Posts Tagged ‘phiosophical’

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


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


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).


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.

Philosophers’ War Over the Soul

May 25th, 1997

by Paul Pardi

Recently, in an op-ed piece for Newsweek magazine, George Will roundly criticized Princeton philosopher Peter Singer for holding to a form of utilitarianism that allows him to deny that humans have intrinsic dignity and value and that, in some cases, killing a newborn could be morally justified. In the same vein as Singer, philosopher and professor of psychology at MIT Steven Pinker argues that personhood probably is a degreed notion having to do with possessing “morally significant traits” like memories and a sense of community; traits that “immature neonates don’t possess . . . any more than mice.” His conclusion: perhaps newborns aren’t truly persons and the immorality of taking their lives isn’t as clear-cut as some moral philosophers pretend it is.

Certainly one of the main themes in the philosophy of religion regarding immortality and personhood is that of deciding what to do with the soul. Should the soul end up in the intellectual discard pile along with phlogiston and witches or does the soul actually exist? Much of the current thinking on this subject focuses on this question. At first this may seem like an issue for philosophers of mind rather than for philosophers of religion. Actually, the issue concerns both. The philosopher of mind is interested in determining the ontological question: Does the soul exist? The philosopher of religion is interested in the implications of that ontology. In addition to moral implications, there are theological ones as well. For example, If we have no soul, then it is hard to make sense of the idea of immortality, yet immortality is a core tenet of most religious belief. As William James once noted, “Immortality is one of the great spiritual needs of man. The churches have constituted themselves the official guardians of the need . . .”

So there are two issues that concern the philosopher of religion. First there is the ontological question of whether or not there actually is a soul. Second, there are the moral and theological (and one might say anthropological) implications of the answer to that question. The apparent tension that exists between the current work being done in philosophy of mind and religious teaching seems to be constituted by a disparity between the “hard facts” of science that tell us that we’re nothing more than our bodies and brains, and religious dogma that seems to go contrary to that claim. For religion in the West, much of the religious teaching on the soul and the afterlife comes from a revelation from God (such as the Bible). In much of Eastern thought, the idea of immortality constitutes a fundamental principle upon which the entire religious structure is based. Boston University has been looking at solutions from both sides of the divide. For the past year, the university’s philosophy department has been examining this issue in its Institute for Philosophy and Religion. The title of this year’s program is “If I Should Die: Life, Death, and Immortality. Some of the titles of upcoming seminars are, “If I Should Die Before I Am Awakened: Buddhist Reflections on Death” and “Is There Life After Death? Where Are The Dead?” by Jürgen Moltmann.

Taking the lead from the current trend in philosophy of mind, many philosophers of religion are opting to dissolve the tension between the soul and the body by getting rid of the soul and translating “soul talk” into body or brain talk. They accept the current scientific thinking on mind-brain reduction and then argue that revelation claims are completely compatible with that thinking. A recent book edited by a team of theologians and philosophers at Fuller Seminary entitled Whatever Happened to the Soul? by Fortress Press (this book recently was reviewed in the current issue of the journal Philosophia Christi) does just that. In light of the current trend toward materialist views of consciousness, this book does not have anything new to offer regarding the ontological status of the mind. It does, however, have a lot to say about how one ought to understand religious claims regarding the soul and the afterlife in light of that trend. (Another novel approach to this problem was taken up recently by Australian philosopher Peter Forrest in his God Without the Supernatural by Cornel University Press.)

More traditional philosophers of religion balk at this approach. Many of these thinkers hold to some form of substance dualism. First, they argue that if we reject the idea of a substantial, immaterial soul, many aspects of the mind and personal identity simply cannot be explained adequately. Second, it becomes very difficult to understand the idea of an afterlife without talking about it in terms of a soul. Two new books argue against reductive materialism and for forms of substance dualism in just this way. William Hasker’s latest, The Emergent Self also from Cornell (part of the Cornel Studies in the Philosophy of Religion series) attempts to argue for a form of dualism (which he calls “emergent dualism”) while still recognizing “the critical role of the brain and nervous system for mental processes.” Whereas the Fortress book tends lean much more heavily on the side of mind to brain reduction, Hasker seeks to preserve the more traditional role for the soul while taking into account the recent discoveries in brain research. Given the newness of the book, Hasker’s contribution has not been adequately evaluated as to its viability as a player in the discussion.

The second book, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics  by J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae (due out in March by InterVarsity Press) takes a more traditional view and defends a substance dualist view of the soul. The first part of the book, treated by Moreland whose particular strength lies in metaphysics and philosophy of mind, deals with the important metaphysical questions related to this issue. In the second part, ethicist Rae teases out the implications of the view for bioethics. Recently there has been a rash of articles and reviews that, like Moreland and Rae, call into question the viability of a purely materialistic view of the mind. William A. Dembski in the Catholic journal First Things, “Are we spiritual machines?” in an article with that title. Similarly, Matt Donnelly, in the most recent issue of Books and Culture entitled an article with the question, “Is Science Good for the Soul?” in which he explores the recent (what he calls) monist-dualist debate.

Western thinkers aren’t the only philosophers and theologians dealing with these questions. For example, Robin Cooper has written a book on Buddhist thought and its compatibility with recent brain research called The Evolving Mind: Buddhism, Biology, and Consciousness. The issues that are raised in Buddhist thought vis-à-vis Christian theology are markedly different. In a review for the Catholic University of America, Charles Jones wrote, “As one might expect, the resonances and tensions that emerge from the juxtaposition of Buddhism and modern science differ markedly from those that arise from the current struggles to position science within a Christian theological framework.” The point here is that the tensions that exist between modern science and traditional views on the body and soul cross religious traditions and the east-west boundary.

Which side will end up winning the favor of the academy is tough to answer. As far as philosophy of religion goes, there does seem to be a trend towards more traditional thinking regarding the soul and afterlife. This is true in spite of the opposite view dominating philosophy of mind. Given that the majority of thinkers historically have held to the existence of both a soul and an afterlife, this may be one area where philosophers of religion would be wise to refrain from too quickly abandoning their roots.