Greg Koukl explains how to be a consistent moral relativist

The absolute easiest way to get into a good apologetics conversation with someone is to ask them what makes something right or wrong on their view.

Just ask the person you want to engage two questions:

  1. Is it it wrong to treat people badly just because of their skin color?
  2. What makes it wrong?

Now, as I see it, there are only 3 possible answers to this question.

  1. I personally prefer not to do that – it is wrong for me.
  2. Our culture has evolved a set of customs that apply for us in this time and place, and that set of customs says that members of the society ought not to do that. It is wrong for us, here and now.
  3. Humans are designed to act in a certain way, and part of that design is that we ought not to do that. Acting in line with our design allows us to flourish, (Aristotle’s eudaimonia).

Response #1, is called “moral relativism”. Response #2 is called “cultural relativism”. Response #3 is my view: moral realism. I believe in a hierarchy of moral absolutes that exist objectively, because they are part of God’s design for us and the universe.

I wanted to go over a paper by Greg Koukl from Stand to Reason, in which he critiques moral relativism. His paper is called “Seven Things You Can’t Do as a Moral Relativist”. First, let’s see the list of seven things.

  1. You can’t make moral judgments about other people’s moral choices
  2. You can’t complain about God allowing evil and suffering
  3. You can’t blame people or praise people for their moral choices
  4. You can’t claim that any situation is unfair or unjust
  5. You can’t improve your morality
  6. You can’t have meaningful discussions about morality
  7. You can’t promote the obligation to be tolerant

You’ll have to read the paper to see how he argues for these, but I wanted to say a brief word about number 1.

Rule #1: Relativists Can’t Accuse Others of Wrong-Doing

Relativism makes it impossible to criticize the behavior of others, because relativism ultimately denies that there is such a thing as wrong- doing. In other words, if you believe that morality is a matter of personal definition, then you can’t ever again judge the actions of others. Relativists can’t even object on moral grounds to racism. After all, what sense can be made of the judgment “apartheid is wrong” when spoken by someone who doesn’t believe in right and wrong? What justification is there to intervene? Certainly not human rights, for there are no such things as rights. Relativism is the ultimate pro-choice position because it accepts every personal choice—even the choice to be racist.

In moral relativism, what you ought to do is totally up to you. Morality is just like a lunch buffet – you pick what you like based on your personal preferences.

I remember one particular discussion I had with a non-Christian co-worker. Both she and her live-in boyfriend were moral relativists. They were fighting because she was angry about his not having (or wanting) a job, and he was angry because when he asked her for space, she immediately ran out and cheated on him.

What’s interesting is that both of these people chose the other in order to escape being judged themselves. I think this happens a lot in relationships today. Both people don’t want to be judged by the other person, but they both want to the other person to treat them well and to honor moral obligations. Isn’t that interesting? I don’t think that you can have something like marriage work when neither person takes moral obligations to the other person seriously.

6 thoughts on “Greg Koukl explains how to be a consistent moral relativist”

  1. It is my view that most moral relativists, myself included at one time, choose moral relativism for themselves while demanding moral absolutes from everyone else – without even recognizing the inconsistency.

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  2. Thank you for this; Greg Koukl has been pretty good with dealing with relativism; I enjoyed his book and videos showing the self-refuting nature of relativism.

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  3. I’m wondering if there are any true moral relativists out there. The contradiction is too blatant. Does anyone really believe there is no truth at all?

    None of the atheists I know are moral relativists. They’re all humanists.

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    1. I think it’s correct to say that all post-modernists are moral relativists but not every post-modernist is an atheist. I will go out on a limb and say that non-post-modernist atheists have a better handle on morality than atheistic post-modernists, e.g. Shelly Kagan and Michael Ruse (one of which follows naturalistic morality to its conclusion). Post-modernists are usually of the existential and eastern philosophy variety where contradictions abound (and are proper) and reason isn’t held high.

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  4. It seems like there are many more answers than just the three you mention here. What about, say, Kant’s categorical imperative? Treating people badly just because of their skin color is not something I could rationally will for everyone to do, and therefore I should not do it.

    Or we could take a utilitarian approach like Mill does. Treating people badly because of their skin color causes otherwise preventable human sadness and suffering, and is therefore something I should not do.

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