The absolute easiest way to get into a good conversation with someone is to ask them what makes something right or wrong on their view. You have to be careful not to get into a fight about a particular moral issue, though, so you have to choose a clear-case example, not something controversial.
Just ask the person you want to engage two questions:
- Is it it wrong to treat people badly just because of their skin color?
- What makes it wrong?
Now, as I see it, there are only 3 possible answers to this question.
- I personally prefer not to do that – it is wrong for me.
- 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.
- 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”, and I will say a few words about that later. Response #3 is my view. I believe in a hierarchy of moral absolutes.
In this post, 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 sevent things.
- You can’t make moral judgments about other people’s moral choices
- You can’t complain about God allowing evil and suffering
- You can’t blame people or praise people for their moral choices
- You can’t claim that any situation is unfair or unjust
- You can’t improve your morality
- You can’t have meaningful discussions about morality
- 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. I already blogged about 2 here.
1. Relativists can’t accuse others of wrong-doing
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. Instead of choosing someone who has character and who takes the role of spouse and parent seriously, people choose someone ammoral, who doesn’t threaten their autonomy.
Only later do they realize that marriage and parenting requires moral knowledge! I think that they each hope that they will later be able to change the other person into someone they are not. Which is probably why a lot of marriages break up. I just don’t see how it’s possible to get married without the ability to appeal to objective moral standards when disputes arise.
One of my best friends is married to a woman who I think is a really great wife and mother. A number of times I have disagreed with her about various topics, like firearms or masculinity. She goes away and reads a bunch of things and then comes back with a more thoughtful view. I think this is very important in a marriage. She’s changed my mind a few times as well.
(She spends her free night answering apologetics questions for seekers at her church)
A quick point about cultural relativism
Regarding cultural relativism, there a number of problems with it, some of which are described here. What constitutes a society? Who defines the moral consensus? What about the reformer’s dilemma? Why should I care what the herd thinks? Why should I sacrifice my own autonomy when the herd won’t catch me? Etc.
Also, I want to point out the 7-part series on morality and atheism that Tough Questions Answered put together a while back. I blogged about it here. Here’s another post with some debate about the rationality of moral rules and moral behavior on atheism. And then there was that debate with the postmodern moral relativist against Peter Williams.