Well, It’s True For Me – Moral Relativism Part 1

In addition to the challenge of balancing classes, jobs and the new-found freedom that comes with college life, many Christian students, upon entering a secular university, find it difficult to defend their worldview as well.  Is everything relative? Is it close-minded and judgmental to believe in truth that is true for everyone? Can something be true for me and false for someone else at the same time? These are some of the questions that will assault the often unsuspecting freshmen. In fact, the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) highlights the influence that moral relativism has on today’s young people, “…most emerging adults view morality as ultimately a personal, relative affair: morally right and wrong beliefs depend entirely on the specifics of the case and the ‘opinions’ of the people involved.”[1] It is in light of this cultural condition that a contest must be called to see which candidate, moral relativism or objective morality, makes the most sense.

We must first begin with an understanding of what moral relativism is. Professor of Philosophy J.P. Moreland provides this definition: “This moral thesis holds that everyone ought to act in accordance with the agent’s own society’s code (or perhaps, with the agent’s own personal code).”[2] In other words, nothing is universally true; rather it falls to either the individual or to the society in which that individual lives to determine what is right or wrong. If this is correct thinking we must discover, how on this view, an individual would actually determine what is right and wrong. To do this we will examine the major veins of relativist thought which are called subjectivism and conventionalism.

Of these two divisions, subjectivism is the more extreme, and interestingly, it is a position that many students claim to hold.[3] This type of relativism insists that individuals have the right to determine what is right and wrong. It may sound something like this: “If something works for you because you believe it, that’s great. But no one should force his or her views on other people since everything is relative.”[4] It is a live and let live sort of mentality that encourages individuals to live by their own standards, giving them the liberty to act as autonomous entities.[5] Essentially, “Morality is in the eye of the beholder.”[6] On a very surface level this may sound appealing. Which is why, when weighing a worldview, it is important to evaluate the application of the view in its entirety, and when we do this, we observe that subjectivism has a very serious flaw.

The main malfunction of subjectivism is that it reduces morality to a level of whimsical opinion. On this view it is impossible to have a logical framework of judgment. There is no way to determine what is good or bad because those are statements of value which can only be determined by the individual. “On the basis of subjectivism Adolf Hitler and serial murderer Ted Bundy could be considered as moral as Gandhi, as long as each lived by his own standards, whatever those might be.”[7] This seems counterintuitive. Who would honestly believe that Hitler and Gandhi are morally equivalent simply because they each lived out their personal codes of conduct? It is easy for subjectivists to espouse this uncompromising self-determination as an ideal, but it very quickly becomes clear that this approach to morality does not make sense.

If this way of viewing the world makes little sense, why is it so popular among young adults? The moral relativist might defend his or her position at this point by claiming tolerance.  Our culture has come to value diversity to such an extreme point that is considered offensive to call someone’s way of thinking wrong.[8] Because of this push towards acceptance, believing in objective or universal truths seems fanatically prejudiced. So, in an attempt to be open-minded the relativist supports this individualistic approach to morality. The problem with this methodology though, is that it places emotional consideration above intellectual contemplation. Imagine for a moment that you are in a math class correcting a friend’s quiz. As the teacher provides the answers you realize that your friend has gotten several problems wrong. You feel bad for him, but you must still mark the answers wrong. Sentiment does not constitute a legitimate reason for something to be right or wrong.

Furthermore, if on this view everything moral is to be determined by the individual, and no individual has the right to tell another what to believe, how can the relativist claim that everyone should be tolerant? That in itself is a universal statement. Wouldn’t that decision be up to the individual? Additionally, the same is true of the student, or professor, who boldly proclaims that there is no absolute (universal) truth. That sort of statement cannot stand on its own foundation. It’s a statement dressed in the proclamation of being universally true, while declaring that there is no absolute truth. It is a logical fallacy, which means it is a defective statement that contradicts itself.

We can see clearly that as a system of morality, the subjectivist portion of moral relativism doesn’t make a lot of sense. In fact, Professor Pojman goes as far as to say, “Radical individualistic ethical relativism is incoherent.”[9] Subjectivism fails to provide a path to morality as there is no way to objectively differentiate between people’s actions. We must now turn our attention to conventionalism in hopes that it will perform better.  That discussion will continue in, Well, It’s True For Me – Moral Relativism Part 2.

Sources for this article:
[1] Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition-The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 51.
[2] J.P. Moreland, Love Your God with all Your Mind. (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997), 149.
[3] Louis Pojman, Ethical Theory–Classical & Contemporary Readings. 6th ed. (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2011), 45.
[4] Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind. (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997), 153.
[5] Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 49.
[6] Pojman, Ethical Theory, 45.
[7] Ibid., 45.
[8] Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 80.
[9] Pojman, Ethical Theory, 46.

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