Many of you who, during the process of your education, have had to read classical literature may have encountered Fyodor Dostoyevskys, The Brothers Karamazov. In what might be considered one of the greatest chapters ever written in all of secular literature, The Grand Inquisitor, Ivan, the brilliant but atheistic brother, argues for the non-existence of God. The conclusion to his argument is that, “If there is no God, then everything is lawful.”
In this simple but insightful statement is summarized the teaching of moral relativism.
This world-view begins with the presupposition that there is no God and, as a result, no “outside” agent imposing upon us a standard of right and wrong. As a result, there are no objective right and wrong. Morality and truth all depend upon the person and the circumstances. To say that you think something is right or wrong does not say anything about the essential action, only your feelings about that action. In a similar way, two people can taste the same ice cream and one can say that it is good and the other that it is not good. Right and wrong are simply a matter of personal views.
Of course, if this is the case then we have no ability to impose our standards on others, nor should we ever think that we “know” what is right or wrong. That would be the summit of arrogant intolerance.
In a recent publication by Alan Wolfe, Moral Freedom, he states, “Any form of higher authority has to tailor its demands to the needs of real people.” This reduces morality, right and wrong, and ethics to four equally human standards:
1. What is practiced: If the majority of people are doing this, then sheer numbers tilt the scale to the “right” side. Much of the sexual morality of twentieth and twenty-first century Western culture has been driven by this. Novelists and other media moguls portray the grossest of immorality with the excuse that they are simply commenting on the real world. But the leap from this “real world” experience to what is then accepted as “normal” is a very short one.
2. What is popular: Morality changes with the changing fads of the day. Just as clothes come in and out of fashion, so the moral values of men and women change to suit the winds of popular thinking. It only takes a role model from the entertainment world or sports world to introduce a new way of thinking or behaving. Soon it is the “in” thing and the “right” thing.
3. What is pragmatic: Does it work? It does not matter whether it is inherently right or wrong. That is an obsolete concept. The issue now is whether it works. “Works” can mean anything from feeling good to making money, anything from success in a career to improvement in self-image. The popular idiom (why is idiom so close to idiot?) of the day, “Works for me!” reflects this type of thinking.
4. What is profitable: Closely linked with the pragmatic is the profitable. What good will holding this belief do me? If I have to sacrifice, if I have to “lose” something, then it is not worth it.
Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, has keenly observed that “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitudes or feelings.” How we feel about something becomes the arbiter of whether it is right or wrong.
The attack of moral relativism upon the morality and minds of men is crucial. It undermines the very foundation of society, but also strikes at the first step in gospel preaching: telling men that they have sinned against an absolute standard promulgated by God Himself and are accountable to that God. It is vital then that we look at this teaching and examine its presuppositions and conclusions.
A. The Strident Claims of the Relativist
To the proponent of moral relativism, the idea that there is somewhere “out there” an absolute standard for right and wrong is a ludicrous suggestion. It is linked with dinosaur mentality or at best, with Victorian thinking. We have progressed far beyond that point. God has been removed from His universe and we need no longer burden ourselves with outmoded ideas and moral rules. Simply put, “Absolutes are Obsolete!”
B. The Strange Convenience for its Advocates
Moral relativism allows each individual to become the determiner of right and wrong. Since there is no absolute standard to judge me, I am free to make my own judgment. But also, you have no right to judge me. I can decide for myself and you can only decide for yourself. Since the “morality” of an act is determined by the circumstances, the same act could be right or wrong for me in different circumstances. Thus, I may claim to have strong principles, but I could also act “inconsistent” with those principles when occasion requires it. As someone else has well observed, “Americans have strong principles, but they reserve the right not to apply them in difficult circumstances. Subscribers to the new moral order can have it both ways – strong principles with a built-in escape hatch.”
The convenience of this thinking for humanity cannot be undervalued. It enables people to explain away or justify an action, whatever it may be. It simply requires that they view their circumstances as requiring the action. Who among us is not adept at this type of mental gymnastics? We have the ability to justify every action to ourselves. It was only the power of the Word of God that turned us from such folly.
C. The Sobering Consequences
Since every idea or teaching has its consequences, what are the inevitable consequences of moral relativism?
We need first of all to safeguard against a dangerous extreme. All individuals who subscribe to this philosophy are not blatant, rebellious citizens in our society. Many are deeply conscientious people who seek to live by a high standard of morality. But this does not justify the teaching. While some live according to a well thought out and consistent ethic, the result of the teaching is far different.
The first result of moral relativism is the demise of truth. It no longer exists in its pure, unchanging form. We have no “right” to impose our view of truth on another because truth may well be different for him. We allow each person to define what is right for himself and have no right to consider our values more just than his.
To say that truth is subjective is to admit that any statement made about the subject says nothing at all about the subject. It is only reflecting my thoughts about the subject. To say that capital punishment is wrong does not reveal anything about capital punishment. Since I have determined that its is wrong because of my feelings about it, it only reveals my feelings, not the facts, about capital punishment.
If the only criterion for “truth” is the honesty of the speaker and his own “taste,” or “opinion,” then think of Stalins genocide or Maos slaughter of an entire generation, acts which eclipse even Hitlers final solution. Think of racism and every other hate group. On what basis can we call these “evil?”
To be continued.
“If there is no God, then everything is lawful.”