Aren’t all truths, all morals, relative?
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.