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Is Moral Relativism the Only Logical Option?

The assertion that human morality must be based upon an objective, unchanging standard is central to the theistic position. Christian apologists are particularly quick to tout the notion as the coup de gras for nontheistic belief. These defenders of the faith speak at great length in an attempt to enumerate the absurdities of a moral code which is relative to time, culture and person. However, if one dissects their arguments they are shown to provide no logical case for objective morality; rather, they merely assert a need for it and show that relativism does not meet that need. Not only do they fail to show a naturally necessary case for objective morality, they fail to understand that their own stated mechanism—in this case the Christian god—necessarily fails to impart humans with an objective moral code upon which they can reliably base decisions.

In its most basic form, moral relativism holds that right and wrong are not defined by universal moral truths, but by the context of conscience, culture and social convention. Those arguing against it point out that such a system would lead to ever-changing standards that make it impossible to ultimately define right and wrong. They assert that in order to have a congruent, functional society, right and wrong must be universally defined and applied, else the result is a quagmire of moral anarchy which leaves everyone to do only that which is in their best interest while utterly ignoring the ramifications of their actions on others. However, if one looks at the world, one finds nothing but a titanic variance of moral standards. While some standards, such as those regarding murder, seem to be generally accepted, throughout world history the overwhelming majority of standards have in fact been subject to the whim of time, place and culture. At various times in history, some things most people now consider to be atrocities were generally regarded as good and proper (as well as the inverse). Slavery, misogyny and tribal genocide come immediately to mind. Yet despite some notable instances to the contrary, societies have largely fared quite well. In general, most societies have not been subject to a morally anarchic free-for-all. How can this be, given the supposed need for a transcendent standard? The answer is that there is neither a logical nor ontological necessity for a transcendent standard, as evidenced by the fact that human societies have thrived and continue to thrive under a largely subjective implementation. If the absolutists’ predictions were true, society would not have advanced to the stage it has, and you likely wouldn’t be sitting here reading this article.

Even if it were shown that societies did in fact need an objective, transcendent standard in order to survive and flourish, this fact would not, in and of itself, ensure there was one. As one of their central arguments, moral absolutists declare the horrific social implications of having no such standard. To their detriment, this is a logical fallacy; specifically it is an Appeal to the Consequences of a Belief. The social implications of having no absolute standard have exactly zero bearing upon whether one actually exists. To assert otherwise is no less preposterous than saying the implications of not having magical unicorns at our beck and call must necessarily mean they exist.

An oft-used tactic of the moral absolutist is to say that, with no objective truth, one is unable to assert anything. They detail things such as how two plus two cannot always be said to equal four under such a system. In doing so, they commit another logical fallacy, namely Equivocation. They change the context of the argument from that of solely moral truth to all truth. The fact that people may not agree on abortion or homosexuality has no bearing upon whether two plus two equals four, and vice versa.

Moral absolutists are quick to point out that the human conscience cannot be trusted to objectively determine right and wrong, as it is tainted by self-serving interests and personal preference. Relativists agree that the conscience is not objective, but they show that it does indeed have value in forming social structures which are beneficial to humans. The fact that the conscience is subjective is the core argument against moral relativism, and one that is dealt with at great length. Yet it is this very argument that precludes those proclaiming a mechanism for moral absolutes from actually having one. Take, for example the supposed absolute moral standards of the Christian god. Suppose for a moment that such a god exists and that his very nature unequivocally dictates what is right and wrong. How would such a god impart the knowledge of right and wrong to humans? Whatever the method, it must be universal to all humans throughout all of human history, as the Bible indicates that all humans are morally culpable for failing to meet the standard. Culpability can only be invoked when one has proper knowledge of the standard.

Christians often cite the Bible as the standard bearer of absolute truth. What of the people who existed before the Bible was written, or who have lived far from the reaches of any Bible for their entire lifetimes? Clearly, the Bible cannot be the mechanism, for it has not been universally available to all humans throughout all of human history. It also fails in that it is not anything close to being a comprehensive resource upon which one can base any and all moral decisions. Too much is left to the imperfect human mind for interpretation and extrapolation; for example, under exactly which circumstances is one either guilty or vindicated of murder? It is easy to cite generalizations for such a question, but as details are added it becomes increasingly difficult to categorize the answers as absolute. In addition, the Bible is also replete with direct moral contradictions: “An eye for an eye” vs. “Turn the other cheek” and so forth. All these things aside, humans are nevertheless unable to legitimately claim they can use the bible to objectively know moral truth. Even if it were the universal, comprehensive standard, it must be processed via the imperfect, subjective, human brain. Any potential standing it might have as a universal standard is destroyed once it is interpreted, extrapolated and consumed by a subjective mind.

A possible option other than written tradition might be oral tradition. This also fails to meet the necessity of universality when one takes into account far-reaching regions of the world which contain people who have never heard the traditions. Add to this the fact that human transmission, while shown to be quite accurate in some societies, is not perfect and would necessarily lead to some degree of degradation of the standard.

The final possibility is that god speaks directly to all human beings regarding every possible moral conundrum in which one could find oneself. This could be done audibly, visually or in some other unequivocal manner. It seems an embarrassment to even have to note that this is not the case. We are left with god somehow speaking to each individual human—aside from auditory, visual or similar unequivocal means—about the proper course of action for any given scenario. This fits the very definition of the human conscience. Sadly, for the absolutist, he has already quite handily and utterly discounted this mechanism as being fully unreliable and completely inadequate for determining moral absolutes.

There remains nothing upon which the absolutist can hang his assertion that he has access to an absolute moral standard. Even if such a standard actually exists, the fact that it is impossible for it to be effectively imparted to humans—according to the absolutist’s own central argument—makes it of no value in determining right and wrong. The effect of this is that the absolutist’s moral standard is rendered even less useful than he claims moral relativism to be, as the invocation of the conscience is central to the latter. By removing the conscience from the equation, the moral absolutist unwittingly shows his feet to be planted firmly in midair.

The next time a would-be apologist asserts that his god is the standard for absolute morality, simply ask him to explain how his god’s moral standards have been imparted to humans throughout human history such that they can objectively know right and wrong.