What standard do you appeal to in order to claim they are “wrong?” It is basically a “you versus them” scenario with nothing to which you can appeal to settle the matter.

    The theist does not run into this problem, for in our worldview God created and rules everything, and as such we are all under obligation to follow His decrees. He is the standard, and He created us with an innate sense of right and wrong. We are free to rebel, but in the end we are held responsible for whether or not we followed His standards.

    I think your charge that the theist has issues with grounding God’s standards is a little overstated. For the most part, morality is an area in which virtually all of the world’s religions (and I would say even the non-religious) agree. We may disagree about the nature of God, pathway to salvation, etc., but for the most part we all agree on what God’s standards of morality are.

    And how is this “external” to humanity beyond semantic assertions without demonstrative argument?

    You are kind of begging the question that morality is not evidence for God. Much of morality is innate… we are born with it. Recent studies demonstrate that babies understand the concept of fairness long before they can walk, talk, or have the chance to “learn it” from their parents. The question is, “Where does this come from?”

    My challenge to you would be that your innate sense of morality is one piece of evidence for the existence of God. There is much more evidence, but that is a separate discussion.


  • Pingback: Moral Relativism – Post Number 4 | Tough Questions Answered()

  • 20120915.1520

    What is right? What is wrong? Who can say something is right and something is wrong?

  • tildeb

    We can.

  • hayleycotten123

    I’ve just concluded a small debate on human origns with the science
    editor of the English newspaper ‘The Catholic Herald’ – Quentin de la


    He begins quite early in the debate stating “the outcome of evolution
    from earlier forms is no longer seriously disputed” to which I offer
    various lines of study disputing this only to be told by him initially
    “If you would like a good authoritative source on human evolution i
    would recommend Britannica” then finally after submitting more evidence
    against his authoritative sources I get my notice to quit served via
    private email away from other readers which I ofcourse posted up
    straight away on his blog…

    “Dear Stefangillies

    I have somewhat reluctantly left your latest comment on the blog,
    although it is obscure and of little interest to anyone who is not a
    specialist in the field. So that you do not think that I am making up
    ground rules post factum let us agree that in future that such issues
    should not be raised unless they have received reasonable attention in
    the general scientific press. Scientific American and New Scientist will
    certainly have picked up any reputable scientific work with
    significance for the mainstream theories of evolution.

    But, although there will be exceptions, the invitation to contribute is
    generally for comments on the existing formal posts – not for raising
    new subjects. If you wish to do that you will need to start your own
    blog. Get in touch with WordPress, and they will show you how.”

    Alas one of his readers bites back in saying…

    I cannot see why we kow tow to what appears to be such an absolutist
    theory. I follow the evolution thing quite closely and cannot see why
    even the very questioning of it is generally recieved with sneers. I
    thought the earlier attempt by stefanGillies was very good:

    “…Indeed all of the non-creationist opposition to the modern theory of evolution comes from molecular biologists!

    History teaches us with Galileo Galilei, amoungst others, that just
    because there is a consensus it doesn’t mean it is correct especially
    when that consensus is propogated via the vested interests of
    philosophical materialism…”

    Hope you find this of interest.

    God Bless,

    Stefan Gillies.

  • 20120917.0830

    Dear tildeb,

    You can? Are you are moral relativist? What about the only true God (John 17:3)? Please compare the tenets of different religions.

  • tildeb

    Read my other comments. As for your true god, the burden of proof rests, not with what John says, but with you. And why on earth would you assume from my comments that I have not compared and contrasted the tenets of many different religions?