The seven fatal flaws of moral relativism

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

The book discussed in this post, “Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air“, is now $1.99 for the Kindle edition! (H/T Brian Auten tweet)

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 from, 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 Salvo magazine web site.

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.

So, practically speaking, everyone has to decide whether right and wrong are real – objectively real. If they are objectively real, that means that there is a right way for human beings to behave, and a wrong way for human beings to behave. It means that things like rape are wrong for all times and all places, regardless of what individuals and societies might think of it. In order to rationally ground that kind of morality, you have to bring a cosmic Designer who decides for all times and places what the conduct of his creatures ought to be. And then our moral duties are duties that are owed to this Designer. It is like playing football or playing a boardgame – the person who invents the game decides the rules. But if there is no designer of the game, then there are no rules. Without a designer, how we ought to act is decided by people – specifically, by the people who have power.

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

  1. Thank you for quickly articulating what would seem to be obvious on the surface, but are vehemently debated points by relativists… mostly because of the ramifications to their worldview by conceding any of them.

    I made an attempt to touch on a couple of the above in a post I recently wrote…

    I’d love some feedback to see if I’m on the right track or am logically missing something very obvious. The post was borne out of my own personal conversations with relativists, attempting to understand their own justification for espousing any morality.


  2. OK, before I inflate your ego let me point out 3 typos in your first few paragraphs.
    1. comes wrong – just delete Oops, look at that I’m not perfect. Change wrong to from.
    2. (on… – should be or
    3. the the Salvo – only need one the

    Now for the praise. (hmmm, maybe that is why I have so few friends. Maybe I should try praise first then correction.)

    I try to pound this point home into everyone I know (primarily my kids, I sense some backlash in the future and another possible reason for my lack of friends). Moral relativism cannot be correct because if it is absolutely correct then it is logically false. (I usually put a CS Lewis quote from the Chronicles of Narnia here. Something the uncle says about schools not teaching logic.)

    I once spent nearly every hour of every working day for nine months arguing this point with a co-worker (Its OK, we were on a government contract and we actually didn’t have any work to do. Long story.) He would say it is absolutely wrong for me to murder him because society says so. I would then ask: If I could get 50% +1 of society to agree that it was OK for me to murder you then that would be OK, right? He would say no. I would ask why. etc, etc, etc.

    I recently had a discussion with a Unitarian Universalist in which he could not be a consistent moral relativist. I will share a copy of the linked article with him.

    It is absolutely refreshing to know that I am not alone in my thinking. Sometimes I wonder if I am, but I put that down to superior intelligence and flawless logic. (That’s the praise. You’re great because you have most of the same opinions that I do. Great! Right?)

    I’ll forgive you your one flaw and continue to read your posts regularly. I would certainly share them if I had any friends. (I normally would insert an emoji or two here indicating sarcasm and/or irony.)

  3. WK,

    You could’ve concluded your article by stating the obvious (from ‘Contending With Christianity’s Critics’ article entitled ‘The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism’): ‘Moral Relativism leads to Moral Skepticism.’

  4. When you get into a discussion with an atheist on this subject, they invariably sneak objective morality into their replies. It is usually pretty obvious when they use phrases like “right” or “wrong” in a clearly objective sense.

    When you present the Moral Argument for the existence of God, the atheist will invariably engage in the Atheist Shuffle – bouncing back and forth between denying Premise 1 or Premise 2. It can be quite frustrating.

    “So, now you believe in objective morality?”
    “No, morality is relative.”
    “But, you just said that what Hitler did to the Jews was wrong, objectively wrong, right?”
    “Yes.” :-)

    What it REALLY comes down to is this: atheists reserve relative morality for their OWN actions while affirming objective morality for the actions of others. Very convenient.

    1. I am currently reading ‘Contending With Christianity’s Critics’ (edited by Copan & Craig), and, in one of it’s chapter (Chapter 6: ‘Dawkins’s Best Argument Against God’s Existence’ by Gregory E. Ganssle), the author provides a list of authors who try to ‘ground the objectivity of morality apart from God.’ Here is a list:

      Richard Boyd’s ‘How to Be a Moral Realist’
      D. Brink’s ‘Moral Realism and the Foundation of Ethics
      P. Railton’s ‘Moral Realism’

      And even “Theistic Philosopher Richard Swinburne also wants to ground moral obligations apart from God in his book ‘The Existence of God: Chapter 9′” (Dr. William Lane Craig, and every Christian should feel this way, is not too proud of Dr. Swinburne’s belief of ‘God existing contingently, and therefore cannot ground necessary moral truths’).

      For more on this please read the following link:

      Since then, I have taken Dr. Swinburne off of my Christian scholar reading list (someone of his stature should know better. I was about to purchase a few of his books. Not anymore.).

      1. That is a great link – thank you so much for providing it to me. I have seen some atheists use some form of Moral Platonism in an attempt to ground objective morality. The problem there is that when they apply it to an issue like abortion, two different moral platonists get two different answers. Thank you again for the link!

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