7 Deadly Flaws of Relativism

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“Seven Fatal Flaws of Moral Relativism”

BY GREG KOUKL

Moral relativism is a type of subjectivism which holds that moral truths are preferences much like our tastes in ice-cream. Moral relativism teaches that when it comes to morals, that which is ethically right or wrong, people can and should do what ever feels right for them. Ethical truths depend on the individuals, groups and cultures who hold them. Because they believe that ethical truth is subjective, the words ought and should are meaningless because everybody’s morality is equal; no one has a claim to an objective morality that is incumbent on others. Relativism does not require a particular standard of behavior for every person in similar moral situations. When faced with exactly the same ethical situation, one person may choose one response while another may choose the opposite. No universal rules of conduct apply to everyone.

Flaw 1

Moral relativists can’t accuse others of wrongdoing. Relativism makes it impossible to criticize the behavior of others, because relativism ultimately denies such a thing a ‘wrongdoing’. If one believes that morality is a matter of personal definition, then you surrender the possibility of making objective moral judgments about the actions of others, no matter how offensive they are to your intuitive sense of right or wrong. This means that a relativist cannot rationally object to murder, rape, child abuse, racism, sexism or environmental destruction if those actions are consistent with the perpetrator’s personal moral understanding of what is right and good. When right and wrong are a matter of personal choice, we surrender the privilege of making moral judgments about the actions of others. However if we are certain that some things must be wrong and that some judgments against another’s conduct are justified – then relativism is false.

Flaw 2

Relativists can’t complain about the problem of evil. The reality of evil in the world is one of the first objections raised against the existence of God. This entire objection hinges on the observation that true evil exists. Objective evil cannot exist if moral values are relative to the observer. Relativism is inconsistent with the concept that true moral evil exists because it denies that anything can be objectively wrong. If there is no moral standard, then there can be no departure from the standard. Thus relativists must surrender the concept of true evil and, ironically, must also surrender the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God.

Flaw 3

Relativists can’t place blame or accept praise. Relativism renders the concepts of praise and blame meaningless, because no external standard of measurement defines what should be applauded or condemned. Without absolutes, nothing is ultimately bad, deplorable, tragic or worthy of blame. Neither is anything ultimately good, honorable, noble or worthy of praise. Relativists are almost always inconsistent here, because they seek to avoid blame, but readily accept praise. Since morality is a fiction, so too relativists must remove the words praise and blame from their vocabularies. If the notions of praise and blame are valid, then relativism is false.

Flaw 4

Relativists can’t make charges of unfairness or injustice. Under relativism, the notions of fairness and justice are incoherent as both concepts dictate that people should receive equal treatment based on some agreed external standard. However relativism does away with any notion of external binding standards. Justice entails punishing those who are guilty of a misdemeanor. But under relativism, guilt and blame do not exist – if nothing is ultimately immoral, there is no blame and therefore no guilt worthy of punishment. If relativism is true, then there is no such thing as justice or fairness because both concepts depend on an objective standard of what is right. If the notions of justice and fairness make sense, then relativism is defeated.

Flaw 5

Relativists can’t improve their morality. Relativists can change their personal ethics, but they can never become better people. Under relativism, one’s ethics can never become more ‘moral’. Ethics and morals can change, but they can never improve, as there is no objective standard to improve against. If, however, moral improvement seems to be a concept that makes sense, then relativism is false.

Flaw 6

Relativists can’t hold meaningful moral discussions. What’s there to talk about? If morals are entirely relative and all views are equal, then no way of thinking is better than another. No moral position can be judged as adequate or deficient, unreasonable, acceptable, or even barbaric. If ethical disputes make sense only when morals are objective, then relativism can only be consistently lived out in silence. For this reason, it is rare to meet a rational and consistent relativist, as most are quick to impose their own moral rules like “It’s wrong to push your own morality on others”. This puts relativists in an untenable position – if they speak up about moral issues, they surrender their relativism; if they do not speak up, they surrender their humanity. If the notion of moral discourse makes sense intuitively, then moral relativism is false.

Flaw 7

Relativists can’t promote the obligation of tolerance. The relativist’s moral obligation to be tolerant is self-refuting. Ironically the principle of tolerance is considered one of the key virtues of relativism. Morals are individual, so they say, and therefore we ought to tolerate the viewpoints of others and not pass judgment on their behavior and attitudes. However, if there are no objective moral rules, there can be no rule that requires tolerance as a moral principle that applies equally to all. In fact, if there are no moral absolutes, why be tolerant at all? Relativists violate their own principle of tolerance when they fail to tolerate the views of those who believe in moral objective standards. They are, therefore, just as intolerant as they frequently charge the moral objectivist of being. The principle of tolerance is foreign to relativism. If, however, tolerance seems to be a virtue, then relativism is false.

The Bankruptcy of Relativism

Moral relativism is bankrupt. It is not a true moral system. It is self-refuting. It is hypocritical. It is logically inconsistent and irrational. It is seriously undermined by simple practical examples. It makes morality unintelligible. It is not even tolerant! The principle of tolerance makes sense only in a world in which moral absolutes exist, and only if one of those absolute standards for conduct is “All people should respect the rights of others to differ in conduct or opinion”. The ethic of tolerance can be rational only if moral truth is objective and absolute, not subjective and relative. Tolerance is a principle at home in moral absolutism and is irrational from any perspective of ethical relativism.

People are drowning in a sea of moral relativism. Relativism destroys the conscience. It produces people without scruples, because it provides no moral impulse to improve. This is why we don’t teach relativism to our children – in fact, we labour to teach them just the opposite. Ultimately, relativism is self-centered, egoistic and hypocritical. “Doing our own thing” is fine for us, but we don’t want others to be relativists. We expect them to treat us according to an accepted moral standard.

“I have freed Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience and morality… We will train young people before whom the world will tremble.” Adolf Hitler

Moral relativism, in a practical sense, is completely unliveable. What kind of world would it be if relativism was true? It would be a world in which nothing was wrong – nothing is considered evil or good, nothing worthy or praise or blame. It would be a world in which justice and fairness are meaningless concepts, in which there would be no accountability, no possibility of moral improvement, no moral discourse. And it would be a world in which there is no tolerance. Moral relativism produces this kind of world.

The late Dr Francis Schaeffer’s remark could well apply to moral relativists, who “…have both feet firmly planted in mid-air.”

*Article above adapted from the excellent and highly recommended book by  Francis Beckwith and Greg Koukl, Relativism – Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2002.

Wisdom for Interacting With Relativists

 Fast Facts on Tactfully Sharing Christian Convictions on Controversial Cultural Issues from Christian Ministries International.

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When asked for your opinion on a controversial cultural issue, first ask your questioner, “Do you consider yourself to be an open-minded person who is tolerant of people who hold different beliefs from yours?”

The above question will disarm your discussion partner of ad hominem attacks (calling you names like “bigot”) and force them to engage in a rational discussion of the issue and your beliefs.

  • Explain that all of your personal beliefs as a Christian ultimately rest on three fundamental questions: Is there a God? Has He spoken? And if so, will we obey?

  • Point out that if God exists, and if He’s spoken on a given issue, the only appropriate response from us is obedience.

  • Share what God has revealed as truth on the issue you’re discussing. If your discussion partner protests, remind them that our personal opinions are irrelevant if God exists and if He’s spoken.

  • Offer to examine these fundamental questions with your discussion partner. Continue to point them to the evidence of a Creator who has revealed truth to His creation.

Source: http://gpo.r.mailjet.com/redirect/1pn8t1h8m890hpc6sgndcd/www.christianministriesintl.org/fast-facts/052114/

Dr. Tim Keller on How To Fight Sin

(The following post has been transcribed and edited from Tim Keller’s sermon “Sin as Slavery,” which can be downloaded for free here.)

Every one of our sinful actions has a suicidal power on the faculties that put that action forth. When you sin with the mind, that sin shrivels the rationality. When you sin with the heart or the emotions, that sin shrivels the emotions. When you sin with the will, that sin destroys and dissolves your willpower and your self-control. Sin is the suicidal action of the self against itself. Sin destroys freedom because sin is an enslaving power.

In other words, sin has a powerful effect in which your own freedom, your freedom to want the good, to will the good, and to think or understand the good, is all being undermined. By sin, you are more and more losing your freedom. Sin undermines your mind, it undermines your emotions, and it undermines your will.

Sin Is Addiction

All sin is addiction. Whether it’s bitterness, whether it’s envy, whether it’s materialism, whether it’s laziness, whether it’s impurity — every sinful action becomes an addiction. And every sinful action brings into your life a power that operates exactly like addiction cycles and addiction dynamics begin to operate.

In other words, in the specific addictions of alcohol or drug addiction, or voyeurism, or exhibitionism, or sexual addictions, you actually have a microcosm of how sin works in general.

You know how addiction works. It starts like this: There’s some kind of disappointment or distress in your life. As a result you choose to deal with that distress with an agent; it might be sex, it might be drugs, it might be alcohol. The agent promises transcendence. The agent promises freedom, a sense of being in control, a sense of being above all this, a sense of being liberated, a sense of escape. And so you do it. But when you do it, when you take the addicting agent as a way of dealing with life, the trap is set.

The trap is set because three things begin to happen:

1. Tolerance. You get trapped into what the experts call the “tolerance effect.” In other words, the tolerance effect is that today this or that amount of alcohol or drugs, or this kind of sexual experience, will pale in comparison to your desires tomorrow. The same activity will not give you that same experience any more, and you will find you need more and more and more. What brought you joy yesterday will not be enough to give you joy tomorrow, because your emotions are shriveling and numbing. There’s a tolerance effect.

2. Denial. Addiction destroys because of denial. We all know part of addiction patterns is that your craving makes you rationalize and justify. It twists your thinking. You become selective in your reasoning, selective about your memory. You’ll do all sorts of tortured rationalizations, but you refuse to think clearly and objectively. You can’t.

3. Defeat. Addictions destroy willpower. You know you are an addict when you are trying to escape your distress with the very thing that brought you your distress. And when you are in that spiral, you are stuck forever — down and down and down and down.

Sin in general operates like that. When you think disobedience to God is going to bring freedom, the very act that promises freedom is taking the freedom. The very act that you think is putting you in the driver’s seat of your life is taking you out of the driver’s seat of your life.

Playing With Fire

The Bible defines sin as craving something more than God. Sin is making something more important than God. If you’re just religious occasionally, if God is on the outskirts of your life, that is the essence of sin, and that sin grows.

Jonathan Edwards says sin turns the heart into a fire. Just as there has never been a fire that said, “Enough fuel, I’m fine now,” so there has never been a sinful heart that said, “I have had enough success. I’ve had enough love. I’ve had enough approval. I’ve had enough comfort.” Oh, no. The more fuel you put into the fire, the hotter it burns, and the hotter it burns, the more it needs, the more oxygen it is sucking and the more fuel it requires.

And this is the heart of the fire. Next time you are crabby, or grumpy, or irritable, or scared to death, or in the pits, ask yourself: What am I telling myself would make me happy if only I had it? There is an if only at the bottom of this. Whatever is your if only, that becomes your slave master. It destroys your will.

This explains how lies necessitate other lies. Envy necessitates more envy. Racism necessitates more racist thoughts. Jealously necessitates more jealous thoughts. Bitterness necessitates more bitter thoughts. In the beginning when you first tell a lie you still have an appetite for the truth, but it won’t take long. Sin is a power. And the things you crave become your slave masters because in your heart those things burn with this idea: if only. Everything would be fine if only I had that. This creates a suction in your life. The more you throw in, the more it wants.

Winning the Firefight

If you are a Christian and you are dealing with enslaving habits, it’s not enough to say, “Bad Christian, stop it.” And it is not enough to beat yourself up or merely try harder and harder and harder.

The real reason that you’re having a problem with an enslaving habit is because you are not tasting God. I’m not talking about believing God or even obeying God, I’m saying tastingtasting God.

The secret to freedom from enslaving patterns of sin is worship. You need worship. You need great worship. You need weeping worship. You need glorious worship. You need to sense God’s greatness and to be moved by it — moved to tears and moved to laughter — moved by who God is and what he has done for you. And this needs to be happening all the time.

This type of worship is the only thing that can replace the little if only fire burning in your heart. We need a new fire that says, “If only I saw the Lord. If only he was close to my heart. If only I could feel him to be as great as I know him to be. If only I could taste his grace as sweet as I know it to be.”

And when that if only fire is burning in your heart, then you are free.

About the Author: Dr. Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, and the author of numerous books including The Reason for God: Belief in an age of Skepticism (In my opinion the best book to date on apologetics for a postmodern culture—I think this book will do for post moderns what Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis did for moderns); and The Prodigal God (in my opinion the most clear presentation of the gospel for a post modern culture based on Luke 15). He is also one of the founders of The Gospel Coalition.