Aren’t all truths, all morals, relative?

Posted on July 9, 2010 By

A common current in modern culture is the view that morality is “relative.”  In other words, what is morally right for me might not be morally right for you, and vice versa.  Moral relativism is very appealing and popular largely due to the human desire for moral autonomy.  After all, who wants somebody else telling them what they should and should not do?  This cultural current, perhaps better than anything else, however, clearly illustrates the old adage that “what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.”

Let’s begin examining this topic by putting moral relativism to the test philosophically:  Take the statement “all truth is relative.”  It doesn’t take a genius to see what is wrong with such a statement…it cannot be true without contradicting itself.  In other words, if all truth is relative, then the truth that “all truth is relative” is itself a relative truth.  The only alternative would be for it to be an absolute truth, but the concept of the relativity of truth does not allow for this.

Why is such an absurd, self-contradictory view so prevalent in today’s society?  The answer is simple: it provides a very alluring way to do away with burdensome moral constraints.  It is a common human flaw to allow our perception to be shaped by our desires…such as the desire for freedom from moral constraint.

At this point, some people may be objecting by saying, “isn’t it wrong for one person to impose their morals on another?  How can you say that your morals are right and mine are wrong?”  But this is also a self-contradictory view.  As sociologist Peter Berger notes in his book A Rumor of Angels, “if you infer from the social conditionedness of all belief that ‘no belief can be held as universally true for everyone,’ that is itself a comprehensive claim about everyone that is the product of social conditions–so it cannot be true, on its own terms.” (A more thorough exploration of this topic can be found in Timothy Keller’s book The Reason for God)

Put another way, to make the statement, “it is wrong for one person to impose their morals on another,” one would be doing just that–imposing their morals on another. Specifically, one would be imposing the self-contradictory moral of moral relativity on another.

But this is not our only avenue to discovering the existence of moral absolutes.  Perhaps the best place to search for them is inside of your own mind. What do I mean by this?  The late Oxford professor and author C.S. Lewis provides a very eloquent answer in his book Mere Christianity:

Everyone has heard people quarreling. They say things like this: “How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?”–“Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm.”–“Come on, you promised.”

Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard behavior which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: “To hell with your standard.” Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard…It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality…about which they are agreed.

In other words, if there weren’t a universal moral law, I could come over to your house, smash your fingers with a hammer, and then merely claim that it fits within my morality to do so when you expressed your outrage.  There is not and never has been a culture in which this behavior (or many other such immoral behaviors) would be considered acceptable.  Indeed, being a scholar of antiquity, Lewis was eminently qualified to observe that, “if anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teachings of say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own.”

Lewis rightfully recognized this as a very powerful argument for the existence of God.  After all, for there to be a universal moral law, there needs to be someone to have established that law.  The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre also realized this, which is why he said, “all is permissible if God does not exist.”

For that matter, the existence of the laws of physics and the laws of thermodynamics, etc… are also highly suggestive of a lawmaker (God).  Why is it that matter and energy obey a set of fundamental laws? Please note that this is not a scientific question, but rather an ontological question.

At this point, some readers may be objecting on the grounds that morality came into existence through evolutionary means. But the arguments for this stance are very weak indeed.  For example, how did the tendency to discretely make anonymous charitable donations (as perhaps millions of people do) evolve?  Did it give an individual a survival advantage?  Certainly not.

How about the tendency (in most if not all societies) to look after those too old to care for themselves?  Doing so would seem to harm the survivability of our species rather than foster it:  It is evolutionarily disadvantageous to commit food and other limited resources to those beyond their reproductive years because it diverts resources from those still capable of passing on their genes.

How about the tendency to care for those with genetically inherited diseases that render them incapable of caring for themselves?  If morality evolved, it would seem to have evolved to compel us to let such people die.  After all, how does it benefit our gene pool to do otherwise?

These are questions to which the person committed to a godless, materialist view of the world cannot provide a satisfactory answer.


18 comments


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    Adam says:

    Reason demands that objective good and evil can only exist if there is some real, objective reference point- theists call this God and this would make sense as God is the only thing that can transcend human subjectivity.

    Also atheists can be moral- no one is saying they cannot, but they couldn’t objectively codemn something as being wrong without an objective standard- evolution and social pressure lack in explaining how we have the knowledge of ‘right and wrong’- we are refering to moral ontology here.


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    godless heathen says:

    The main problem I have with the heliocentricity case, isn’t that the church resisted scientific advancement, but that they were right, the scripture DOES say that earth is the center of the universe. So either the scripture is a) wrong or b) that passage was metaphor. If it is wrong, well then it can’t really be the word of god, but if it is metaphor, then how much else in scripture is metaphor? The most logical answer is that the bible was written by men, just men, and they were trying their best to make sense of a world without science, or (more cynically) they were trying to develop a system of controll for the masses.

    In the end it alwasy comes down to “Why do you believe?”

    “Because the bible tells me so”

    “but why do you believe the bible?”

    “I just do, it’s faith!”

    You’re not allowed to ask for proof, if you do you are a “Doubting Thomas” and believe for no reason at all that a collection of tribal mythology and history texts assembled by a highly politicized council is the actual inspired word of the almighty, I just can’t get over it. Why not the thousands of other such texts that other tribes than the Hebrews kept? Why are they “mythology” but the bible and ther Kuran and the Torah are “scripture” or “holy texts”? It sounds like mentasl gynastics and intellectual dishonesty to me.


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      syoungren ( User Karma: 43 ) says:

      No the bible doesn’t say that the earth is the center of the universe. Try to find the verse in the bible that says that.

      No, sorry, there are many more reasons to believe the bible than “I just do, it’s faith.”

      For example, please read my essay titled “Is there a God? What is the chance that the world is the result of chance?”

      An excerpt from this essay:

      As Arno Penzias, the 1978 Nobel Prize recipient in physics, stated to the New York Times on March 12, 1978:

      “The best data we have (concerning the Big Bang) are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.”

      Similarly, the astronomer, physicist and founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Robert Jastrow writes:

      “Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment of time, in a flash of light and energy.”

      Also, as the astrophysicist and cosmologist George Smoot put it:

      “There is no doubt that a parallel exists between the Big Bang as an event and the Christian notion of creation from nothing.”

      At the end of my essay entitled “Doesn’t evolution prove the biblical count of creation to be false?,” I provide a link to a five part video by MIT physicist and biblical scholar Gerald Schroeder. In this video, Schroeder shows that the biblical account of creation and that of modern science are remarkably similar. Click HERE to watch the videos on YouTube.

      Please show me how one of “the thousands of other such texts that other tribes than the Hebrews kept” that parallels modern science anywhere near as accurately.

      Lastly, click on this link that lists the biblical prophecies that have come true.


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    godless heathen says:

    The fact that morality is, in fact, relative is evident in this example:

    It is accepted that killing is immoral, unless that killing is done in self defense. So the morality of taking a human life is relative to circumstances and motivation.

    Is stealing bread so that your child doesn’t starve immoral? Or is the morality of the act relative to the circumstances surrounding the act?

    I rerally think it is quite simple and self evident.

    P.S.

    about the debate going on above, I just want to say that I also find it clear that neither atheism nor religion CAUSE violence or attrocity, it is being human that does it. It seems that atheism can be USED to justify inhuman activities, but so can religion, as history shows. The problem with religion is that it states an absolute truth without empirical evidence and demands belief without reason, or “faith” which is devistating to critical thinking and reasoning. Only the most militant minority of atheists would argue that anyone can know with any certainty if their is some kind of god out there, only that the demonstrably man-made religions of the world, including cults and dead religions, or “mythology”, not only have no empirical evidence to support their claims, but for many there exists much evidence against their claims, such as the infamous case of Galileo Galilei and heliocentricity.


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      RATIONAL DUDE says:

      Godless Heathen, this is the voice of critical thinking calling; PICK UP THE PHONE!

      You and Scott are using the word “relative” in different ways. Scott means “It is has no bearing on mind-dependent reality,” whereas you mean “It depends on the circumstances,” with or without Scott’s meaning.
      In this case, you have a better definition of the word. The question is rather “Is morality objective?”

      To be objective is to be independent of our experience, but does not require it to be absolute. In Relativity Theory, despite the effects being frame-dependent, the effects still exist, without observers to know about these effects.

      Your “counter-examples” do not show that morality does not exist.
      Firstly, the examples only show that what is morally obligatory depends on circumstances, which I doubt Scott would object to.
      Secondly, your examples make the explicit assumption that behind our moral system, there are values which ARE absolute. Use of lethal force in self-defense, if we can call this action ‘moral’ is based on the belief that life SHOULD be preserved, period, and the same is true for stealing bread.

      You have not refuted Scott’s thesis.

      A Post-Scripture of my own.
      SOME religions can be used to justify inhumane atrocities, but not ALL of them can.
      I think that Aquinas’ Principle of Double-Effect is a Christian way of deciding whether we should fight or not. Even if not, it seems obvious that one cannot hold something that does not rest on Biblical principles against the Bible, no? Especially not as justification for such a thing?

      Religion is more than just “faith”, so maybe your name “Heathen” is valid? If you truly knew religion, you would not paint with the wide brush of Fideism.
      The Bible itself depicts the Author of Nature as The Rational God. Being made in the image of such a Being would imply that we CAN use logic, but what of a person who is molded by the stupid gods of chance and necessity? These gods of atheism are not to hail reason, she is their creation! Critical thinking is impossible, and that’s all there is to it.


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    danno says:

    The Nazis were driven by racism, not atheism. Communism is a political system that officially embraces the atheist worldview…false. Your 100 million is relative to communism, not atheism. No references to atheism when researching communism, except on Christian websites.

    The following article is a “must read,” as it destroys the concept of state-sponsored atheism:

    http://atheism.about.com/od/isatheismdangerous/a/AtheismKilled.htm


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      syoungren ( User Karma: 43 ) says:

      The Nazis were driven by racism that was justified by atheist philosophy. Here is a pertitent excerpt from the jacket summary to Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler:

      “…Weikart explains the revolutionary impact Darwinism had on ethics and morality. He demonstrates that many leading Darwinian biologists and social thinkers in Germany believed that Darwinism had overturned traditional Judeo-Christian and enlightenment ethics, especially those pertaining to the sacredness of human life.”

      “…Weikart concludes that Darwinism played a key role not only in the rise of eugenics, but also in euthenasia, infanticide, abortion, and racial extermination, all ultimately embraced by the Nazis.”

      If you view the book on Amazon, you can see that, on the back cover, several other professors of modern history, from universities such as Cambridge and Yale, endorse the book.


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        danno says:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/From_Darwin_to_Hitler
        Endorsers: Other Darwin spin doctors.

        So then, who, other than a religious activist, would reference or endorse Weikart and his assertions? Rather, let’s see how Darwin’s thoughts have been distorted (spun) and what Darwin actually said…

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Darwinism

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survival_of_the_fittest

        Most noteworthy:
        http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Notable_Charles_Darwin_misquotes


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    I completely believe in God. and I truly am a very firm believer. Thank you for this informative resource


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      Ellen says:

      One does not have to believe in a god to be a moral person. If this were true why do the major religions continue to commit some of the worst attrocities in the world in the name of one god or another. Where is the morality in that? is it ok because God said it was? No war that I know of has ever been fought in the name of atheism. Atheists are not in the business of committing genocide nor do they justify persecuting or killing people in the name of atheism. I agree that there are “universal moral laws” however, any reasonable person – religious or not -understands them. I think it better to argue that religion is one of many ways in which people derive some of their morals however, if religion didin’t exist people would still be moral. There are many cases in the world of non-religious people doing incredible moral things and unfortunately religious people doing unimaginable horrible things in the name of Jesus, Allah etc.


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        syoungren ( User Karma: 43 ) says:

        Yes, there are many examples of religious people doing horrible things in the name of their religion. People will kill to promote political interests, for territorial expansion, for greed, over a drug deal gone bad, and yes, to promote religious interests. Adopting a religious faith in no way guarantees that someone will become a moral person. Just as going to the hospital does not guarantee that someone will recover from an illness, adopting religious beliefs that promote peace and love will not guarantee that a person will become peaceful and loving. But if a person kills in the name of a religion that clearly says, “Thou shalt not kill,” that person is clearly perverting that religion. This is entirely consistent with the biblical concept of “fallen nature.”

        With political systems that embrace atheism or concepts of human dignity that are rooted in atheism, no such perversion is necessary. Communism is a political system that officially embraces the atheist worldview. It is telling that the number of people who have been killed by communism is estimated to run as high as 103.5 million (source: Death by Government by R.J. Rummel…you can also google “how many people did communism kill”).

        Nazism was not officially atheist, but it was similar to communism in the respect that it adopted concepts of human dignity that are rooted in atheist philosophy. I recommend From Darwin to Hitler by professor of modern european history Richard Weikart, if you want to explore this subject further.

        When I say that “no such perversion is necessary,” I mean that the atheist worldview greatly diminishes the value of human life by declaring that people are nothing but “survival machines” that exist mainly to pass on their genes and ensure the survival of the species. This is why the communists were able to send people to their deaths in “gulags” (or prison camps) in such great numbers with so little restraint.

        The nazis killed anyone and everyone who they did not feel was worthy to pass on their genes. It seemed to them perfectly justifiable to kill any “survival machines” with what they perceived to be “undesireable” genes.

        What one kills “in the name of” is far less relevant than the philosophical factors that facilitate or motivate killing. This is evidenced by the fact that the communists and nazis were by FAR the most prolific killers in all of human history.


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          danno says:

          Ideologically spun? Ellen has a good point.

          “Adopting a religious faith in no way guarantees that someone will become a moral person.” – syoungren

          True for atheists too, no? No atheists doctrine says “thou shall kill.” So how do atheists kill and theists (just bad followers) do not?

          Atheists are immoral (or don’t value life) and therefore kill with ease and no remorse?


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            danno says:

            “But this assumes that atheists place value on human life.”

            You’re stretching way too far here. What a bunch of malarchy. This assumption is correct; atheists DO place value on human life, as many do on all other life. Any atheists out there disagree? Anyone?

            Atheism HAS NOT resulted in the severe devaluation of human life. Your 100 million is relative to communism, not atheism. No references to atheism when researching communism, except on Christian websites. No references on communism websites to… “Communism is a political system that officially embraces the atheist worldview.” Pure nonsense. Nazis killed in the name of Arian racism, not atheism.

            The following article is a “must read,” as it destroys the concept of state-sponsored atheism and killing in the name of atheism:

            http://atheism.about.com/od/isatheismdangerous/a/AtheismKilled.htm


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            danno says:

            Other way around.

            There should be more sympathy (less willing to kill) from those who think we are only alive here and now (reality) and then no more, versus those who think the faithful go to a better place, and no sympathy from those that think the unfaithful are doomed anyways.


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            syoungren ( User Karma: 43 ) says:

            I don’t want to generalize and say things like “atheists kill with ease and no remorse.” What I do want to say is that it is easier to justify killing large numbers of people when one has a worldview that denies that humans have any transcendent value.

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