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 relativism 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.

18 thoughts on “The seven fatal flaws of moral relativism”

  1. Relativism does not remove value. It simply admits that any standard of value is arbitrary. But that doesn’t stop us from having values. I value the well-being of my family. I have no further justification for that position, and I don’t need one. They aren’t valuable to me because they’re God’s kids, or because they have souls, or they might grow up to follow Jesus. They’re just valuable because I say so. Yes, it may just be a feeling I have for evolutionary reasons. But my love for them is properly basic. Justifications come to an end somewhere, and I don’t need supernatural realms to love my kids.

    So, each of these points is false. Once we value anything, we can do all of them, with or without gods or objective moral values.

    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.

    There are costs to atheism, but grounding moral values isn’t one of them. It’s true that atheists don’t have objective moral values, but those aren’t necessary for moral standards. And there’s no good reason to believe that Christians, Muslims or Jews have objective moral values. All the evidence suggests that their moral foundations are every bit as arbitrary as any other.


  2. “Relativism does not remove value. It simply admits that any standard of value is arbitrary. But that doesn’t stop us from having values. … So, each of these points is false. Once we value anything, we can do all of them, with or without gods or objective moral values.”

    Perhaps, WK should have said that moral relativists cannot do these things while simultaneously remaining consistent with their belief in moral relativism. Take item 1 for example:

    1. Moral relativists can’t accuse others of wrongdoing.

    A moral relativist is one who by definition believes that an objective standard distinguishing right and wrong behavior does not exist. So then, how can a moral relativist accuse someone of doing something that is objectively wrong (i.e. “wrongdoing”) while simultaneously remaining true to his belief that an objective standard of right and wrong do not exist? He cannot.

    “It’s true that atheists don’t have objective moral values, but those aren’t necessary for moral standards.”

    “Moral standards” which are arbitrary are not really standards – at least not in a universal sense. For instance, the standards that you abide by and choose to call standards, you cannot expect anyone else to abide by and call standards. You may “value” your children and wish to provide for them, but someone else may not value them and choose to kill them instead. In your relativistic worldview, you cannot claim that someone else killing them is objectively wrong. You might consider it “wrong” for you to kill them (because you value them), but you cannot claim that it’s wrong for someone else (who has different arbitrary moral standards) to kill them.

    I, on the other hand, believe that it’s objectively wrong for anyone to kill them because I believe that there is an objective, immutable, and universal moral standard which distinguishes right from wrong. This standard applies equally to all people at all times. And what is objectively wrong by this standard for one person to do is also objectively wrong for anyone else to do (regardless of how well or not so well I or anyone else of my religious affiliation or any other lives up to that standard). That is something that you cannot claim if you are to remain consistent with atheism and moral relativism.


  3. The key point that Christians miss is that human nature is universal among humans, and immutable. That’s why humanist values are a fixed moral standard despite being “just personal preference” or only existing “as opinions in people’s minds.”

    You can’t change your own human nature at whim. Changing your opinion doesn’t change your inherent human nature. The morality is written in your genes. It’s not arbitrary at all.

    Thus, when humanists talk about evil or accuse others of wrong-doing, they’re talking about acting contrary to our fixed human nature.

    You are free to disagree with this idea, of course, but you can’t accuse humanists of holding self-contradictory views.


    1. Morality is in our genes? Hardly. In a purely Darwinian world, the only value is surviving and reproducing. If you can go kill all the men in the next town and rape their women, you are rewarded by plundering their resources and impregnating their women. You have passed your genes on to the next generation and gained more resources to help you and your offspring survive and reproduce. The very fact that we regard murder and rape as wrong runs counter to the Darwinian imperative of genes to propagate at all costs.


  4. The problem with that though John is that human nature isn’t fixed. Not in the least. It may be among you and the people you choose to associate with, but there are tons of people who would disagree with what you call “human nature”, both now and throughout history, and on a variety of issues. If it were truly human nature (like, the desire to eat), there would be no disagreements. Even things we take for granted now – for example, the notion that it’s wrong for 1 human to enslave another – were at times considered perfectly normal. So if there’s just a fixed human nature, why was that ever permissible? You would say those people were wrong, but the standard you use to ascertain right from wrong is purely subjective. Also, you’d be contradicting yourself because their “human nature” said it was no problem, and if that’s the standard you’ve chosen, then what they’re doing is perfectly fine. Obviously human nature changed, but if that’s the case, doesn’t that make it subjective?

    This is the problem with atheism – it reduces us to mere chemicals, atoms and particles. It reduces us to what “is”, but it can say nothing about what “ought to be”. If the fact that I’m typing this and communicating these words to you is merely a set of chemical reactions firing in my brain, then how does one distinguish between a “good” chemical reaction and an “evil” chemical reaction? Chemicals can’t be evil. A rock can’t be good. Carbon can’t be bad. The act of murder simply becomes the act of rearranging matter, no different than busting up a rock with a hammer. Why should I start assigning moral value to something merely because it’s arranged a certain way? What level of complexity suddenly gives it moral value?

    Morality presents a problem for atheism because it is the definition of “oughts”, and atheism has no standard for oughts. Any standard an atheist wants to create and pretend is objective ultimately shows itself to be subjective (human nature, instincts, etc.), and in doing so contradicts the very definition of morality. I can say vanilla ice cream is the best because my nature or instinct or chemical makeup tells me it’s the best, but I have no right to tell you that you’re wrong for thinking chocolate is best. Everything becomes a matter of taste, and by it’s very definition, morality is not equal to tastes/opinions. And this is where atheism hits such a difficult obstacle, one that even many of it’s most ardent supporters have had to admit to – it reduces everything to subjectivity but can’t shake the idea of objectivity when it comes to morality.

    Now let me clarify something, because this is usually where atheists get (understandably) angry – it is one thing to say that atheism contradicts morality, but it is quite another to say that atheists can’t be moral. That’s where I think Don is making a category error above in confusing the two arguments. Atheists are quite moral. Some of the most wonderful people I’ve known have been atheists. If they weren’t moral, there would be no argument, for it’s the very fact they are moral that presents a contradiction with their worldview. And that’s what the argument from morality does – it does not claim that atheists are not moral, for they clearly are, but rather points out the contradiction between the observed reality and the chosen worldview. It is a criticism of the worldview, not the person.


  5. “The key point that Christians miss is that human nature is universal among humans, and immutable. That’s why humanist values are a fixed moral standard despite being “just personal preference” or only existing “as opinions in people’s minds.””

    Throughout human history many cultures have embraced cannibalism and human sacrifice, among many other behaviors which contradict what other cultures consider moral. I am not suggesting that humans do not have an innate sense of right and wrong, but rather that in an atheistic framework, there is no source for an immutable and universal standard, and no grounds upon which to make the claim that what others (or other cultures) do is fundamentally, immutable, and universally wrong.

    Second, you say that “morality is written in your genes. It’s not arbitrary at all.” Just which gene is it that you are referring to? You are inventing grounds for an immutable and universal moral standard which do not exist in an atheistic worldview. I think that morality is a metaphysical construct which cannot be written into the human genome. Besides, if it were, then it would not be immutable and universal. Genetic mutation would ensure that different people would acquire slightly different moralities, and no one morality could be considered right and the others wrong.

    I agree that humans have a conscience and an inherent comprehension of right and wrong, but in an atheistic worldview there is nothing which should cause that to exist. When such a person claims that someone else is doing something that is fundamentally and universally wrong, he is holding self-contradictory views. He is not being consistent with his atheism.


  6. I’m surprised you guys didn’t ask me what the immutable human nature is. You just assumed I was talking about one thing or the other, which you easily dismissed. It’s true there are lots of disagreements about whether specific actions are good or bad. That’s because many actions might or might not promote human flourishing, depending on circumstances.

    How about that word – flourishing. The universal and immutable human nature is that we try to flourish. Or we try to survive. We try to transmit our genes to future generations.

    About morality, I think whenever we talk about what ought to be, we’re describing our desires. Our desires are defined in terms of actions we tend to do if we can. So it’s like water flowing downhill. The water “wants” to flow downhill in the same way that we want to do something.

    A boulder in the stream blocks the flow of water, and that’s bad, from the stream’s point of view. The stream splashes and sprays and pools up and overflows, and that’s a similar kind of behavior that we do whenever we protest about something that impedes us in achieving our desires.

    The good means flowing smoothly downhill. Evil is whatever impedes us.


    1. John, on atheism, the universe is an accident, and humans are accidents. There is no design for us, and no way we ought to be. Morality is literally meaningless on atheism. It is as real as Harry Potter, on your view.

      And that’s not my opinion only, it’s the view of prominent atheists:

      William Provine says atheists have no free will, no moral accountability and no moral significance:

      Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.


      Michael Ruse says atheists have no objective moral standards:

      The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.(Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269).

      Richard Dawkins says atheists have no objective moral standards:

      In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

      Although Sam Harris tries to ground objective morality on atheism, his view that “human flourishing” is better than any other standard is ARBITRARY. It’s his opinion, again. So if you are an atheist, morality is not something that is meaningful for you. You use the words, but what you are referring to isn’t real (on your view). It’s just customs and conventions that vary by time and place, and there is no way to say that anything is right or wrong objectively.


    2. Okay, but here’s the problem: on what grounds do you say someone who disagrees with everything you just wrote is wrong? All the metrics you just gave for what makes something moral/immoral – impeding desires, survival, etc. – are based on subjective opinions. They may be shared by a lot of people, but that doesn’t make them objectively true. What if one person wants to murder and the other person doesn’t? What if one person thinks oppressing the poor is ultimately good, and the other doesn’t? Both people are acting on “desire”, so how does one decide who is right and who is wrong?

      I would even argue that on a purely Darwinistic playing field, survival has nothing to do with promoting or impeding desires. It has to do with fitness. If fitness in a given environment means being cruel and ready to kill the weak, then that is what survives and flourishes. It doesn’t matter if the weak have a “desire” to live… their lack of fitness doesn’t allow it. So why would I be wrong in saying those who are the fittest are the ones who should be allowed to flourish, whereas the weak should be killed off? Why is that a “bad” morality?

      I don’t see how any answer can be given to that question that isn’t based on subjective opinion. And in becoming subjective opinion, it is no longer a matter of morality… it’s a matter of taste and preference. There is no “ought” involved in it, no standard of how people “should” behave, which is what morality deals in. Only how you wish they would behave. You even hit on that a little bit when you wrote “… from the stream’s point of view”. But what happens when it isn’t just the stream’s point of view anymore? What about the rock? Or other streams?

      And again John, I want to point out that I don’t think you or any other atheist is “immoral”. I always get a little hesitant discussing this with atheists because I think the argument can come across the wrong way and be more offensive than it’s intended to be. I’m sure you’re a great person with a deep morality. I just don’t think the worldview you hold (assuming you’re an atheist) provides a consistent logical basis for it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t, don’t or shouldn’t hold it.


      1. That’s a great objection to John’s view.

        And, I should also agree with that last part. I don’t think that atheism means immorality, necessarily, because theism is true, and atheists can sense the objective moral values and duties that comes from theism, even if they deny it’s there because of their worldview.


    3. “The universal and immutable human nature is that we try to flourish. Or we try to survive. We try to transmit our genes to future generations.”

      This does not describe an immutable moral standard. This sort of “standard” (if you wish to call it that) permits all sorts of behavior, and does not condemn any behavior as fundamentally and universally “wrong.” So once again when you claim to have a “fixed moral standard,” you are not being consistent.


  7. I think we’re mostly in agreement. I agree with the various atheists that Wintery Knight quoted. From the grand cosmic point of view, nothing can be right or wrong, according to the atheists. The difference is that atheists think the grand cosmic point of view doesn’t matter. Only our human point of view matters.

    Christians keep saying that our human point of view isn’t grounded in cosmic reality, if you take a materialist stance, and the atheists say “That’s right, but it doesn’t matter.”

    One key point, though, is that humanistic morality is arbitrary or subjective only from the grand cosmic point of view. It’s not arbitrary or subjective from the human point of view. We have evolved a desire to keep on living. That’s the universal, immutable basis for humanistic morality.

    In the same way, it might not matter to God whether a river keeps flowing or gets dammed up. But it seems to matter to the river, because the river gets all turbulent and scattered when the boulder blocks it. It’s the universal and immutable nature of rivers that they flow. To stop flowing is like death for a river.

    What do you guys think about this river analogy?


  8. Nazi Germany is a perfect example of how moral relativism can be an aggressive cancer upon humanity. The prevailing ethic in Nazi Germany was that the German/Aryan people were superior in every way and had a right and obligation to subjugate the sub-human races of the earth. To our eyes, this attitude was horribly depraved and evil. But, in the time and place, there were millions upon millions who fervently believed that they were in possession of a truth that must be zealously guarded and enforced. I don’t think that most Nazis were atheists, per se, but their ideology was certainly not Christian nor even religious in the traditional sense. It was akin to the beliefs espoused by many atheists of today; the ideology of race superiority and subjugation was based on a mysterious appeal to “how things ought to be” without a real objective standard in place. Moral relativism allows for such things to arise; its vacuous and hollow philosophy allows for all manner of evil to flourish. And, the remarkable thing is that even though most Germans probably were not zealots in the way of the Nazis, their acquiescence and refusal to stand up for true standards of right allowed this evil to grow and prosper until millions were dead and cities lay in ruin.


  9. Maybe so, Jason, but you can’t assume atheists are moral relativists. That’s what I’ve been saying here. We probably agree that full-blown moral relativism is an incoherent idea.


  10. Regarding the river analogy, I don’t think it holds up as an accurate representation of morality, at least not in the way I think you’re trying to present it.

    For starters, the entire concept that a river “should” flow in a certain direction because that’s “good” or “better” is entirely subjective. Even the objectivity that I think you’re trying to imply is based on subjective standards, because it implies an assumed standard that is never defined. Why should anyone care that the river flows at all, or object to it just drying up completely? Or splitting off into two competing rivers? Saying “it’s good for the river to flow together” is an opinion and a preference. You may even be able to state great reasons that the river should stay together and flow as one, but even those reasons are grounded in assumed goals and desires based on personal preference and opinion that not everyone would agree with.

    But putting that aside, the problem with using the river analogy is the same issue I have with the concept of immutable human nature being mentioned in this conversation. A river is monolithic. Human nature is not. It disagrees, varies, competes with itself, and even the attributes of itself that come slightly close to being generally accepted change over time. A better analogy I think would be multiple rivers with different aims, goals and paths that frequently come into conflict with one another.

    Let me break this down into an analogy which may (or may not) get us closer to being on the same page. Let’s say you and I are in a contest where we are both asked to draw a map of Texas from memory, and whoever’s map is the most accurate wins $1000. We put our maps next to each other and can immediately tell who was closer to being right. How would we be able to tell? Because there is a definitive standard, which is the actual state of Texas. It’s not up to opinion or preference… If your map is simply a circle, I can say that you “should” have drawn Texas differently, and I could even show you the standard upon which I’m telling you that. The problem atheism presents is that it has no such standard… there is no Texas. There is only how you wish Texas looked based on your opinion, your preference, or even your nature or instincts. If I say that I should win the $1000 because you didn’t draw Texas the way my nature or instincts or preferences tell me Texas should look, you’re gonna tell me I’m crazy.

    Morality is about “oughts”. Oughts require an objective standard. Under the atheistic worldview, every standard that can be proposed ultimately shows itself to be subjective, which immediately removes it from the realm of “morality” and “oughts” and into the realm of “preferences” and “taste”.


  11. Thanks, xcheshirecatx, for this thoughtful comment. It will certainly help me understand things better. Here are a few more reactions I had:

    1) I’m suggesting our concept of “ought” ultimately boils down to some physical thing flowing. The river seems to have an urge to flow downhill, due to gravity. In the same way, we have an urge to survive, due to neuro-electric flows through evolved pathways in our brains.

    It’s not that the river should flow downhill; it’s just that it does. It’s not that we should try to survive; we just do – incessantly. Why should we care about survival? No special reason – except we do care! And we got this way through the physical process of evolution.

    2) You’re right that there is no cosmically objective standard, according to this thinking. On the other hand, the laws of physics work in a similar way.

    3) It’s also true that the river may flow in one direction or another. On the other hand, the river always flows downhill. There are many paths to the one goal of being lower. Likewise, there are many different things people can do in their struggle for survival, but people always strive for that same goal of long-term, multi-generational survival.

    4) You are also right that human beings compete with each other. This is because evolutionary morality doesn’t really apply to individuals, but it applies to populations. In other words, we’re not really trying to survive as individuals, but as genes. Many individuals carry many of the same genes. Thus, the good is whatever fosters the population’s long-term survival. And competition among individuals, to a certain extent, is good for the population.

    I like your map of Texas example a lot. The shape of Texas is a man-made standard, though. Christian morality suggests a God-made standard, right? Well, some Christians believe in theistic evolution, and that could be compatible with evolutionary morality. We could say that God set for us the goal of genetic survival. He said, “Be fruitful and multiply.” If you have a nuanced understanding of how evolution really works, it could be compatible with Christian morality.


  12. My survival is more preferable than survival of millions other people. If I will have to choose I will chose my life even if it will worth live of millions. And that is right since my life is only one I have and life of others have intrinsic value of any kind. Disprove me or explain why it is bad using atheistic logic only. Just avoid talking about how bad I will look in the eyes of others. I don’t care. I care only about survival.


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