In this article, I will give a brief overview of moral relativism, and articulate four cases against it which are designed to demonstrate how it conflicts with our moral intuitions. These intuitions are not morally authoritative, but nonetheless serve as a useful guide in examining issues surrounding relativism. As moral relativism is a widely held belief in our culture today, they are an important tool for the Christian apologist to be familiar with. Finally, I will present a Christian response to moral relativism, and make a case for an objective moral standard, one that is grounded on God’s character and the creation of man in His image.
A Brief Overview of Moral Relativism
Moral Relativism has its roots in 19th century anthropology, after anthropologists observed what they classified as a “wide disparity” between ethical codes and practices among different people groups. There they attempted to give a Darwinian explanation of the phenomena, making the claim that, just as humanity has come into existence through an ever changing evolutionary process, so too has the concept of “morality.” Thus, there is no fixed or absolute “law” or foundation of morality. This has recently morphed into the more modern concept of “respect” for other cultures, or the belief in complete equality among ethical systems, in a cultural context. This belief system can be summed up with Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement, “You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, it does not exist.”
Moral Relativism is not the claim that there are literally no such things as morals (a view called moral nihilism). Relativism is the claim that there is no outside moral law that is binding on all people at all times, an important distinction. For the relativist, the grounding for morality is either the individual or the culture, and therefore whatever the individual or culture decides is correct is morally binding for that individual or culture. As we shall see, this belief system poses some serious issues for those who hold it, not the least of which is that the relativist, as long as he wishes to be consistent, is forced to defend reprehensible acts. Chattel slavery, the murder of the innocent, and the like, are all morally valid actions as long as they are acceptable in a particular culture.
This worldview has a had a large impact in our current society, and I would argue, along with Darwinian evolution and Humanism in general, it has played a large part in the degradation of Western moral thought and practice. When God’s standards are abandoned, deprivation necessarily follows. However, the purpose of this article is not necessarily to examine our current ethical situation in society, but to point out a few of the broader philosophical implications of moral relativism, and to offer the Christian apologist some cases against the belief system in general. At the conclusion of this article, I will present a case the Christian apologist may use in defense of his own beliefs in an absolute moral standard.
Cases Against Moral Relativism
The four cases against moral relativism I will present are the reformer’s dilemma, the problem of contradiction, the problem of arbitration, and the problem of moral progress. The reformer’s dilemma takes into consideration instances of individuals that find and seek to correct moral deficiency within the culture of which they are a part. However, if cultural relativism is true, then by definition the culture will always be in the morally right, and the reformers will always be in the morally wrong. If culture is the ultimate standard or arbiter of what the morally good is, and how its citizens ought to behave, then any concept of right and wrong that is contrary to the cultural norm, even if it originates from an individual within that culture, is necessarily false. Therefore, individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr., by virtue of going against the cultural norms of their time, were morally wrong. In fact, the claim must be made that all cultural reformers are morally wrong. This appears to strongly contradict our moral intuitions, as it seems to make sense to ask whether the basic principles of one’s society are morally praiseworthy or blameworthy. If cultural relativism is true, then there is no room to examine one’s own culture, and what’s more, doing so is actually considered immoral.
The problem of contradiction makes use of classical logic and the law of noncontradiction to point out the logical inconsistencies of moral relativism. The law of noncontradiction states that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time. For example, it is a logical contradiction to say that the two statements “A is B” and “A is not B” are both true at the same time. Consider two competing ethical claims: one person says that lying is morally right, and another person says that lying is morally wrong. Moral relativism is forced to claim that each statement is equally valid. However, it is a logical contradiction to say that lying is both right and not right at the same time. Thus, moral subjectivism is a logical contradiction. Moral subjectivists try to get around this logical contradiction by claiming that what people really mean when they make ethical claims is that they personally approve or disapprove of said behavior. The logical contradiction therefore disappears. However, so does any meaningful disagreement, and we find ourselves with an inability to arbitrate between competing ethical claims. The denial of an independent standard of morality disallows any outside source of authority, and thus any arbitration between competing claims is impossible. In addition, the moral subjectivist is forced to make the very bold claim that I do not know what I mean by what I am saying, when I say it. In so doing, the subjectivist has placed himself as a moral authority over my claims.
The problem of moral progress is a problem similar to the Reformer’s Dilemma, and conflicts with our moral intuitions in a similar manner. If moral relativism is true, then there can be no real moral progress. If there is no ultimate standard for morality, then individuals or cultures can only change their moral codes from one to another. They can never adopt better moral codes. A society can never actually progress, for progression implies a movement towards some higher standard or goal; a higher standard that the moral relativist claims not to exist. Therefore, the moral relativist would be unable to claim, for instance, that the women’s suffrage movement in the late 19th century, or the civil rights movement of the Sixties, changed our society for the better. Our society is no better or worse had those changes not occurred; it has simply changed. To measure moral progress, you must have a standard.
None of these problems are, strictly speaking, conclusive demonstrations that moral relativism is false. However, taken together, they give the strong inclination that something is not quite right with relativism. To accept moral relativism, one must be prepared to ignore a great deal of evidence against it, ignore one’s own moral intuitions, and accept as morally correct some very heinous ethical claims and practices. The Christian apologist should be able to point out such inconsistencies to the relativist, and juxtapose the relativist worldview against the consistent, firmly grounded moral truths revealed to us by God. I will present such a worldview below, one that is based in Scripture and holds that the Christian God is the ultimate standard of morality.
God as Standard
The Christian should take the stance that all of ethics depend on God. The Christian should take the stance that, because we are creatures created in the image of God, our moral obligations are directed first to our Creator God, and second to other human persons. It is our unique position as beings created in God’s image that obligates us to behave morally towards one another. A wrong action taken against the image of God is ultimately a wrong action taken against God Himself (Genesis 9:5-6). It is because of this that we are obligated to behave morally towards one another, even in the absence of special revelation.
Our moral obligations, based on our obligations to God as our creator, are also expressed to God’s creatures through His general revelation. This is the revelation of God’s character and attributes to His creatures (mankind), apart from special revelation (God’s direct commands). God has made manifest His invisible attributes to all His creation, and He has given man as His image bearers knowledge of these attributes, so that man is given no excuse for acting contrary to His character; that is, immorally (Romans 1:18-20). Calvin states that this is the “apprehension of the conscience which distinguishes between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuses of ignorance, while it proves them guilty by their own testimony.”
God, as creator, has authority over all His creation, including the moral conduct of His creatures. This moral authority is expressed in His Law-Word, the Holy Scriptures. As God is creator, His word is absolutely morally binding, regardless of what His creatures may feel or think. It is still the direct commands of God that hold final authority in our lives. However, the commands of God are not arbitrary, as commonly expressed in the Euthyphro Dilemma.
A full exposition of the Euthyphro dilemma is beyond the scope of this article; I hope to offer a much more in depth response to the dilemma in the future. However, the Christian may respond by asserting that firstly, there is no ultimate goodness outside of or apart from God, and secondly, that God’s commands do not “create” goodness. Goodness is defined by God’s character, and God’s commands are both “in line” with, and expressions of, His good character. God’s commands are both morally good, and morally binding. They are morally binding because they are the commands of our creator. And they are morally good because goodness is based exclusively on God’s character.
Our primary moral obligation is to God, as our creator. We understand our obligations to our Creator God through the means of His revealed Word. Our secondary obligations are to our fellow human persons, as beings created in the image of God. The Word of God is the final authority on our human obligations to each other, but God has also given us, through general revelation, a revelation of His good and moral character, in order that no man may make excuse for acting contrary to that character.
The Christian worldview provides one with a solid grounding for, and standard of, moral action. Without a transcendent Creator-God to serve as our basis of morality everything becomes permissible, and deprivation inevitably follows. By denying God as standard, we forfeit said solid ground, and are forced to look towards other, much shakier foundations for our actions. Our foundation is sure. However, professing to be wise, humanist man has degraded into foolishness (Romans 1:22), and, taking council in themselves (Psalm 2:2), have set themselves against God, and become like the dust before the wind (Isaiah 17:13).
 Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 84.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
 Russ Shafer-Landau, The Fundamentals of Ethics, 308.
 Entry on Moral Relativism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
 The Fundamentals of Ethics, 297.
 Ibid., 300.
 Moral Choices, 81.
 Ibid., 90.
 Mark Linville, “Moral Particularism,” in God and Morality: Four Views, ed. Keith Loftin, 157.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.ii.22.