Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Myth of Moral Relativism

This struck me last week and I forgot, but I was reminded of it this morning: I don't know any "moral relativists". I hear it from well-meaning religious folks all over the place: This world is no longer one of absolutes but rather full of moral relativism, the teaching that what is right for you may not be right for me. This is supposedly the problem today. This is at the very least a major contributor to our sinful culture of today.

I have yet to meet someone who is completely relativistic in his or her moral take on things. Sure, people may say that there is no absolute truth, but not because they are against the idea of Truth. Rather, they are correctly observing some apparent contradictions in this world. Because they personally do not have a standard through which to filter these conflicts they logically assume there is no absolute truth. But this isn't the definition of "moral relativism" taught in churches. One accurate definition of Relativism is "the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute" [my computer's built-in dictionary]. This is very different from the more sensational religious definition of "those opposed to truth and who believe that whatever you think is true is."

Defining "relativism" this way has led to some really silly statements that I got even in Bible college. A couple examples are as follows:

Moral Relativist: There is no absolute truth!
Christian "Thinker": Do you know that absolutely?

Moral Relativist: You shouldn't tell someone what is right or wrong because you have to know the context of why they did the action.
Christian "Thinker": So you'd be okay with me hitting you in the nose, right? Since you shouldn't tell people what is right or wrong. And besides "shouldn't" is a morally absolute position, you self contradicting relativist, you.

I put "Thinker" in quotes not because I think people who say this kind of thing are stupid (because I've said the same things myself), but because they have yet to think this all the way through. First, when a relativist says that there is no absolute truth his statement is not about the inability to make statements of truth. Rather, he is commenting on the inability to make statements that encompass all reality. In fact, if you actually talked with the guy, you could show him that even his statement of "no absolutes" is not true in some contexts. Instead of doing that, however, we just brush him off as foolish, too far gone, and one of those "moral relativists".

Second, a moral relativist does not believe that people can't make judgments about the relative goodness/badness of a situation. Bopping the guy in the nose would of course be wrong. However, if you bopped him on the nose accidentally as you turned around too quickly, he would say that was fine. Moral Relativism?


I think a more helpful term may be "Contextual Morality". Are there things that are right and wrong? Yes. Are they always that way? That's much harder to say.

Oh, but what about killing babies? Who would say that's okay in certain situations?


Check out Isaiah 13 (especially verse 16). That's God's wrath being poured out on an evil nation. Moral relativism? Nope. Contextual morality.

So what am I saying? Is there no Truth? Is nothing absolute? No, I'm not saying that at all. Rather, I suggest that we stop being so quick to judge the statements of others and figure out what they are really asking. Only by listening can we hope to speak to them with truth and love. In all my years of telling the "moral relativists" around me that they were self-refuting, not once did they fall on their knees and beg for salvation and Truth. Why? I wasn't listening to them, so why would they listen to me?

Stop debating and trying to prove your point. Relax a bit and realize that those around us wrestling with these ideas are just as interested in truth as we, they just have a different starting point and no anchor. Let us use our firm foundation as the starting place to build a bridge, rather than the battering ram to break down their "error"... especially when, after actually listening to them, they aren't wrong.

Contextual Morality is not wrong at all, it's "merely" incomplete without a solid context.

~Luke Holzmann


Craig and Heather said...


Thanks for the link...

Have you considered that perhaps both perspectives are valid? There is a possibility that your "contextualism" and "moral relativism" actually co-exist.

Jesus is the essence of Truth. Once He is out of the picture, "truth" can be defined in any way a person desires, because, as you said there is no grounding filter with which to sift information. So, in a sense, those who reject Christ do reject truth and are therefore opposed to it(Him). A person's understanding of truth is then subject to individual interpretation, which can change depending on the situation or emotional mood or disclosure of facts or any number of other variables. Truth then becomes relative to the perceived context and resulting morals have no solid foundation on which to stand.

I believe moral relativity is what Romans 1 is addressing-- If we ignore, reject, rebel against God (TRUTH) then He will let us stew in our own ignorant juices.

Concerning Isaiah...I think I see what you meant about context, but not sure I follow the logic because there is a difference between God making (or changing) the rules and man attempting to do the same. God is the One who determines whether something is right, so the killing of babies, women, children, etc at the hand of enemies as a judgment on a nation (or as a matter of persecution of believers, for that matter) is His prerogative. As the One who created everything, He has that right. No created being has the authority to autonomously make such decisions. There appears to be Biblical instances when someone did something wrong (lied, murdered) and it was seen as a good thing in its overall context. But only because it was done in obedience to God's direction in a specific instance.
Maybe I misunderstand what you are trying to say.

I appreciate being able to read your perspective. I think God shows me more when I am willing to listen to other people. Perhaps I shall dig around your site for more things to consider.

I need to figure out how to be more concise with my thoughts...


Luke said...


My point is not that people aren't relativistic in their thinking... but rather that no one is truly completely relativistic. In other words, everyone has a context for their morality, even if it shifts around.

And my point with Isaiah is that while our context (God) does not change, He does things that in other contexts would be very wrong--thereby appearing to be relativistic.

What you say about Romans sounds good to me <smile>.

And I too struggle to be succinct in my thoughts <smile>.

Thanks so much for stopping by and hashing this out more with me!