Well, It’s True For Me – Moral Relativism Part 3

For the preceding discussion on this topic, please see parts one and two. So far we have covered the different aspects of moral relativism. We will turn now to the opponent of ethical relativism, objective morality, to see what stability in understanding it can offer.

This is not the first time in history that a discussion has occurred in order to discern between moral relativism and objective morality. This debate is an ancient one. Early Greek teachers called Sophists embraced the idea relativism.[1] Professor Mark John Reynolds highlights the popular Sophist Protagoras: “Some things are true for you but are not true for me. Other things are true for me but are not true for you. Protagoras fell into both epistemological and moral relativism.”[2] Sound familiar? Plato, however, disagreed with the Sophists in their understanding and approach to truth. “Plato is after trying to find what is the ideal – what is it we should strive after, to try to be like, and how people in any society should live.”[3] This brings us to where we are in our own examination. We have witnessed the failure of relativism, but does that mean that morality is necessarily objective? No.[4] So, we must now determine if objective morality is a logically solid system.

To do this we must first establish what we mean by moral objectivity. This is whether there are certain general moral principles that are binding on all people, in all places.[5] In other words, to believe in objective morality is to believe that there are some universal values, which are not the invention of individuals or cultures, but which all individuals and cultures apply to their standard of behavior in some way. The best way to investigate the validity of this view is to look at the general concept and then consider specific examples.

The idea of objective morality has been referred to in different ways by different writers and thinkers, but each way it is called it still refers to a specific principle. C.S. Lewis refers to it both as the Law of Nature and as Moral Law. Both terms define the principle as a universal standard of right and wrong. Lewis makes the point that when someone commits a wrong against us we typically feel that it isn’t fair.[6] Where does that sense come from though? Lewis suggests that there exists an unwritten, but unanimously felt code that each individual inherently understands. He goes on to say, “It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere tastes and opinion any more than the multiplication table.”[7] The point that Lewis is making is that people all over the world have this universal notion that certain actions are right and others are wrong. As such, they are not made by humans, but rather this moral law exists objectively.

Furthermore, when we look at specific examples of moral principles we see that there are certain rules or laws that seem inherently obvious to us. Professor Scott Smith brings up murder, rape and torturing babies for fun as obvious examples of events which are universally agreed upon as wrong acts.[8] Not only are these examples obviously wrong, but any person, in any culture, at any time, would be expected to intrinsically know that they were wrong. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who defy and break these moral laws at times, but the fact that the law is broken does repudiate the existence of the law itself. As Lewis said, and I quoted earlier, just like with math, there are times when people get the sum incorrect, but that does not invalidate the multiplication table.[9] It is the same principle. Moral law can be broken, but that does not in any way disprove the existence of the law. In fact, the actuality that we would be able to universally agree that an objective principle had been broken only strengthens the fact that the principle exists.

Perhaps these moral tendencies can be explained without some sort of moral law being necessary. Some might say that what is represented by objective morality is really only the herd instincts that humans have developed over time.[10] The implication here is that there are some principles that humans have which are merely natural inclinations. While it is true that humans do have certain impulses, there is a definite distinction between that and the idea of objective morality. C.S. Lewis clarifies it this way: “We all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct – by mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food. It means you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. And, of course, we sometimes do feel just that sort of desire to help another person: and no doubt that desire is due to the herd instinct. But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not.”[11] Having an urge to do something and experiencing a sense that you ought to do something is not the same thing. The feeling of ought implies a greater awareness of something that is universally true. Objective morality then is not a result of our instincts, but rather it is what directs them.[12]

Darwinians like Richard Dawkins would take this idea of impulse and extend it even further into our genetic predisposition. For instance, “There are circumstances – not particularly rare – in which genes ensure their own selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically”[13] Dawkins would like to reduce the idea of moral objectivity down to the level of biologically reciprocal altruism. That is a fancy phrase really meaning, I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.[14]

One of the main flaws, and there are many, to this theory is that it maintains what some would call objective moral standards are really only the biological tendencies of survival. We help others because we want their help. This is the “selfish survival” that Dawkins was referring to. The problem with this is that it does not account for the fact that people often act in a way that is not advantageous to them. If we are merely predisposed to behave in a way that mirrors objective moral standards, but it is only for our own survival, then why do humans often intervene to help another human when it could mean the potential end of their existence? What about the person who jumps in the river to save a drowning stranger?[15] What do you do about the person who jumps in front of a bullet for someone he doesn’t know? The news is full of stories like these. On Dawkins’ view, these sorts of situations are neurological misfiring.[16] What that is saying is that these acts that we honor within our society are nothing less than genetic mistakes. This is a preposterous conclusion.

Clearly, with such weak objections to objective morality, it still stands. That said, we must also take into consideration the failure of moral relativism on every level. We are at the point now where we must ask ourselves, which system of morality is more reliable? The choice seems clear.

We have now examined both moral relativism and objective morality and have seen that embracing the first method brings only absurd conclusions whereas the only absurd conclusions with objective morality arrive when you try to reduce universal standards down to mere instinct and genetics. It is reasonable then to reject the theory of moral relativism. Objective morality has certainly proven to be the stronger system for viewing the world. As a result, the Christian college student should feel confident in the arena of the secular university. While objective morality does not take us necessarily to the existence of the Christian God, the Christian’s claim that objective morality exists is certainly defensible.

Sources for this article:
[1] Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference. (Grand Rapid, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 220.
[2] John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem – An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought. (Downsters Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 52.
[3] Smith, Ethics and the Search for Moral Knowledge, Mss., 37.
[4] Ibid., 118.
[5] Pojman, Ethical Theory, 51.
[6] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 6.
[7] Ibid., 7.
[8] Smith, Ethics and the Search for Moral Knowledge, Mss.,119.
[9] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 7.
[10] Ibid., 9.
[11] Ibid., 9.
[12] Ibid., 11.
[13] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. (London, England: Bantam Press, 2006), 247.
[14] Ibid., 247-248.
[15] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 10.
[16] Dawkins, God Delusion, 252.

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