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

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 that are really objectively wrong 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 have a foundation for it – 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 of the universe, the question of how we ought to act is decided by people in different times and different places. It’s arbitrary and variable, and therefore it doesn’t do the job of prescribing behavior authoritatively. It’s very important not to get involved in any serious endeavor with another person or persons if they don’t have a sense of right and wrong being absolute and fixed. A belief in objective moral values is a necessary pre-requisite for integrity.

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

  1. As an atheist, I acknowledge that you have presented a well-reasoned objection to moral relativism. However, I think I have a solution. After many discussions with religious apologists about morality, I’ve found that rarely (if ever) does anyone define the word “wrong.” But how can we debate whether “wrong” exists if we don’t know what wrong is?
    So, I suggest we define our terms. According to Merriam Webster, the first definition of “wrong” is this:
    a : an injurious, unfair, or unjust act : action or conduct inflicting harm without due provocation or just cause
    https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wrong
    So it seems we are quite rational to call anything that causes harm wrong. Surely, we can both agree that some things do cause harm, objectively. Does this not provide an answer to most, if not all, of your seven objections?

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      1. Hi Clyfnix. I agree with Wintery Knight that 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.

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        1. Thank you, Dustin. With that definition of Moral Relitivism, why do you reference Merriam-Webster’s definition of wrong? Does it matter if we agree upon that definition, and lastly if I do disagree with that definition of wrong (which I do. Wrong, bad, or evil is a lack or pervasion of good and not a thing in of itself.) are we at an impass?

          The problem ultimately is not how we come to the knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong (epistemology) or even how moral we are. The problem is does morality exist and where does it ultimately come from (ontology). If there is no foundation for morality, then like you said, it is opinion (and thus arbitrary and meaningless) If there is a foundation, we believe that is the character of God, that foundation must not be arbitrary or meaningless in itself.

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    1. Using an online dictionary may not be the best way to make a philosophycal case. This definition begs the question as it assumes that causing harm is wrong, and that is precisely what we are trying to determine (under what we ground the moral goodness or wrongness of an act?). This is the same mistake that Harris makes in his book The Moral Landscape, just assuming the conclusion of his argument to be true.

      In Christianity, wrong simply means going against the nature of God, God himself (who is goodness himself) is the standard of which we measure our moral acts.

      I think the existence of objective morality, follows from accepting the evidence of God existence (arguments have been made) and the fact all people (including sociopaths) can have a moral compass, even if the interpretation of such moral compass varies. I think this video explains it better than i do:

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      1. Hi Armando. It’s good to know that we agree on the importance of defining our terms.

        Your critique of my use of an online dictionary implies that I should be consulting a more philosophically rigorous source for the definition of “wrong.” And you might be right. But while the philosophical literature is replete with discussions of morality, it is woefully lacking in any discussion of the definition of the term “wrong”! If you can point me to a rigorous definition in the literature, I would appreciate it!

        Now, before I address your definition, let me ask you this. Do you believe that the existence of objective moral values is legitimately used as an argument for God’s existence? I suspect that Wintery Knight does indeed believe that. And most religious apologists I interact with do as well. In fact, William Lane Craig believes that it is the single most powerful evidence for God’s existence.

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  2. Many choices cause harm no matter which way you go. It is much like the autonomous car programming issue or morals. In a given situation do you do all you can to save the driver or possibly kill the driver to cause less injury depending on what the ai decides by its programming. With no right or wrong. You are left with someone’s decision of what harms the least but that is a matter of opinion.
    Plus finding a truly unbiased judge in any matter is impossible we all have a bias

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  3. Greg, I think your point is that it’s often difficult to determine which harm is greater, or which harm we should prevent and which we should allow. i agree with that. But aren’t you falling into the same error as those who say that there is no truth simply because there is so much disagreement? Is the difficulty of determining the truth a good reason to reject all truth?
    I notice that you did not provide a definition of “harm.” Can you define it without assuming what you are trying to prove?

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  4. I like the way you phrase the issue: on atheism, there is (basically) only preferences. What shows that there is (significantly) more than preferences, such that it also shows that god exists/objective morality exists? It seems that you are right: there is no objective morality, just preferences.
    Yes, without god, what one “ought” to do will be determined by something other than god, such as what people themselves decide to do/find to be important/desire. And on that account, what people “ought” to do will often differ from person to person, just like people who like chocolate “ought” to eat chocolate, and people who like vanilla “ought” to eat vanilla. On this account, nothing (and surely nothing supernatural) is absolutely authoritative (over others): (the only authority is ultimately oneself).
    But then you say, “It’s very important not to get involved in any serious endeavor with another person or persons if they don’t have a sense of right and wrong being absolute and fixed. A belief in objective moral values is a necessary pre-requisite for integrity.” This is mostly false. Now, what is important is up to the individual, so you the author might say, you find it important not to involve yourself with atheists. But it is false to say that people who don’t have an objective/godly sense of right and wrong have no significant sense of integrity. It’s also false to say that people who do believe in an objective/godly sense of right and wrong do have integrity. Regardless, the main issue here is whether there is evidence of objective/godly right and wrong, and your article seems to simply stop at saying, if atheism is true, then there is no objective/godly right and wrong, and thus (basically) only preferences. This all sounds correct. But the implication here is that this somehow disproves atheism, but it doesn’t. So you’ve just described an atheistic world, which is the real world. Is that what you intended?

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    1. I like the way you phrase the issue: on atheism, there is (basically) only preferences. What shows that there is (significantly) more than preferences, such that it also shows that god exists/objective morality exists? It seems that you are right: there is no objective morality, just preferences.

      What shows this is humans don’t actually live this way. What shows this is humans appeal to something outside of human nature in order to resolve certain issues. Nobody in a court of law sits there and argues, “Well, your Honor, I’m just doing what I prefer and the victim is imposing their preferences upon me.”

      Yes, without god, what one “ought” to do will be determined by something other than god, such as what people themselves decide to do/find to be important/desire. And on that account, what people “ought” to do will often differ from person to person, just like people who like chocolate “ought” to eat chocolate, and people who like vanilla “ought” to eat vanilla. On this account, nothing (and surely nothing supernatural) is absolutely authoritative (over others): (the only authority is ultimately oneself).

      There is no ought. There is no duty in atheism. There is no good. Not because you can’t find one, but because there is no ultimate authority. We humans have to appeal to a moral foundation outside of human conception because it becomes a “you said I said.” The Bible isn’t the ultimate authority on morality, because it isn’t just a book of rules. It’s a description of the character of God, which is the final ultimate authority on and perfect example of Good.

      The person liking flavors is ridiculous to attach to moral behavior. A person who likes chocolate has no duty to eat chocolate, there is no “ought to eat chocolate”. It’s simply a preference to flavor. Much like color, a person who likes red, will see cars better in red. They’ll prefer to dress in reds. Find it more attractive. To attribute the same motive to somebody who is a rapist, to say they prefer rape as opposed to consensual sex and therefore “ought” to rape is reprehensible.

      Regardless, the main issue here is whether there is evidence of objective/godly right and wrong, and your article seems to simply stop at saying, if atheism is true, then there is no objective/godly right and wrong, and thus (basically) only preferences. This all sounds correct. But the implication here is that this somehow disproves atheism, but it doesn’t. So you’ve just described an atheistic world, which is the real world. Is that what you intended?

      There’s evidence in the way we act every single day. A person doesn’t just prefer to lock their doors at night, they do so knowing it’s possible somebody will break into their house and cause harm. If in the event that this happens, one will appeal to authority and probably seek some sort of justice. What atheism affirms is an amoral world, which does not reflect the world around us. There is a difference between a mother who breast feeds her child, and one who drowns it in a bathtub. There’s a difference between a husband and wife trying to have a kid, and rape. The murderer and the first responder do not reflect the same attitude towards duty and oughtness.

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        1. Logic. Our natural intuition. Our experiences. Our behavior. If moral relativism is true then morality becomes arbitrary and therefore meaningless. It becomes a hidden contract by which you apply to people knowingly, and unknowingly others apply to you. Problem with that is, anybody outside of your consciousness never agreed to your sense of morality (or you never agreed unknowingly to other’s). You may share common ideas of moral guidelines but just because you agree doesn’t make them true. You have your standards for behavior and I have mine. You could never apply your standard to me because my morality is relative(authoritative) to me, and vice versa. If I committed an act of violence against you, you could never denounce it, you would have to admit it’s just my moral standard, and even if I broke my moral code, you could a.) never prove it, because I could just lie to you. b) never hold me accountable because you have no authority over me.

          If morality isn’t objective, and doesn’t come from an extra-natural, intelligent source it really doesn’t have any solid foundation for any laws to be built upon. It has to come from something outside human consciousness because when two humans argue, they have to appeal to something outside themselves (I.E. Truth) because if morality is true, it’s always been true, and true not because people agree upon it.

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