Relatively Speaking

13 Dec

“That may be true for you but it’s not true for me.”
“Can’t we all have our own truth?”
“I believe everyone should decide what is right and wrong for them”

Such statements can be heard frequently during conversations regarding morals or religion but can homosexuality really be both right for some and wrong for others? Can different religions be equally true for their devoted followers?

Recently our Religious Studies has been examining relativist theories of morality which pervades much of modern culture with many people believing they can each have their own “truth”. This philosophy seems appealing to many as it seems to encourage tolerance and does not allow any particular moral position to be forced upon them, however when we apply two simple logical tests, consistency with the reality and inner consistency of arguement, it quickly shows the intellectual bankruptcy of the theory.

baby-p1) Relativism contradicts human experience. In the past month the horrendous story of the torture and murder of Baby P made news headlines whilst terrorists caused chaos and killed nearly 200 people in Mumbai. Were these actions wrong? These actions cannot be both morally wrong and at the same time morally acceptable for the perpetrators such thinking also fatally undermines the concept of justice for if there is no objective truth how can an abusive mother be punished for doing what was right in her own eyes. The reason these crimes are wrong is not lack of cohesion with the cultural pattern or disagreement with the opinion of the majority. They would have been wrong in any place, at any time and therefore can be described as objectively morally unacceptable.

2) Relativism is self-contradictory. This is illustrated by the Quaker poster which was ironically displayed until recently outside our Principal’s office. It stated in bold, commanding script “Thou shalt” and underneath was written in following freehand “decide for yourself.” How can someone tell another person they must decide for themselves as they have not decided this founding principle? At its foundation relativism states that because everything is relative there are absolutely no absolutes but this is itself a massive absolute statement and thus contradicts itself. Furthermore relativism cannot be true as it removes any real meaning from the concept of objective truth. At the most relativism can be true for you but it still isn’t necessarily true for me!

As always John Piper is very worthwhile reading or listening on relativism.

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8 Responses to “Relatively Speaking”

  1. augustine December 14, 2008 at 3:18 pm #

    I’ve never been sure about the claim that moral relativism is widespread in modern society. The majority of people I meet, either online or face-to-face, are fairly rigid in what they consider ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and this goes equally for Christians, agnostics and atheists. I’ve only come across a handful of people who both knew what moral relativism is and who were willing to say they it described their views on morality.

    You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree with your assessment of the Mumbai shootings – most people, for a multitude of reasons, will tell you that murdering people in cold blood is universally, ‘objectively’ (whatever that means) wrong. This kind of thinking is not the sole domain of theists or even of those who have studied moral philosophy.

    Just for fun, I’ll point out that both of your arguments against moral relativism fail:

    1) This is an argument from consequence. What you’re saying here is “If moral relativism is correct, we have no basis on which to punish crime or even to consider a crime ‘wrong'”. That might make moral relativism unappealing, but it does not invalidate it.

    2) Moral relativism does not imply a totally relativistic worldview. It is possible to believe that morality is relative without believing that everything must therefore be relative. For some reason, these two concepts are very often lumped together, as if they’re indistinguishable from one another.

  2. James December 15, 2008 at 12:30 pm #

    “You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree with your assessment of the Mumbai shootings”

    Does this not confirm my arguement? Many people are happy to allow moral relativism to pervade their perspectives on what are seen as minor moral issues such as homosexuality or lying. The posititons of eminent politicians on the issue of abortion also reflects moral relativism in society. President-elect Obama has argued that he isn’t keen on abortions but wants to allow others the right to choose. Is this not moral relativism? “It wouldn’t be right for me but it could be right for others”. Is religion not to be regarded as a huge moral issue yet relativistic perspectives are increasingly seen in our Western Liberal Democraices as people talk of many ways to God. Yet the Mumbai shootings are regarded with universal moral definates in place. No one is arguing that it would have been personally wrong for them to commit such crimes but in other circumstances another person could legitimately rule it as morall acceptable.

    By “objectively” I mean an fact which is universally true, not affected by time, space or personal preferance.

    There may be a sense in which I am arguing from consequence but this does not invalidate my first arguement as I was arguing whether moral relativism and relativism as a philosophy are compatible with human experience. If justice is deemed a desirable virtue then moral relativism cannot be ture as they contradict each other. Moral relativism is not invalid because it is unappealing, it is invalid because it does not act in accordance with the real world.

    Perhaps I should have made a clearer distinction between moral relativism and relativism however to regard these as two entirely seperate entities is surely also a fallacy? Does moral relativism not imply that all truth is relative?

    I left out what I regard as the most important reason for discounting relativism as I sought to show how it crumples under even a worldly perspective. As John Piper states:

    “Relativism is a revolt against the objective reality of God. The sheer existence of God creates the possibility of truth. God is the ultimate and final standard for all claims to truth—who he is, what he wills, what he says is the external, objective standard for measuring all things. When relativism says that there is no standard of truth and falsehood that is valid for everyone, it speaks like an atheist. It commits treason against God.”

  3. augustine December 15, 2008 at 1:06 pm #

    There may be a sense in which I am arguing from consequence but this does not invalidate my first arguement as I was arguing whether moral relativism and relativism as a philosophy are compatible with human experience. If justice is deemed a desirable virtue then moral relativism cannot be ture as they contradict each other. Moral relativism is not invalid because it is unappealing, it is invalid because it does not act in accordance with the real world.

    A moral relativist would likely say that our notions of ‘justice’ are just as relative as our basic notions of morality. ‘Justice’ is certainly not an objective standard by any means, as evidenced by the many, many diverse jutice systems in existence all over the world today. I don’t see any contradiction here.

    Perhaps I should have made a clearer distinction between moral relativism and relativism however to regard these as two entirely seperate entities is surely also a fallacy? Does moral relativism not imply that all truth is relative?

    No. Why would it?

    As for the God stuff, that’s meaningless to me unless it’s backed up by a strong argument for God’s existence in the first place.

  4. James December 15, 2008 at 1:44 pm #

    Perhaps it would be more accurate of me to say that in my first arguement I am revealing the logical consequences of moral relativism, that with moral relativism you cannot tell another person whether their actions are right or wrong and the basis for the justice system is fatally undermined, and it is because of these consequences that I cannot accept moral relativism.

    If I can decide for myself that murder is morally acceptable can I not equally decide that 1+1=3? If I have the right to create my own laws of morality who can tell me that I cannot decide on my own laws of logic? Moral relativism states that you are to set your own standards. If you accept moral relativsm you cannnot tell the relavist that deciding their own “truth” is nonsensical.

  5. augustine December 15, 2008 at 2:08 pm #

    In that case, you’re saying that moral relativism is distasteful to you, not that it’s logically incoherent. That’s a pretty big difference. I also find moral relativism distasteful, but cannot simply reject the possibility of it being right based solely on that.

    How do you propose someone would go from believing that morality is relative to believing that methematical logic is relative? I still don’t see how the two are linked together that strongly.

  6. James December 15, 2008 at 3:04 pm #

    I was intending to argue in my first arguement not that it was “logical incoherent” in and of itself but that if the consequences of the moral theory are examined they are incoherent with the real world. Such comparisons with the real world inevitable encounter arguementative difficulties due to differing perceptions of the world yet this does not render such comparison invalid as for a theory to be correct it must have coherent explanatory power of reality. A moral relativist ultamitely has to reject the rule of law and any form of justice. This is inconsistent with reality. The theory cannot be lived out in practice.

    The link between moral relativism and extended relativism is due to their perceptions of truth. Both view truth as something you decide yourself not an objective existence which you discover.

  7. Daniel Ritchie December 15, 2008 at 5:13 pm #

    “As for the God stuff, that’s meaningless to me unless it’s backed up by a strong argument for God’s existence in the first place.”

    God’s existence is clearly declared; man suppresses this knowledge in unrighteousness. If you could “prove” the existence of God, then the “proof” would be greater than God – which is idolatry.

  8. Daniel Ritchie December 15, 2008 at 7:44 pm #

    “If I can decide for myself that murder is morally acceptable can I not equally decide that 1+1=3?”

    If there is no such thing as absolute truth, then you may wish to decide that 1+1=3. No one can say you are wrong if you do – if relativism is correct.

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