Isn’t Everything Relative?

Question in response:

If there is a God, wouldn’t it make sense that there is at least one absolute, and one absolute source of morality–namely the will of God?

One Minute Response

1. Self-contradiction/Oxymoron

Relativism, which asserts that there are no absolutes because all is relative, is a self refuting statement. It refutes the very thing that it claims.

  • It claims that there is one absolute, namely, that there are no absolutes.
  • It refutes that there is any absolute, including that all is relative.

2. State an absolute that no one would argue.

All one needs to do to refute the claim that there are no absolutes is to give one that no one can deny: one that would be, and has been, true of all men throughout all time.

Example: Are you telling me that you don’t think torturing innocent babies for fun is absolutely wrong for all people throughout all time?

Prolonged Response:

1. The Logical and Pragmatic Problems/Dilemmas of Moral Relativism

Those who assert that there are no absolutes and that all morality is relative face the difficult task of providing any basis at all for morality. Most relativists assert that morality is culturally relative–that is that one should act in accordance with the norms of one’s society. Cultural relativism, however faces many dilemmas.

Ex. #1 Which culture is right? If there are no absolutes then what happens when cultures disagree? Which one is right? What about when they meet halfway? And since we are all part of many subcultures which is right?

Ex. #2 The Reformers Dilemma. If the moral person is the person who acts according to his society’s norms, then that means that every moral reformer, who went against his/her society’s norms (like Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, Martin Luther, Susan B. Anthony) was immoral even though we recognize that what he/she did was morally right.

2. Historical arguments

In history, cultures flourished when they held to certain standards. These are exactly the morals that the Bible says are absolute and rooted in the very character of God.

Illus.: Surgeon General C. Everett Koop–Is there a solution for the AIDS crisis? Yes! Sex with one person for the rest of your life. Surprise, Surprise, the Bible has been saying that for 3,000 years.

3. Concerning, “If there is absolute morality, then why is there so much ethical diversity?”

  1. Although there is no difference in the principles (standards) that guide moral decision making, there may be a difference in how one ranks different standards in an ethical decision. Example: Hiding Jews during World War II–lying was a lesser sin than allowing people to be murdered.
  2. There may be differing factual assumptions. Example: Abortion advocates deny the personhood of the child. Antiabortion advocates assert the humanness and in some cases the personhood of a fetus. Both agree with the absolute that murdering innocent persons is wrong, they just have different factual assumptions on what is human.
  3. Lack of discussion and interaction. Perhaps, if there was more dialogue, there would be less ignorance and less diversity of ethical judgments.
  4. There may be agreement upon the same standard, but with a different application or judgment upon that standard. Example: tribe that strangulated their elderly out of belief that in afterlife one exists in the physical condition in which one dies. This adheres to the same standard of respecting elders that would cause another culture to preserve a parent’s life as long as possible.

4. Concerning arguments for relativism.

The most common arguments for moral relativism come from anthropology and sociology (descriptive social sciences). These branches of science show that you can find no standard of morality common to every culture. For example, in some cultures killing old people is wrong. In another culture a child has a moral obligation to kill his parent by strangulation when they get to an age where they can no longer contribute to society. These two moral codes seem incompatible until one distinguishes between judgment and standards.

Killing or not killing is the judgment of each culture and these are obviously different. The moral standard, however, from which these extend is the same: respect your parents. In the second culture, strangulation at that age is an expression of respect and love because of their belief that you will live forever in eternity in the physical state you are in when you die. Thus, there is a common moral standard of respect for parents, but expressed differently on the basis of differing judgment.

The real issue is not that different people may disagree on what constitutes an immoral act. The issue is whether or not they differ on the basic principles, the standards, behind the act. Two totally different judgments (actions) may stem from the same ultimate moral/standard. And even more basic, just because there may be disagreement over ultimate morals does not mean that ultimate morals don’t exist–they may exist but there is simply disagreement over them like between Ptolemy and Copernicus/Gallileo. The Christian can say that men disagree because of the fall.

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