Refuting Moral Relativism

May 25th, 1997

by Dr. Phil Fernandes
A chapter from his doctoral dissertation
© 1997, Institute of Biblical Defense, All Rights Reserved

Philosophical apologetics often deals with the branch of philosophy called ethics. Ethics deals with issues of morality, that which is right and wrong.1 The Christian ethical perspective holds to absolute moral values, laws that are universally binding. Often, non-Christian views hold to moral relativism. Moral relativism rejects the idea that there are objective rights and wrongs.2 What is right for one person is not necessarily right for another person, and vice versa. Each person decides what is right for himself. Many atheists and pantheists are moral relativists.3

AN EXAMINATION OF MORAL RELATIVISM

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher. He believed that the advances of human knowledge had proven that belief in God was a mere superstition. Nietzsche therefore reasoned that since “God is dead,” all traditional values have died with Him. Nietzsche was angered with his atheistic colleagues who were unwilling to dismiss traditional moral absolutes which had no justification without God’s existence.4

Nietzsche preached that a group of “supermen” must arise with the courage to create their own values through their “will to power.” Nietzsche rejected the “soft” values of Christianity (brotherly love, turning the other cheek, charity, compassion, etc.); he felt they hindered man’s creativity and potential. He recommended that the supermen create their own “hard” values that would allow man to realize his creative potential.5 Nietzsche was very consistent with his atheism. He realized that without God, there are no universal moral values. Man is free to create his own values. It is interesting to note that the Nazis often referred to Nietzsche’s writings for the supposed intellectual justification for their acts of cruelty.6

Many other atheists agree with Nietzsche concerning moral relativism. British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) once wrote, “Outside human desires there is no moral standard.”7 A. J. Ayer believed that moral commands did not result from any objective standard above man. Instead, Ayer stated that moral commands merely express one’s subjective feelings. When one says that murder is wrong, one is merely saying that he or she feels that murder is wrong.8 Jean-Paul Sartre, a French existentialist, believed that there is no objective meaning to life. Therefore, according to Sartre, man must create his own values.9

There are many different ways that moral relativists attempt to determine what action should be taken. Hedonism is probably the most extreme. It declares that whatever brings the most pleasure is right. In other words, if it feels good, do it.10 If this position is true, then there is no basis from which to judge the actions of Adolph Hitler as being evil.11

Utilitarianism teaches that man should attempt to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people.12 Utilitarianism is problematic. First, “good” is a meaningless term if moral relativism is true, for then there would be no such thing as good or evil. Second, to say that man “should” do something is to introduce a universal moral command. However, there is no room for universal moral commands in moral relativism.13

Joseph Fletcher founded “situation ethics.” Situation ethics is the view that ethics are relative to the situation. Fletcher claimed that he was not a moral relativist. He believed that there was only one moral absolute: love. Still, his concept of love was so void of meaning that his view of ethics, for all practical purposes, is synonymous with moral relativism.14

The situation never determines what is right. It is God who determines what is right. Still, the situation may aid the Christian in finding which of God’s laws should be applied.15 For when two of God’s commands come in conflict due to a situation so that a person cannot obey both, God requires that the person obey the greater command. God then exempts the person from obeying the lesser command. An example of this is the fact that god compliments Rahab the Harlot for lying in order to save two innocent lives (Joshua 2; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25).16

REFUTING MORAL RELATIVISM

Moral relativists deny absolute moral law. Still, they, like all people, recognize the evil actions of others when they are wronged. When they are wronged, they appeal to an objective and universal law that stands above man. Moral relativists deny absolute moral law in the lecture hall, but they live by it in their everyday lives.17 Moral relativists reserve the right for themselves to call the actions of Hitler wrong,18 but, if there is no such thing as right and wrong (as the moral relativists say), they cannot really call any action wrong.

The moral law does not ultimately come from within each individual, for then no one could call the actions of another, such as Hitler, evil.19 The moral law does not ultimately come from each society, for then one society could not call the actions of another society (such as Nazi Germany) wrong.20 Finally, the moral law does not ultimately come from world consensus,21 for world consensus is often wrong. World consensus once thought the world was flat. World consensus once considered slavery morally permissible.

Appealing to world or societal consensus as the ultimate source of the moral law is actually just an extension of the view that the individual is the ultimate source. The difference is only quantitative (the number of people increases). However, for there to be a moral law above all men (in order to judge all men), this moral law must be qualitatively above all men. If there is an absolute moral law qualitatively above all men, then there must be an absolute moral law Giver that stands qualitatively above all men. The moral law is not descriptive of what is; it is prescriptive of what should be.22

Since the absolute moral law leads directly to the existence of the theistic God (the absolute moral law Giver), many atheists and pantheists may feel compelled to reject it’s existence. Also, people who wish to live promiscuous lives often choose to reject God’s existence. The apostle John appears to be talking about these people:

And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed (John 3:19-20).

ENDNOTES

1 Geisler and Feinberg, 24-26.

2 Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 240.

3 Geisler and Watkins, 59, 99-100.

4 Friedrich Nietzsche, 95-96, 143, 228.

5 Ibid., 124-125, 139, 191, 197-198.

6 Copleston, A History of Philosophy vol. 7, 403.

7 Russell, 62.

8 Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 32.

9 Geisler and Feinberg, 406.

10 Ibid., 400-401.

11 Geisler, Christian Ethics, 36-37.

12 Ibid., 63.

13 Ibid., 73-75.

14 Ibid., 43-61.

15 Geisler and Feinberg, 411.

16 Ibid., 424-427.

17 Hodge, Systematic Theology vol. 1, 210.

18 Hick, The Existence of God, 183-186.

19 Moreland, 246-247.

20 Ibid., 243-244.

21 Geisler and Feinberg, 355.

22 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 27-28.

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