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.

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

  1. As your interlocutor recognizes, they get around these by ‘unprincipled exceptions‘. These allow liberals to think and act in certain manners consistent with what they consider most important, in spite of such being inconsistent with the values to which they claim to adhere.

    IOW, they’re hypocrites, by necessity; otherwise, they’d not be trying to change society, but simply living quiet lives in accordance with what they claim to profess. :)

    Once, an atheist, progressive friend told me he considered life and the universe to be both cruel and meaningless. When I opened my mouth to point out the irresolvable paradox of claiming both, he interjected, “Yes, I am fully aware of the contradiction. Nevertheless, that’s what I believe!”. I still posed the question, “If meaningless, how can they be cruel; if cruel, how can they be meaningless?” He had no answer, other than, “I know; it just is so, darnit!”, basically.

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    1. How do you know that? If it’s meaningless why state that it’s meaningless? How can you affirm the negative? Meaning, if what he says is meaningless he’s said nothing so why bother? Why bother responding to anything you say after that?

      “He had no answer, other than, “I know; it just is…”

      What do you know?

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      1. It’s a contradiction they cannot resolve, which frustrates them.

        But they have no way out, if they want to hold on to their worldview, which many do.

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  2. The problem with this argument is that most seem to misunderstand. The moral argument and arguments against relativism aren’t about how to get to morality it’s the idea of the basis of morality. There isn’t a Christian out there that won’t admit there are some very immoral Christians and likewise some very moral non-Christians. When a theist does something against his beliefs there’s something wrong with that but there is no going against a non-theist, there’s no reference to adhere to.

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  3. On the topic of moral behavior, it has occurred to me that atheistic political and/or economic systems have produced mass-murder, starvation, and devastation on scales unrivaled in all of recorded history.

    Many make an accusation against religion, blaming it for much of the death and sorrow in the world; which is of course untrue.

    One could rightly say, the greatest crimes against humanity have occurred not in the presence of the Christian God, but in His absence.

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  4. Those seven flaws are published several years ago in the book Moral Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith. I recommend the book for anyone who dialogs with relativists or skeptics.

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