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The Relative Years

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It will not be a large surprise if our current era is one day referred to as ‘The Relative Years.’ It seems like just about every cultural issue can ultimately be reduced to a matter of morality, a matter that many firmly believe is relative. The past election, inundated with the usual political rhetoric, almost completely discarded other issues and thrust the issue of morality on to center stage. What became clear very quickly was that each party was more interested in making a proprietary claim to the entire concept of morality rather than actually taking a meaningful position on any number of the moral issues at hand.

Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Many who defend a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion propose that those who do not support that right simply not have one, but stay out of the way of those that do. They often say things along the lines of ‘if you don’t like it, don’t do it.’ Yet, this does not adequately deal with the disagreement from either side of the opinion; it merely diverts the discussion to a matter of preference. This ‘answer’ fails to deal with the inherent ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of abortion, thus the objection to abortion, that it amounts to the murder of an unborn life, has not really been addressed, nor truly refuted. This is what is often at the heart of the problem, that claims of preferences are confused with claims on behalf of morality.

The difference can be made plain by addressing two statements:

  1. I like discussing morality.
  2. It is wrong to deliberately deceive someone.

The first statement is certainly a statement of preference, since it describes a particular person’s (my) subjective point of view. This is not a normatively applied statement. In other words, the statement should not be construed to suggest that all people should enjoy discussing morality. However, the second statement is a moral claim. It tells us nothing about individual behavior, but addresses only the concept of deceit and whether or not it is appropriate. Even a statement such as ‘I like to deliberately deceive people’ would not be making a moral claim. It only describes the behavior of an individual rather than addressing the moral value of that behavior. In fact, the mere existence of preference claims implies an objective standard to which they preferences would relate. The right to prefer one thing over another is certainly an objectively understood right in and of itself. What then, are some objections to the view advocating objective morality?

One common objection is that moral variance from one culture to another proves that morality is relative. However, both logic and history can quickly show otherwise. Were it not for the general consensus among the allied forces that Hitler was doing something morally wrong, the United States, among others, may not have gotten involved in the second World War and put an end to the Holocaust. If this seems like less of a cultural issue and more of an abuse of one man with too much power, consider then the issue of female genital mutilation, an issue which the United Nations, among others, has clearly voiced opposition to and enacted programs to change policies concerning its practice. Even our own country has confronted its own culture and put an end to practices that are in opposition to moral standards (e.g. slavery, racial segregation). Disagreement over morality does not imply the absence of truth. Nor does a disagreement over a moral issue lead to the conclusion that the issue does not exist. If, however, disagreement were enough to support the relativism of morality, then we would not have had reason to end slavery or stop the Holocaust, nor would we have reason to bring murderers, rapists, pedophiles, or thieves to justice.

Additionally, on an individual level, the proposition that disagreement shows the non-existence of objective truth is self-defeating. I certainly do not agree with such a claim, so by its own standard, it cannot be true, nor should I be required to affirm it. One way to test a proposition like this one is to address its logical consequences. If it is true that morality is relative to people, places and times, then it would be incorrect to say that things like rape, incest, abuse and torture are always morally wrong. Yet, such a conclusion is absurd! If moral relativism is true, then the many historical heroes of our own culture, such as the likes of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought for sweeping moral changes in society, would have to be judged as immoral. J. P. Moreland has said, ‘If relativism is true, an act is right if and only if it is in the society’s code; so the reformer is by definition immoral (since he adopts a set of values outside the society’s code and attempts to change that code in keeping with these values).’

Another common objection to the proposition that morality is objective rather than relative emerges out of the misunderstanding of tolerance. The proposition that objective morality does not exist, therefore all views should be tolerated is self-contradictory. If everyone should be tolerant, then tolerance is an objective standard. Yet, tolerance is being invoked on the basis of relativism. Tolerance does not mean the general acceptance of all views, but to endure error. The definition itself presupposes an objective rather than a relative standard. What relativism truly does is bind the relativist to other moral positions, rather than freeing him from any. To refer back to the issue of abortion, many a political candidate has stated, ‘I support the right to abortion though I don’t personally agree with it.’ The problem here is that the reason for the moral value of abortion has been discarded. If life begins at conception, then abortion does amount to murder- so the appropriate political stance should be toward life, rather than abortion procedure. If life does begin at conception, abortion should not be tolerated. If life does not begin until birth, then no one should have any greater problem with abortion than with contraception. The candidate that affirms the right to abortion while disagreeing with it personally has simply blown a smokescreen over his agnosticism and submitted to the moral judgment of someone else. In other words, those that choose to ‘tolerate’ another conflicting moral issue are actually agreeing with the apposing position!

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Written by Christopher Butler

January 5, 2006 at 6:24 am