Tag Archives: moral knowledge

Moral norms vs. moral absolutes

Greg Koukl recently wrote an excellent post on seven fatal flaws of relativism.

One of the chief objections to attacks on moral relativism (often held by philosophical naturalists) is that morality is defined by culturally accepted norms. Thus, they argue, that there is an absolute in the sense that society holds some actions to be right and others wrong, but that morality is not an absolute in the sense that the standard of moral conduct never changes.

I want to first note that there is a big difference between “moral norm” based on statistical averages found in any given society and “moral absolutes” which are independent of public opinion, thus transcendent. While the former does change based on the cultural milieu, the latter is the only one capable of enacting and sustaining moral change in culture. In other words, without the objective moral view found exclusively in Christianity that all humans are created equal, and that that equality rests on a non-physical component of what makes us up (soul), there would be no real reason to oppose racism, racial slavery, or any other form of systematic oppression of others.

One must also define the “norm” being referred to. Norm is a statistical term which relies on a sample set of data. Depending on the sample size, and the constitution of the same, the calculated norm can vary widely. Statistics are also effected by other factors as well. So when we talk about “moral norms” it is far from clear what is actually being referred to. What region are we talking about? What people in that region are we referring to? What questions are we asking and what metrics are we measuring? All of these effect the outcome of what we deem the “moral norm”.

So while “norms” may change, that is not what constitutes morality. Simply put, if a relativist were to reduce morality down to statistical averages then all they are left with the ability to merely describe a moral behavior and not the ability to prescribe it. In the end, all they could say is that someone’s behavior falls outside of a statistical average at any given point in time. Relativists would not have a valid basis for calling any action objectively wrong in any capacity, just merely a deviation from a particular standard.

What is interesting is that even using statistical averages relativists still manage to smuggle in a moral absolute in the form of “everyone ought to conform to the statistical averages”. Where does this absolute come from, or does it ultimately succumb to being relegated to realm of subjective personal preference?

When it comes to morality, either there are absolutes or there are no absolutes. However to say that there are no absolutes is to claim an absolute which means that no matter how you slice it, everyone believes in moral absolutes. The only question is where we get those absolutes and why we think they are binding on everyone else.

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Societal wrong

When asked about where moral standards come from, a common tactic of a moral relativist is to attempt to ground moral knowledge in what society deems right or wrong at any given point in time. The problem this poses, however, is that in this understanding of morality, societies can never be said to be wrong. However I believe that most people intuitively understand that entire societies such as the Nazis in World War II, Stalin’s Soviet empire, Pol Pot’s regime, Islamic Sharia law and it’s subjugation of women, and even the segregated and deeply prejudiced American south1 to be objectively wrong.

So let’s take a moment to examine this notion of “societal wrong” and how such a notion, if accepted, constitutes a sufficient defeater for the concept of relativistic morality and, at the same time, constitutes a powerful evidence for a divine moral law giver.

In order to hold the notion of “societal wrong” you need a standard of morality that transcends time (because societies change) and society (meaning relativistic morality based on societal norms is out of the picture since you need something outside of the culture by which to judge the society).

Some will say, “I can think of a more arrogant and condescending statement than to say you are the only one that knows what morality is” However that is not what is being claimed here. You see, your statement would hold true if we were setting ourselves up as the arbiters of the objective and penultimate standard of morality. We aren’t. We are merely pointing to one that has existed long before us and will exist long after we are gone. We are not it’s authors and have no vote as to whether we agree or disagree with it.

In other words, it exists outside of and independent to us. This is a pivotal difference because when we further say that those who act in a moral fashion do so “out of coincidence” it really is like saying that before Newton people obeyed gravity “out of coincidence”.

You see, both gravity and morality are based on natural laws that are independent to those they effect. I know it is fashionable to claim that morality is a social construct and therefore is not real, objective, and knowable in the same sense as mathematics and physics, but simply claiming that does not make it so. Actually, the fact that we posses intuitive moral knowledge and instinctively recognize some actions to be right and others to be wrong should serve as a clear indication that an objective moral law does exist and that it is up to us to discover and then abide by it.

For more on this subject I highly recommended:

  1. And north. It is the height of ignorance to make the claim that racism only existed or still exists in the south []
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