Tough Questions Answered

A Christian Apologetics Blog

What Are the Flaws of Moral Relativism? – Part 3

Post Author:  Darrell

Re-post from Aug. 6, 2010

Beckwith and Koukl’s fourth fatal flaw is as follows: Relativists can’t make charges of unfairness or injustice. As a concept, unfairness hinges upon an external standard of right.  By definition, something is considered fair or unfair when it is in line or out of line with an external standard of right.

Unfortunately, to the moral relativist no such standard exists. Instead they believe that right is relative to the individual or society in question.  As such, they are truly unable to deem anything fair or unfair.  For example, as cited in the first post, the relativist may personally believe that it was unfair for Nazi Germany to slaughter millions of Jews. However, if Germany considered their actions to be right, and if right is relative to the individual or society in question, then by Germany’s standards of right and wrong they were being fair.  Consequently, the moral relativist is unable to declare Germany’s actions unfair.

The moral relativist is equally incapable of making the charge of injustice, for the concept of justice also hinges upon the existence of an external standard of right. Justice involves punishing those who are guilty of wrongdoing. However, in order for someone to be guilty of something, they necessarily have to have violated an external standard of right. Since the moral relativist believes that right and wrong are relative to the individual or society in which one lives, they are incapable of declaring anyone guilty of anything.  Perhaps the realtivist  doesn’t like the fact that someone stole their car or the fact that a society refuses to punish a parent who abuses his children, but they are incapable of judging these actions as unjust unless there is an external standard by which to judge these actions as guilty.

Fifth Flaw:  Relativists are incapable of improving their morality. Improvement involves getting better at something when compared to an external objective standard. However, to the moral relativist no such standard of morality exists. Therefore, there is no standard of moratlity to which ones moral conduct can be compared. This renders the concept of moral improvement incoherent to the worldview of moral relativism.

Stick around!  The next post will address the final two flaws.


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Comments

  • http://rericsawyer.wordpress.com R. Eric Sawyer

    Darrell, as much as I agree with the ultimate conclusion of B & K, in that they are trying to support the moral superiority of the Christian model to that of the secularists, I think these two points are pretty weak

    In flaw number 4,

    Relativists can’t make charges of unfairness or injustice. As a concept, unfairness hinges upon an external standard of right. By definition, something is considered fair or unfair when it is in line or out of line with an external standard of right.

    The external standard need not be absolutely external, simply a standard, accepted by the community, which is external to the issue at hand.

    Thus, in deciding the acceptability of a law, appeal is not made in our system to ultimate issues, and what constitutes final truth. Appeal is made to the constitution; does that supposedly common ground of our system allow or disallow the proposed action? It is immaterial for this action whether the constitution itself is just. That would take an amendment, or an appeal to an even more fundamental authority.
    Thus, the secular moralist need not appeal to absolute moral authority, only one that subsumes the one issue in question. For their purpose, there need not be an absolute.

    The weakest link I can see in that argument is why one should give a whit about the “good of the community” at all. I don’t think it is that hard to show that the good of my community is often in my self-interest; but that is the soft spot.

    The same issue applies to Flaw 5.
    If one wants to improve compliance of, say, behavior at traffic signals, the moral position is supported by an appeal to the common goal of safe and efficient travel for all people, especially including me. An improvement in moral behavior can consist of improvement of a inferior point of accepted morality by comparing it to a superior point which is accepted by the community, and suggesting that the inferior issue may be drawn more into line of the superior.
    No appeal to absolutes is needed.

    Of course, the same weakness remains, of why I should care even about the superior point, or conformity of the minor point to it. Ultimately, good of the community has to come back to self-interest as the fundamental principle.

  • Darrell

    Eric,

    I understand what you are getting at, but I still think there is an inherent weakness here for the Moral Relativist. If morals flow from what a community agrees upon and not from a higher source, how can we rightly judge communities that don’t adhere to our concept of morality?

    Again, looking at Nazi Germany… how do we judge them as wrong since their community (country) declared their actions okay? Or, looking at a more modern issue, how about Communist China and their atrocities, e.g., drowning baby girls. How do we address those as their community declared them okay?

    Darrell

  • Andrew Ryan

    “As a concept, unfairness hinges upon an external standard of right”
    No, it just hinges on an AGREED standard. That a standard is external doesn’t make it inherently better or objective. If I’m arguing with my brother, we can ask a disinterested stranger on the street to settle the argument for us, but that doesn’t guarantee a ‘fair’ or just decision, just an external one. I can however accuse my brother of breaking a principle we both already agree on, even though that principle may well appear arbitrary or ‘subjective’ to you.

  • tildeb

    Why – when there is so much evidence that this is exactly how we successfully and accurately compare and contrast all kinds of stuff in all other areas of inquiry – this insistence on an objective standard for morality alone remains an idée fixe for the religious is a mystery in and of itself. Even here at Tough Questions Answered we find a series of posts whose author (and many readers) simply fails to grasp this rather obvious (and fatal) criticism of its central tenet.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I dunno. If they were able to listen to reason and change their minds, they probably wouldn’t be religious in the first place.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Nice insult, Andrew. Please read the comment guidelines again. Consider this your second warning.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    I’m afraid the failure to understand is on your part, tildeb. Nobody doubts that groups of human beings create standards for all kinds of things: measurements of elevation, measurements of distance, driving rules, and so on.

    What Darrell and I are looking for is not a moral code that is created by a particular group of human beings, but a code that applies to all human beings who have ever lived and who ever will live. We believe that morality is as fundamental to reality as mathematics and the laws of logic are.

    Without this universal moral code, one group of human beings who live under one code can not, in principle, ever judge another group of human beings who live under a different code. This is akin to people who drive on the right side of the road claiming that people who drive on the left side of the road are somehow wrong, when they have just chosen a different standard for driving.

    Yet you, and everyone else, do make judgments all the time about the morality of other groups of people who do not live under your particular code. You particularly like to make judgments about what you call iron age morality. How does this make any sense? They have just chosen a different moral code than you, and since there is no universal moral code, they are free to do so, and you cannot judge them for it.

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    Bill Pratt: Without this universal moral code, one group of human beings who live under one code can not, in principle, ever judge another group of human beings who live under a different code.

    Why not?

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Because a moral judgment entails oughtness and prescription. If I say, “Jones is wrong to beat his wife,” I am saying that Jones ought not beat his wife. I am prescibing behavior.

    Moral judgment also entails the assumption that Jones knows better, that he knows he ought not beat his wife. When I judge Jones, I am appealing to a standard that I assume he knows about. I am saying that he is guilty of going against that standard.

    Now imagine that there is no universal moral code, that Jones lived 2,000 years ago in a completely different culture. It may be the case that in Jones’s culture, beating your wife, under certain circumstances, is morally acceptable.

    Since there is no universal moral code, it would be incoherent of me to morally judge Jones. He has his moral code and I have mine. I can’t declare him guilty of breaking my code when he doesn’t even know about my code. Even if he did know my code, he probably wouldn’t care anything about it because he has his own. It would also make no sense for me to think that he ought to follow my code. Why should he?

    According to the moral relativist, moral codes change and evolve from time to time and place to place. Jones, who lives in a different time and place from me, cannot possibly be judged by my moral code. It would be like watching a rugby match and yelling at the players because they aren’t playing by American football rules.

  • tildeb

    Bill, the temperature remains objectively the same whether we measure it (lacking a universal objective code) using Celsius or Fahrenheit. An elevation remains the same whether we measure it (lacking a universal objective code) using sea level or an airport. An act’s morality remains the same whether we measure it (lacking a universal objective code) using best reasons or biology. The relative codes do not render what we are measuring any less objective. This is the point you continue to miss, assuming as you do that to achieve an objective result DEPENDS on a universal code. It doesn’t. And we have plenty of examples to show why your assumption is wrong. We do not give up our ability to measure morality accurately just because we use different and relative scales. What you continue to support is this notion that because I do not accept ONLY Fahrenheit (and assume it alone is a god-sanctioned universal code), then I give up any means to measure differences in temperature, in the same way that because I do not accept ONLY your biblical moral code then I give up any means to measure differences in morality. It is this notion that I am trying my best to discredit not because I think measuring differences in morality is unreasonable or impossible but because it is reasonable and possible. In the same way that Celsius is a much better temperature scale compared to Fahrenheit in terms of practicality and usefulness and ease to work with, so too is human well-being a much better moral scale compared to the biblical one in terms of practicality and usefulness and ease to work with.

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    Thanks, Bill Pratt for the answer. After reviewing this series, and doing a bit of research on my own, I am not interested in continuing the conversation. We only seem to talk past each other. Not sure how profitable it is.

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