Tag Archives: Relativism

Do moral dilemmas undermine objective moral absolutes?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

One reason why some people reject the existence of objective morality is because moral absolutes can conflict.

Canadian philosopher Michael Horner to explains the problem.

He writes:

You may have been confronted with the story of the Nazi soldier coming to the door of the family who are hiding some Jewish people in their home and asking them point blankly, “Are there any Jews here?” The person telling the story then asks you, “What would you say?” or more precisely, “What should you say?”

[…]I think for many people the term moral absolutes connotes ideas like inflexibility and rigidity, and that there can never be exemptions. I have also found that many people believe that holding to moral absolutes means that circumstances are not relevant in a moral evaluation and that moral absolutism cannot handle moral dilemmas. But in fact it is possible to believe in moral absolutes, or as I prefer to call them objective moral values, without adhering to these connotations I have mentioned.

For many people to believe in moral absolutes is to believe in rules that no other rules can ever trump. It follows from this that moral absolutes are all equal and there can never be any exemptions. But what if moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy?

We know from experience that very often more than one moral rule applies to a situation. This often leads to moral dilemmas. So in the ‘hiding the Jews example’ the moral rule of telling the truth seems to apply to the situation, but it would seem that the moral rule to protect innocent human life from torture and murder applies also.

If absolutes are all equal there is no way out of the dilemma. You can’t choose one absolute over another because in doing so you would be violating at least one absolute which, in their view, is supposed to be inviolable.

So, in this case, it seems as if the moral absolutist is stuck in a dilemma. If you lie to save the innocent life, then that would be wrong. But if you tell the truth and hand the innocent person over to murderers, then that would be wrong. Does this really disprove objective moral absolutes?

This problem annoys me, because I know this is the kind of objection to objective morality that annoying philosophy lecturers like to push onto freshmen in order to convince them that morality is nonsense.  But does the moral dilemma objection really work?

More Horner:

[…][I]f moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy and the circumstances or the situation were relevant in determining which absolute takes precedent, then there may be a solution to the moral dilemma. That is exactly what I think is the case in the example. I for one have no difficulty knowing that the morally right thing to do in that situation is to protect the life of innocent people from torture and murder rather than tell the truth to a person who has torture and murder in their plans. My moral intuitions are very clear about this.

If someone objects and says, “No, you must always tell the truth. After all it is an absolute, and absolutes by definition can never be violated,” I would point out that they are just using a different hierarchy, putting truth telling above protecting the life of innocent people from torture and murder. There is no way to avoid making a judgment like that since more than one absolute does apply to the situation. I would just ask them to think it through again, and once they see that they have to make a judgment based on some sort of hierarchy in that situation, then I think most people’s moral intuitions will affirm that protecting the lives of innocent people from torture and murder, in that situation, trumps truth telling. There is no way to avoid choosing one over the other.

But isn’t this moral relativism? After all, we are deciding what to do based on the situation! It’s relativism, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t, because there is always one right thing to do in every situation. In every situation, you always follow the weightiest moral rule. The right thing to do does not depend on your subjective state of mind. It is an objective moral duty, and it is the same for everyone, across all times and in all places. That’s what objective morality means -what is right and wrong is not determined by personal preferences or cultural conventions, which vary by time and place.

And of course, God is the ground of this hierarchy of objective moral absolutes. They existed through him before human beings even appeared, as part of his design for us, his creatures. How we ought to behave is grounded ontologically in God’s design for us.

To protect children, we need to tell women to choose conservative, traditional men

Women need to learn to choose a man who is prepared to be a father and husband
Women need to learn to choose men who are prepared to be a father and husband

Yesterday, I blogged about the hook-up culture, and how many young women were freely choosing to participate in it.  In their own words, the young, unmarried women explained how they wanted to have fun and get “acceptance” from men who were good-looking by having sex with them within minutes of meeting them. I argued that we needed to tell young, unmarried women not to be seeking fun and thrills, and that we need to oppose radical feminism and selfishness in the culture.

Well, a woman who had an irresponsible mom read that post and left a comment telling her story.

Here is the first comment from Mysterious M. in full:

I was born to a woman who fits a very similar description to what you describe here in your post, WK, so perhaps it would be apropos for me to share my experience being raised by her.

My mom was brought up in a Christian home but allowed herself to be influenced by the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s after she left home. She spent one year in college, got a job, got married and then divorced within a few years (no kids). She met my dad in a bar after her divorce. She celebrated her divorce by going out drinking, btw. My dad was married at the time they met and had been previously married, as well, and had a slew of kids scattered across the country. His current wife was also pregnant. My half sister was born 3 weeks before me, in the same hospital.

Once she found out she was pregnant, she realized that I’d be better off without him around and told him to leave, which he did without any argument, unsurprisingly. I asked her once what she saw in him and she said, “Well, he was funny.” So she slept with him. No matter that he had a wife, ex-wives, kids, etc. Those things aren’t important when you’re out looking for a good time for yourself.

I was a teenager before I knew who my dad was and how I came into being. After I was born she did start to attend church and put me in Christian school and attempted to raise me in a Christian home. However, she never once told me that she thought she’d done anything wrong or that she was sorry for the pain that her decisions caused me. I went through years of anguish, depression, an eating disorder that almost killed me and other behavioral problems clearly stemming from the feelings of abandonment I experienced and her continuously irresponsible behavior, but never once did it appear to cross her mind that she might be responsible for any of this.

Although my mom appeared from the outside to have changed her ways, in hindsight I see that the reckless independence she acquired from her years away from family and church never really left. They switched from outwardly rebellious behavior, like dating married men, to more private bad habits to fulfill her desire for fun and excitement, like internet gambling and reckless spending on credit cards (to the tune of 70K at last count). I think these were also attempts to distract and comfort herself when she was lonely. When she got older, she resented that she didn’t have a husband to take care of her and enjoy a simple life with, but never seemed to put it together that her choices pretty much precluded her from that opportunity.

Although she’s faithfully attended church since my childhood and read her Bible, etc, I have never, ever once heard her admit that she sinned by doing any of these things, or that they were bad decisions that caused unnecessary hurt and harm to her child or herself. If anything, she still seems to think that it’s kind of funny or cute that she, an otherwise quiet, reserved, seemingly respectable woman, has a torrid past that resulted in an affair with a married man and a child to commemorate the event. I almost sense she’s proud of it, to this day, and that makes me very sad and scared for her.

She’s dying now and her mind is going. She says she’s ready to meet the Lord, and I can only hope that between herself and Him, she’s made things right, although I’ve seen very little fruit speaking to that possibility. She talks the talk, but seeing her walk up close and in person, I’m left with more questions than answers about whether she really ever submitted to Christ. It just doesn’t show to me, and I probably know her better than anyone else. She’s left an enormous mess financially for my husband and I to cope with and she can no longer distract herself with spending sprees, so the bitterness caused by her life decisions have finally caught up with her and there’s no avoiding them now.

I guess from my perspective, when I see young woman who claim to be Christian but are living the most important aspects of their lives out in the way the rest of the world says is acceptable, it makes me very confused about what they really believe. I purposely waited for sex until marriage, chose a man with good morals and a good job and did everything in power to stay as far away from the hook-up culture as possible. I know the pain that comes from such foolish living. I can’t fathom why any Christian woman would engage in such foolish and selfish behavior as the ones I see doing this very thing today. They do not know what it means to know, serve and love Christ. They are too busy loving and serving themselves to see what a dangerous path they are traveling.

There are a couple more comments now.

Here’s an excerpt from one:

My mom was raised in a loving home with Christian parents and grew up very involved in church. My grandmother ran the Sunday school program for years. My other aunts and uncles led decent, moral, Christian lives. My mom wanted to do something more exciting. She was rebellious, plain and simple. She thought it was funny. If she had been raised in a situation that was equally as bad as the one she created, I could feel more sympathy. But she was raised differently than what she chose. I don’t understand it but I watched my own Christian friends do the same thing as a teen and young adult. It’s so perplexing to me. They’re raised in a stable Christian household and then choose the most unstable and reckless men because of the feelings those men inspired. I was the product of those feelings and knew from a young age I’d rather stay single and chaste the rest of my life than end up repeating the choices that my parents made.

And an excerpt from a later one:

I know it’s popular to say that any time someone makes bad choices, it’s because they are hurting and are acting out. But once you reach adulthood and have a child, you forfeit your right to make excuses for your behavior. You either change or you risk damaging the children you’ve been entrusted with.

Regarding WK’s comment about condoning her recklessness, I will say this. To my mom, any relationship that involved conflict was disposable. I know that other Christians tried to confront her, and she rejected them. She cut them out, no holds barred. If you didn’t agree, you were not a part of her circle. For those who were close, she was very adept at keeping secrets. Even I didn’t know the breadth of the destructiveness of certain aspects of her life until recently, I was her closest confidant. People who are desperate to keep secrets are typically fairly adept at doing so, at least for a while. Eventually it catches up, but often it’s far too late to do any real remediation. At that point it’s just a matter of salvaging what you can and trying to cope with the rest as best as possible.

[…]Bottom line: excuses or not, bad decisions create bad consequences and are generally pretty avoidable if you’re willing to be humble and submit to Christ, regardless of the circumstances. Helping people identify excuses does not help them avoid these consequences. Only by pointing out the truth, no matter the friction it might cause, can we help people on a bad path see the error of their ways and offer them any real hope.

That is a situation (text in bold) that I have experienced myself.

J.P. Moreland asks: does truth matter when choosing a religion?

Dr. J.P. Moreland
Dr. J.P. Moreland

This lecture contains Moreland’s famous “Wonmug” illustration. Ah, memories! If you don’t know who Wonmug is, you can find out in this lecture.

The MP3 file is here.

Topics:

  • Is it intolerant to think that one religion is true?
  • Is it more important to be loving and accepting of people regardless of worldview?
  • How should Christians approach the question of religious pluralism?
  • How does a person choose a religion anyway?
  • Who is Wonmug, and would you like to be like Wonmug?
  • Is it enough that a belief “works for you”, or do you want to believe the truth?
  • Can all the religions in the world be true?
  • Is it wise to pick and choose what you like from all the different religions?
  • Is it possible to investigate which religion is true? How?
  • Which religions are testable for being true or false?
  • How you can test Christianity historically (very brief)

This is the most fun lecture to listen to, you should listen to it, if you like fun.

Is it better to be liked than respected?

Étienne Prosper Berne-Bellecour - The wounded soldier
Étienne Prosper Berne-Bellecour – The wounded soldier

As soon as I saw the title of this post from Cold Case Christianity, I knew it would be significant to me.

J. Warner Wallace writes:

Popularity often requires agreement. It’s easy to like people who hold the same opinions and values. It’s not really surprising, therefore, that many of us, in an effort to be liked, try to find a way to come to agreement with the people around us. And that’s where the trouble usually starts. There are two ways to form agreement:

1. Influence others toward our position, or
2. Simply embrace the positions of others

We can try to move them toward us, or we can simply move toward them. One of these strategies will ensure our likability but the other is the path to respect.

[…]We want our kids to influence others rather than allow their friends to influence them, don’t we? While it may be easy to embrace the beliefs of others to gain approval, we know the courageous path requires us to point others to the truth, even when it’s inconvenient or unpopular. It’s time for the Church to take this second path. We’ve spent far too much time trying to become like the world in order to win its acceptance, rather than having the moral courage to make the case for what we believe. Only this second way will win the respect of those around us. I want to hear people say, “Jim, I don’t agree with you at all, but I respect the fact that you’ve tried to be thoughtful about your position and you were kind to me along the way.” That’s the kind of reaction I’m looking for.

Recently, I had to make a hard choice about whether to agree with someone else, or tell her the truth. I found myself discussing education, career and finances with a young lady. I was telling her about the likely consequences of some of the choices that she was making that were related to one of the two areas that I actually know something about. (The other area is apologetics, and she already knows lots about that)

I gave her some advice based on my understanding of these things – from my experience. There was no doubt that when it came to these areas, I had more experience than she did, and more results to show for my past decisions in those areas. But I could feel her slipping away the more evidence I showed her. She preferred to listen to people who agreed with what her feelings were telling her. Eventually, I lost her. But there was nothing else I could do. I spoke the truth based on what I knew and experienced myself in those areas. I wouldn’t have given her advice in many other areas where she knew much more than I did – just in this one, where I actually knew what I was talking about.

Fortunately other young people do take my advice in those areas, and it does work out well for them. But for me to tell them what they don’t want to hear does take courage. And sometimes, you end up losing someone close who just doesn’t believe that you know what you are talking about. So I would say that telling the truth and pointing to evidence does not always get you respect for what you know about. It gives you a chance of being respected.

By the way, I could still be proven wrong with that lady I was advising. It’s happened before. I think I told her the truth, and I hope one day she will see that.

The seven fatal flaws of moral relativism

Moral relativism is the view that moral values and moral duties do not exist in reality, but only exist as opinions in people’s minds. When you ask a moral relativist where the belief that stealing is wrong comes wrong, he may tell you that it is his opinion, or that it is the opinion of most people in his society. But he cannot tell you that stealing is wrong independent of what people think, because morality (on moral relativism) is just personal preference.

So what’s wrong with it?

I found this list of the seven flaws of moral relativism at the Australian site Faith Interface.

Here’s the summary:

  1. Moral relativists can’t accuse others of wrongdoing.
  2. Relativists can’t complain about the problem of evil.
  3. Relativists can’t place blame or accept praise.
  4. Relativists can’t make charges of unfairness or injustice.
  5. Relativists can’t improve their morality.
  6. Relativists can’t hold meaningful moral discussions.
  7. Relativists can’t promote the obligation of tolerance.

Here’s my favorite flaw of relativism (#6):

Relativists can’t hold meaningful moral discussions. What’s there to talk about? If morals are entirely relative and all views are equal, then no way of thinking is better than another. No moral position can be judged as adequate or deficient, unreasonable, acceptable, or even barbaric. If ethical disputes make sense only when morals are objective, then relativism can only be consistently lived out in silence. For this reason, it is rare to meet a rational and consistent relativist, as most are quick to impose their own moral rules like “It’s wrong to push your own morality on others”. This puts relativists in an untenable position – if they speak up about moral issues, they surrender their relativism; if they do not speak up, they surrender their humanity. If the notion of moral discourse makes sense intuitively, then moral relativism is false.

I sometimes get a lot of flack from atheists who complain that I don’t let them make any moral statements without asking them first to ground morality on their worldview. And that’s because on atheism morality IS NOT rationally grounded, so they can’t answer. In an accidental universe, you can only describe people’s personal preferences or social customs, that vary by time and place. It’s all arbitrary – like having discussions about what food is best or what clothing is best. The answer is always going to be “it depends”. It depends on the person who is speaking because it’s a subjective claim, not an objective claim. There is no objective way we ought to behave.

The whole point of atheism is to pursue pleasure without the bonds of morality – there is no other reason to do anything on atheism except for the pleasure it gives you. You do fashionable things to feel good getting praise from your neighbors, and you do unfashionable things in private to make yourself feel good and you hope that no one who is powerful enough to hold you accountable ever finds out. There’s no way you were made to be.