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Relativism Interview with Summit Ministries

How do Christians answer the present spirit of the age, currently the most insidious challenge to Christianity: relativism?


September/October, 1998

The following discussion is adapted from an interview with Summit Ministries, Manitou Springs Colorado, July 1998. Summit is a Christian educational organization training young people in Christian worldview leadership.

Summit Ministries: What exactly is moral relativism?

Greg Koukl: Moral relativism is a kind of subjectivism. When it comes to moral rules--principles of right and wrong--it's up to the subject, the individual, to decide. There are no objective moral rules. Rather, morality is a personal choice.

SM: Many assume that moral claims are merely preference claims. How should Christians respond to that?

GK: There's a difference between disliking something and thinking it's morally wrong. Of course, all morality collapses into mere preference if there are no moral rules at all. But when people like myself make moral claims, we need to make clear we are not simply talking about what we prefer.

I might say, for example, that homosexuality is immoral. I'm not saying I don't prefer it. I am saying something more, that it's wrong. Some things I think are wrong may actually appeal to me. When I say pornography is immoral, I'm not saying I don't like it. Maybe I do. That's not the point. I'm saying it's wrong, regardless of what I like.

Maybe I'm mistaken on my claim, but I don't want to be mistaken on the kind of claim I'm making. When I say a thing is right or wrong, I'm not merely expressing a preference. I'm expressing a moral conclusion.

SM: What about moral neutrality? Can someone truly be morally neutral?

GK: One of the alleged virtues of relativism is that it espouses a kind of moral neutrality: You do your thing, I do my thing, no judgments involved. This is at the heart of values clarification education in grade schools.

My brother David's children were given the liberty in their class to decide if a man who killed his wife as an alleged act of mercy should be punished. When my brother voiced objections, the teacher said, "We're not telling the students what to do. We're morally neutral. We're leaving it up to them." David's response was insightful. He said that when you give children difficult moral problems and then tell them there are no guiding moral rules, but instead it's up to them, that's not neutral. That's relativism.

And that's the problem. Everybody has to take a position here. You either believe in real morals or you're a relativist. There is no middle ground. People who think they're neutral do tremendous damage. They think their view is innocuous, yet it encourages and legitimizes moral anarchy.

SM: Your book describes three kinds of moral relativism. What is the first kind?

GK: It's what I call "Society Does" relativism, also known as descriptive relativism. The professor in an anthropology class points out customs in other cultures that are morally repugnant to us, but morally acceptable to them. The basic thesis is that different cultures have radically different moral values. This is offered as an argument for moral relativism. Morals are only cultural conventions, so nobody has a right to say that his morality is better than others'.

There's some problems, though. For one, even if there are big differences, how does it follow that because two cultures differ on a moral point of view, nobody is correct and all morals are relative? It doesn't follow at all. No conclusion about the nature of morality can follow merely from the observation that people have different moral points of view. None.

SM: What is the second kind of moral relativism Christians come across?

GK: The first kind of relativism is simply a description of what cultures seem to do. The second type is not just descriptive, but prescriptive--it tells what one ought to do. Since morality is unique to each individual culture, the argument goes, then we ought to do whatever society says we should do. I call it "Society Says" relativism. Trekkers know about the Prime Directive of the Federation not to interfere with another culture's morality because all cultural values are equally valid. It's basically the same view.

The chief problem with looking at morality this way is that there can be nothing like an immoral society. If the society itself determines what is right and wrong, then everything that society decides turns out to be moral by definition. This reduces morality to law and power. People like Corrie ten Boom who rescued Jews from the Nazis would actually turn out to be immoral because they violated the laws of the ruling culture.

SM: The third type of relativism is more individualistic, isn't it?

GK: Yes. In the second type of relativism, rules are subjective to culture. In the third form, the subject is the individual, not the group. I call this "I say" relativism because each individual decides what is right. It's characterized by remarks like, "Who are you to push your morality on me?"

The problems with "I Say" relativism turn out to be similar to the problems of "Society Says," but on an individual basis. In the first view, there could be no immoral cultures, by definition. In this view--and people don't realize this--there can be no immoral individuals, by definition.

The only way to have an immoral individual is if there's a common standard of morality he continually violates. But in ethical relativism there is no such standard. Everyone does his own thing.

There are other serious complications that don't occur to most relativists. For instance, we hold certain concepts--like justice, tolerance, fairness, etc.--to be meaningful, common sense notions. Further, people bring up the problem of evil as an argument against God. We engage in moral discussions to determine the best course of action in a situation. Each of these seem to be legitimate ways of talking. But as it turns out, if ethical relativism is really true, all of these things are nonsense because each derives its meaning from its relationship to an objective moral rule.

Not only that, we can never complain about the problem of evil because the objection depends for its force on the fact that evil exists "out there" somewhere as an objective feature of the world. But this is precisely what relativism rejects.

Relativists find themselves in the unenviable position of having to admit that there is no such thing as evil, justice, or fairness, and no obligation of tolerance.

SM: What tactics would you use to deal, then, with relativism?

GK: The key to dealing with relativism on the street, is to realize that no one is really a relativist. Being made in the image of God, each person has what Francis Schaeffer called "moral motions," a fact that always surfaces when one's guard is down. I use three different tactics to capitalize on that. First, I show how moral relativism is self-refuting. Second, I push their own moral "hot button." Third, I press the tolerance issue.

SM: What if someone says, "You shouldn't force your morality on me"?

GK: The first thing out of my mouth is two words: "Why not?" This pushes it back on him where it belongs. He is going to have a difficult time answering without imposing his moral rules on me. This shows the self-refuting nature of relativism.

When one guy objected to my moral judgments, I asked him, "What's wrong with that?" He said, "It's not right to be judgmental." "If it's not right to be judgmental," I asked, "then why are you judging me?" That caught him by surprise. After taking a moment to regroup he said, "Okay, judging is all right as long as you don't push your morality on me." I asked, "Is that your morality? Then why are you pushing it on me?" Very simple.

It's a good illustration to show how frequently relativists smuggle morality into their objections about morality. It's like saying, "There are no moral rules; here's one."

SM: What about pressing their hot button?

GK: This tactic is easy to use. If people claim there is no morality, find their own moral pet peeve and relativize it. When a young man asked how to refute a teacher who said morality was relative, I said, "Steal her stereo." Push her hot button, in other words.

You see, people can wax eloquent about relativism, but in the next breath they're complaining about crooked politicians, legal injustice, and intolerant Christians--all meaningless if relativism is true.

People signal their hot buttons with some variation of the words "should" or "ought." Note that when they do this they're not advancing personal opinions. When someone's been robbed, he actually thinks he's been wronged. His own objective morality is surfacing. Keep your ears open. When a relativist reveals his own hot button, relativize it.

SM: There's a trend today to try to explain morality by evolution. Does that work?

GK: I call this "monkey morality," the view that morals simply evolved. Even monkeys can be observed to practice rudimentary moral behavior, the result of natural selection. The key word here is "observe." Can morality be reduced to observable behavior? The answer is certainly "no."

For example, you observe a boy trip an old woman. At first glance it seems he did something wrong. But what if he didn't intend to do it, but tripped her by accident? Further, what if he did intend to trip her, but his motive was to keep her from being hit by a bus? The point is you can't analyze the morality of an action by simply looking at behavior. Motive and intent are parts of morality that can't be determined by mere physical conduct. Stealing and borrowing look the same. The difference is a non-physical element called permission. The evolutionary explanation reduces morality to behavior. If morality can't be so reduced, then evolution can't explain it.

Another problem. Evolution might--in principle, at least--account for behavior connected to individual reproduction based on genetic makeup. Goodness, kindness, mercy, motherly love, etc., then, are not chosen traits, but are hard-wired for personal survival. But the morality that needs explaining deals with chosen traits, not instinctual ones, so it can't be reduced to genetics. And if it's not in the genes, then evolution cannot explain it.

Finally, evolution would only be capable of explaining why we acted in certain ways in the past (i.e., we evolved that way by natural selection). It can't tell us why we ought to be good in the future. Since morality is not about what we did do (descriptive), but about what we ought to do (prescriptive), evolution can't explain what it claims to explain.

SM: How is the defeat of relativism evidence for God?

GK: If morality can't be explained by evolution, then morals are the products of either chance or intelligence. I don't know of any other options. Morals are either imaginary (relativism, which we've refuted), they're accidents, or they're not accidents at all, but the product of a Mind. Either they are without purpose, or they have purpose.

Are morals accidents? The problem is this: If morals have no purpose, then why obey them? If you see a random display of letters on a Scrabble board that spell "don't go," it's not a command. It's an accident. Ignore it. In the same way, if moral rules are just accidents, there's no reason to obey them. But moral rules have a sense of oughtness that needs to be accounted for. Chance can't do that.

The only alternative is that moral rules are real commands. Commands come from a Commander, a Lawgiver. This pushes us into some version of theism, it seems to me. By the way, this would explain feelings of guilt. When we violate a moral rule, we are offending the Rule Maker. There is accountability to a person.

When we realize we're law breakers--sinners, in biblical terms--we know we're in trouble. We're guilty and we need mercy from the Law Giver. This brings us right to the foot of the cross.

Friends, you can see from the above interview that the moral relativism pervading our society today is bankrupt. If you would like to understand more about how to deal with it, each of the points discussed in this interview is developed in depth in our new book Relativism--Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, co-authored with Dr. Frank Beckwith. Order your copy today.

To SG Index Yours for the Truth,

Gregory Koukl
President, Stand to Reason

Last Updated: February 25, 1999 webmaster@str.org

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