We belong to a culture that denies all absolutes—in theory, anyway. The recent decades have seen the very foundations of thought and reason being challenged and accepted truths being overthrown. A notion of fluid subjectivity dominates most of our attitudes today.
Moral relativism follows from the claim that there is no absolute truth. All truth is relative or subjective. “What is true for you need not be true for me”, they say.
However, when we say that there is no absolute truth, we are, in fact, making an absolute truth claim. It would be like saying that “it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth”. Such a statement is self-defeating—it produces a paradox or contradiction instead of making a good argument. Here is how the late philosopher and apologist Dr Nabeel Qureshi exposed this fallacy: “If truth doesn’t exist, then it would be true that truth doesn’t exist, and once again we arrive at truth. There is no alternative; truth must exist!”
A notion of fluid subjectivity dominates most of our attitudes today
Moral relativism claims that morality is variable, subjective, and personal. If so, we must ask ourselves a question at the very outset: How do I know that morality is relative? We could say that the disparity between moral values of different cultures and eras in history forces us to reach this conclusion.
But if we were to conclude that morality—what ought to be done—is relative by observing historical and cultural conflict in moral principles, we are also assuming that morality is nothing more than what a culture or an era in history defines it to be. By extension, if I desire to be morally upright, all I would have to do is obey the dictates of my culture or socio-historical circumstance.
That would mean that what the Nazis in Germany did to the Jews was morally justifiable since their moral conceptions taught them to believe in the superiority of the Aryan race. Sati and child marriage would not be wrong since their propounders genuinely believed that they were doing something righteous. And it would have been perfectly understandable for the British to execute starving young children for stealing apples since dishonesty was an unforgivable crime in their moral code.
Without holding to a transcendent moral standard, a moral relativist concedes the right to condemn the actions and behaviour of any culture, historical era or person. Only if we assume that absolute, objective and unchangeable moral truths exist can we denounce questionable values and refuse to conform to them for a higher ideal.
And this is indeed what happens for moral beliefs to change. Some moral ideals are identified and pursued often at great personal—or even general—cost. William Wilberforce, for example, devoted his entire life towards abolishing the slave trade in Britain, facing opposition and hardship to do so. Americans fought a civil war over the abolition of the slave trade and equality for blacks. They stood up for what they knew was right. And history agrees with them. Would we dare say that the slave traders were right too in their own way?
Such moral reforms do not make much sense unless morality is objective. There must be some transcendent moral code to explain our attitudes towards such transformations in society. If not, why do we even bother to call them ‘reforms’? We generally accept that society has been changed for the better—or that we have taken a step in the right direction.
The reforming principles of human societies are a good indicator that we are in continual pursuit of an absolute moral standard. We would not say morality itself has evolved—and continues to do so. It is not as if the slave trade, which is morally wrong now, was perfectly right back then. We are saying that the slave trade was wrong back then; it is wrong now and will continue to be wrong no matter what humankind thinks about it! This suggests that morality—what one ought to do—has always been the same. There is an absolute standard of goodness that remains the same yesterday, today and forever.
Another reason why relativism does not make sense is the inconsistency in the arguments its proponents make. Those who claim that morality is subjective are often the first and most enthusiastic to condemn behaviour they think is morally wrong. If morality is truly subjective, shouldn’t they indiscriminately give each of us the privilege of defining what is morally right?
Moral reforms do not make much sense unless morality is objective
On one hand, they criticise absolutists for seeking to impose a universal code, only to turn around and demand that others accept their relative moral code. Once again, we see that moral relativism is simply not viable.
Moral truths are pursued and discovered; they are not invented by human beings. Its existence is independent of our awareness and knowledge of it. Just like there are many scientific laws and facts that we have come to learn today after years—or even centuries—of pursuit, morality remains to be sought. All through history, across cultural landscapes, we have come to realise the inherent value, equality, and liberty of each human life, the virtues of compassion, mercy, generosity, sacrificial love, and loyalty. The moral narrative of human history greatly resembles the scientific pursuit of knowledge.
Inherently, though, we would all admit that there are universal moral principles. All of us accept, for example, that the murder of innocent people is wrong. On the flip side, we would do well to perceive the danger that lurks within the seemingly harmless philosophy of moral relativism. As Peter Kreeft warned, “No culture in history has ever embraced moral relativism and survived. Our own culture, therefore, will either be the first, and disprove history’s clearest lesson, or persist in its relativism and die, or repent of its relativism and live. There is no other option!”
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