Tag Archives: moral relativism

The Moral Facts

KevinCarterchildA lot has been said to demonstrate the reasonableness of belief in the non-physical. But, if we know of things (such as the mind) which are not physical, we have very good reason to think that the physical senses don’t exhaust all ways of knowing.

In fact, real-world personal experience is our most fundamental way of knowing about reality. It isn’t perfect, of course, but gives us a basic sense of what exists.

That being the case, there is no good reason to throw out the idea of moral truth.

For every argument that there is no such thing as objective moral truth, a parallel argument could be made that there is no such thing as physical reality. It really makes no sense, then, to insist that we trust our physical senses, but not our moral sense.

One might say, for instance, that not everyone has the same moral senses–or that different cultures have different values. But this strikes me as no different than saying that green is a shade of blue in Japan, or that the sky is bronze according to the ancient Greeks. If this is not a reason to think that our sight is completely untrustworthy as a sense, it should not be a reason to reject the moral sense.

Or, one might say that there is no reason to believe in moral truth other than our moral sense. And this is no different from saying that there is no reason to believe in the physical world other than our physical senses. People have always trusted our basic sense of reality until we have a good reason not to.

There are a number of these arguments, but none of them establishes that moral truth is any more questionable than physical reality.

That being the case, the modern tendency to embrace moral relativism, while scoffing at solipsism, seems more a cultural assumption than anything which has been defended on logical grounds. Really, I doubt it would be accepted at all if not for the stereotype that relativism is the position of educated people.

And it is more a stereotype than reality. College professors are consistently less relativistic than their students. And the philosophy department (where specialists in ethics reside) are the least relativistic of professors. That being the case, the rhetorical force that relativism is somehow the sophisticated view loses its force.

So, to move on from stereotypes and rhetoric, philosophies should explain our experience of life, not call it illusory. I think we have a basic sense that causing pain, or refusing to help those in need is wrong–and that loving others and seeing to their needs is good. Dismissing these rather obvious truths as illusory would be trying to fit the facts to our theory, rather than the other way around.

But, if one sees the reality of moral truth, one is left trying to explain why it should exist. And that, I would argue, will lead one toward theism.

Taking a Stand for Relativism

Batman-vs.-Relativism-Part-4“Good and bad are simply concepts in your mind.”

I’ve long since lost count of the number of times I’ve encountered this sentiment. Obviously, I disagree with it. I’ll explain why in a later post. For now, I’m more interested in a particular fact about the people who make the claim.

No, it is not that these people are committing themselves either to open nihilism or a large amount of irrationality in their daily actions. True as that is, there’s something else that is pointed out far less often:

This statement, in the context of debates on religion, almost always comes from people who insist that they are not claiming that God does not exist.

Many atheists have put a lot of energy into defining their position as “a lack of belief in God”, rather than a belief that there is no God. Such people tend to be very insistent that they need not make a case against God’s existence. Since they aren’t claiming God doesn’t exist, so the argument goes, they needn’t support their position–that is for the theist to do.

I’m not one to argue definitions, so I’ll not comment on the validity of this one. But, under any definition, there are severe problems with this tact. Most pertinently, the claim that morality is subjective presumes that God does not exist. Such a statement should, therefore, be supported by reasons to believe that God does not exist.

Of course, the atheist in question could simply avoid making such claims. She could simply introduce moral relativism as a possibility, rather than state it outright. This would be a perfect solution, so long as she is solely interested in winning debates without regard for behaving in a logically consistent manner.

This is to say that, unless one is abdicating all right to make any statement in a moral discussion or hold any position about morals at all (even in daily life), one is going to have to take a position on God’s existence. One simply has no room to say that this or that religious moral is wrong, even in a subjective sense, until one has shown the religion in question to be false.

One’s position may be tentative, of course, but simply “not believing” isn’t enough.

Russell XXI: Mercy Without Justice?

33-justice-for-allThere is quite a bit of talk of Hell in Russell’s speech. By my estimation, he includes nearly as much as is in the entirety of the Bible. It is a bit odd, then, that he criticizes the Bible for going on too much about Hell.

Then [Jesus Christ] says again, “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty.

I’ve already discussed the idea that Hell is a natural consequence of abandoning the source of all goodness. Still, I think something should be said for punishment.

As much as I commend Russell’s commitment to compassion, the scorn he casts on the idea of Hell seems to cross the line into a disrespect for justice. The New Atheist writers tend to do the same (with far more ease). And it strikes me that most people in history have had a very high view of justice. Though we from the modern west have lived more comfortable lives than the overwhelming majority of people in history, I think we can empathize with the idea that the unfairness of this world should be set right.

That is why I find it more than a little distasteful that a privileged white male from a rich nation would scorn the idea that oppressive people should be punished.

Those people groups who are complicit in oppression are always less likely to value justice than those who live under the boot of it. And, much to my dismay, I’ve run across many that confidently declare that it is simply a lack of education that keeps the poor from embracing moral relativism–apparently oblivious to their own cultural lenses.

To the end that one hears cries for justice with sympathy, I think, one begins to see the genius of the Bible. It acknowledges the world’s desperate need for justice, while simultaneously pointing out the need for mercy–that none of us could endure true judgement. If God doesn’t care about justice, what hope is there for correcting the oppression in the world? But, if God does seek justice, what hope is there for us?

A philosophy that can endure across time and cultures must, of necessity, be one that can offer powerful resources to cope with suffering, unfairness, and loss as well as success, power, and comfort. This is one of the great strengths of Christianity and, I think, one of the great weaknesses of the worldview put forward by the New Atheist writers.

Where the Christian Gospel builds up the weak with the idea that one is a forgiven child of God, New Atheism tends to embitter the strong with the idea that one is an innocent victim of fools in an unjust world.