In part four of the argument of morality, we examined the problems with a purely individualistic subjective morality. Today, we’ll take this one step further and examine moral relativism based on culture and society.
In seeing the difficulty and problems that arise from an individualistic morality, philosophers turn to cultures and societies to explain morality apart from God. The theory states that morality is simply a product of culture. Cultures create their own moral codes instead of discovering them, and since different cultures hold different values, this is proof that objective moral truths do not exist. This is called “moral relativism.” The belief that there is no transcendent, objective moral standard on all men at all times. Each culture believes their own actions are morally acceptable because they made them. Like with the other theories, this seems sound on the surface, but let’s dive deep and see if it holds weight.
This Theory Places Too Much Focus on Cultural Diversity
While this theory rightly recognizes the diverse values of each culture, it doesn’t do much to falsify the existence of objective moral truths, contrary to what it states. My friend and I may have different opinions on how a hole in the ground was caused, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an objective truth to how that hole came to be there. Just because we may have different opinions, it has little to do with the existence of an objective truth.
This Theory Doesn’t Get Its Own Facts Straight
Despite the idea that cultures differ entirely from one another, it is simply not true. Different cultures often place varied emphasis on certain moral values above others; but there has never been anything like total relativism of values. There are moral values that transcend all cultures at all times, such as those examined in part 1.
This Theory Encourages Compliance
If cultures determine what is right and wrong, what happens if one doesn’t obey their culture? Moral relativism implies that moral rightness comes only in obedience to a culture’s values. If not followed that position becomes immoral by definition. But is it always right to obey the culture or those who hold the authoritative position in a said culture? Those who hold to objective moral values deny that it is always right to obey the culture if the culture goes against the moral law because he/she holds to a trans-cultural standard by which he can criticize the action. This brings us to the next point:
This Theory Diminishers Moral Reformers
Those who disagree with moral values the majority holds would be immoral be definition. But what happens with moral reformers such as Martin Luther King, or William Wilberforce, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer? As they began in the minority, they’d be powerless to effect change if the majority is who decides moral truths. But we all know that didn’t happen. Why? They appealed to an objective moral standard that transcends both the reformer and the majority when they argued for change. They were saying, “You should know better!” But if moral truth is found in the number of agreement in culture, there is no authority above their own to which they could or should appeal to. This brings out another problem:
This Theory Places Its Dependence In Agreement
If groups decide what is morally right and wrong, the question that follows is, how large does that group have to be? How many have to agree on an act before it can be seen as morally right or wrong? What if an act has no definitive cultural agreement? Does it mean the act has no moral status until we can come to an agreement? Let’s take the issue of abortion. It’s still a hotly debated topic (and it’s not only Christians in the opposing side, I’ve seen quite a few atheists in the opposing wagon as well). An agreement is difficult to find when it comes to an act like this, so does the lack of agreement mean it isn’t morally wrong? I’m sure those on either side will disagree. But if moral relativism is true, then we can’t make a decision on the moral status of any act until we can make an agreement, and sometimes that is hard to come about, so it leaves us with a view as clear as mud.
This Theory Silences Criticism
Just like the problem subjectivism has, moral relativism also silences moral criticism. Nothing is objectively right and wrong, it’s simply based on the views of the culture, so if a culture disagrees with another, the most they can say is, “We don’t like that here.” Good and evil turn into like and dislike and moral truths become merely preferences.
This Theory Fails to Tell Which Culture Reigns
There often exists smaller subcultures within larger cultures. For example, there are many drug gangs present within major cities, and these smaller gangs hold to their own moral values. If moral truths come about by group agreement, these cultures can also be held as legitimate sources of moral truth. If not, then it’d follow that those in the most powerful and densely populated culture holds authority over the smaller ones to determine what is right and wrong, but then moral relativism falls apart as we’re submitting to a moral authority that transcends all cultures, but then we must ask, how do they ground morality? We’d be back at square one.
This Theory Holds No Guidelines
What I mean by this is, as with subjective morality, moral relativism shows no reason why we shouldn’t act selfishly. In fact, it encourages it. If an act increases the social harmony, survival, and well-being of our culture, and we can accomplish it at the expense of another culture, does this make the action morally acceptable? Can we destroy another culture if it aids our own? If not, why? There have been many times throughout history when goals of survivability and well-being have been used to excuse selfish moral behaviors as survival is the essence of nature. Naturalistic philosopher, Michael Ruse, who denies the existence of objective moral truth, says this,
“If we are going to cherry pick from the evolutionary process those things we think are good and discard those things we think are bad, we must be appealing to some higher or other foundation for morality.“
This Theory Confuses Application with Origin
This theory explains how and why we use moral truths, but not existence and origin of those moral truths. Those who claim culture as the source of morality are confusing recognition with existence. Even evolutionary theories related to the origin of morality only offer a description of why and how we’ve employed them to increase our well-being and survival. Cultures may discover and employ moral principles and values, but it doesn’t mean they created them. We must distinguish subjective moral opinions from objective values, and this reverts back to point 1. One last point:
This Theory is Dependent on Social Conditioning
But not all moral values are the result of social conditioning. There could be no non-conformity to society, and any rebellion would by force rather than principle if society conditioned all moral values in us. As society conditions opinions, not objective values, many principle non-conformists exist who did not attain their values wholly from society. It follows that there must exist some trans-social origin of moral truths.
In the end, moral relativism isn’t doing us any favors. C.S. Lewis, in The Poison of Subjectivism, says that moral relativism “will certainly end our species and damn our souls.” That’s quite the concerning statement. But the most terrifying thing about moral relativism is its lack of repentance and change. Salvation from sin requires repentance, and repentance requires an objective moral law, but moral relativism eliminates this law, thus repentance becomes mute and jeopardizes salvation from sin. Moral relativism denies any change for the better because there is no transcendent law or standard with which to base our goal on, so when we say those who haven’t seen the light are lost, this is what we mean.
I want to encourage you today, if you’ve been following this series and are unsure what to believe, we’re coming closer to the point where we need to seriously think this through. This is one of the most important arguments as our whole lives depend on it. What you believe about your morality is what you believe about your character. About who you are. Naturalism has one more argument to show us, if that fails we’ll look into some objections to the theistic answer itself. Until then…..