The most sincere vow of holiness, purity or chastity is more easily broken than the worst condom on the market today. That’s an embarrassing reality that has been known by all honest religionists, especially those who struggle, often unsuccessfully, to heed in practice what they claim they believe in principle, that some things (thought, act or intention to act) are always wrong irrespective of context or situation. This applies as much to the so-called ‘ordinary member’ up the highest ranking official within that religious circle.
The evidence, if needed, is provided every time such a religionist engages in confessional prayer (admitting wrong before a deity).
The broad view that some things are always right while some others are always wrong, regardless of context or situation, is called ethical absolutism and its broad counterpart is ethical relativism, the view that rightness or wrongness depends on or is relative to situation or context.
At the level of ethical practice, ethical relativism is delightful to live on but uncomfortable to live with. If I am ethically free to indulge my desires then every other person is entitled to that luxury, even to my detriment.
If ethical relativism is defensible then the consistent relativist could not instinctively or belatedly experience or express outrage at any so-called ‘wrong’ because it could be right owing to the context in which it happened. Rob the relativist, swindle him in business, rape or seduce his wife or daughter, bugger his son, lie on him in court, etc., and he would be forced to grin and bear it because any such act could be right.
At the level of ethical practice, ethical absolutism is delightful to live with but very demanding and difficult to live on. What a delight it would be to work, live, or do whatever with people who never ever lie, cheat, steal or do anything negative against neighbour.
There is though an awkward issue that I wish to raise with absolutists. What should our comment be on repeated failure to do ‘the ought’ despite strong determination and sterling effort? Why is the usual comment ‘do the best of your ability’ or ‘do the best you can’ seemingly applicable in all or most other areas of life but not in the arena of ethics? This is not an unanswerable question but it requires some thought.
There are seven fatal flaws of relativism identified by Francis Beckwith & Greg Koukl in their cute book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-air, 1998, 61-69.
- Relativists can’t accuse others of wrongdoing.
If there is no objective wrong or right then moral outrage at whatever (Hitler, Idi Amin, paedophiles or scammers) is no more than a personal opinion.
- Relativists can’t complain about the problem of evil re the existence of God.
Without objective evil the argument fails. Concede objective evil and objective good, as a standard, is pulled in. As C.S. Lewis said in his Mere Christianity, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” p. 31.
- Relativists can’t defensibly place blame or accept praise.
Without absolutes, nothing is ultimately praiseworthy or blameworthy. Relativists studiously avoid blame but swallow praise without comment, but on what logical basis?
C.S. Lewis again in the same book, “The truth is, we believe in decency so much…that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility…It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves.” pages 6-7.
- Relativists can’t make charges of unfairness or injustice.
Both concepts make sense only on the existence of objective standards of fairness and justice.
- Relativists can’t improve their morality.
If there is no better way, there can be no improvement or even the moral impulse to improve. Morals may change but not improve.
Humanist and ethical relativist, Paul Kurtz writes “…the humanist is faced with a crucial ethical problem: Insofar as he has defended an ethic of freedom, can he develop a basis for moral responsibility? Regretfully, merely to liberate individuals from authoritarian social institutions, whether church or state, is no guarantee that they will be aware of their moral responsibility to others. The contrary is often the case.” Cited in David A. Noebel, Understanding the Times, p. 206.
- Relativists can’t hold meaningful moral discussions.
Silence on moral issues would be the most consistent option for relativists. Even the minimalist statement ‘you can’t push your morality on me’ is not allowed because it qualifies as a moral rule.
- Relativists can’t even promote the obligation of tolerance.
Tolerance, properly understood, is putting up with what you disagree with. But on what basis is there genuine disagreement if there are no objective standards of the right and the true?
Upon deep reflection of the issues raised here the conscientious relativist or free-thinker should be able to identify easily with the dilemma presented by late Duke University Law professor, Arthur Leff who lamented in a lecture,
“I want to believe—and so do you—in a complete, transcendent and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe—and so do you—in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.” (“Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law”, Duke Law Journal 6 (December, 1979): 1229).