Moral relativism was a hot topic to debate in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but has since earned itself a place among today’s fashionable, intellectual presuppositions. Although popular today, moral subjectivity is itself a slough of ethical absurdities—absurdities we will do our due diligence to dismiss as falsehood.
Nietzsche and Moral Relativism
The emergence of moral relativism is frequently attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, the nineteenth-century German philosopher. In his work The Gay Science, Nietzsche tells the story of a “Madman,” who proclaims the following:
“Whither is God? We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? Whither are we moving? Are we not plunging continually? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?” – Friedrich Nietzsche
What does this mean exactly?
Nietzsche believed it was necessary for Enlightenment-era rationality to usher the Judeo-Christian value system off her throne, although he warned against the implications of such an immediate cultural shift: without clear distinctions between right and wrong, we become the “Madman,” helplessly questioning which way is up and which way is down. It was the nihilistic, global “madness” of the twentieth-century that Nietzsche single-handedly predicted, and it is the remnants of that very philosophical “madness” we are left to fight today.
The Dangers of Moral Relativism
The Nietzschean argument against objective morality is admittedly more complicated than we have time for, but it is built upon the presupposition that morality is dependent upon our environment and that there is no objective right and wrong. Although this sentiment is popular in our postmodern day, it presents us with severe ethical issues.
If universal right and wrong do not exist, we cannot say that anything is actually, objectively wrong. And if morality is determined by someone’s environment, and not a universal standard, then we cannot assert that the mass killing of millions of Jews, Poles, and Slaves—to name a few groups, there are many others—was wrong. All the moral relativist can claim is that he has a feeling that Nazism was wrong, based on what his specific environment has taught him. He is not saying anything about the object, just his feelings.
In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that what distinguishes humans from animals is our capacity for reason—and reason is the ability to say something about something, often based on previous information. The point is this: if we are only talking about feelings and not the objective reality of something, we effectively reduce ourselves to animals, devoid of the very thing that makes us inherently unique.
The logic of moral relativism leads to absurdity. So, what really governs our morality?
What is the Moral Law?
Let’s say you and a friend are at a restaurant together, arguing over the concept of morality. Your friend believes there is no real right and wrong, while you beg to differ. In a moment of passion, you take his drink and finish it off quickly. He exclaims “Hey, what are you doing that for? That’s my drink! How would you like it if I did the same to you?” and you slyly reply “Well, was that wrong?”
Although playful, the concept here is exhibited clearly: any amount of quarreling assumes a standard of correct behavior. Your friend is not only saying your behavior happens to not please him, but saying what you ought to do. Argument means trying to prove the other person is wrong, and there would be no point in arguing unless a real standard of right and wrong exists. This is what we call the Moral Law, and if it does not exist there is no sense in quarreling; just as there is no sense in saying that slavery was actually wrong because the measuring stick of right and wrong would not exist.
Isn’t the Moral Law just Culture?
Many have proposed that a universal Moral Law is unsound, due to the fact different cultures have different moralities. Moral variation surely exists on a micro-level, but not on a macro-level. In other words, there are small differences in morality between cultures, but nothing close to an absolute difference. What would a total difference in morality look like? Consider the following from Mere Christianity:
“Think of a county where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud for double-crossing all the people who have been kindest to him… Men have differed as regards to what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But selfishness has never been admired… You might as well imagine a country where two and two made five.” – C.S. Lewis
Isn’t the Moral Law just Herd Instinct?
Another objection to the Moral Law is that real, correct behavior is an instinct, something that has been developed at the expense of our surroundings. Yet, an instinctual desire is far different from the knowledge that you ought to do something, whether you like it or not.
Consider the scenario of a drowning man. Two instincts will be immediately felt: one to help the drowning man, and the other to flee the scene. The first is identified as our herd instinct, the desire to help, which is learned through education. While the other is identified as the instinct of self-preservation. In this scenario, the Moral Law is what tells us what we ought to do, and its job is to discern between instincts. This is why the most intense desire—the desire for self-preservation—is often not acted upon, given that the Moral Law directs us otherwise.
Why is the Moral Law Important?
See, without the Moral Law, we would not feel the restraint that withholds us from falling into our most intense, usually immediate instincts. And, given there is a universal standard of right and wrong, we may assert this standard is directed by something or someone that lies beyond the limitations of humanity, as the existence of such a standard would not reasonably be a product of naturalistic chance.
Another question we have to ask ourselves is this: how could a naturalistic or cosmic force—the forces that belong to popular philosophy today—direct behavior if that very force does not have a mind? In order to create and enforce a standard of right and wrong, the ability to reason must be utilized, because, without reason, this standard would not be philosophically sensible, nor moderately coherent. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that objective morality has a divine, reasonable Giver. Consider the following:
“They (the Gentiles) show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness.” – Romans 2:15
Paul makes the case that God is the author of the Moral Law, the one who has written right and wrong on our hearts. This is no trivial point, for it means that adhering to a universal standard of behavior not only carries legal, temporal consequences, but it also carries eternal consequences. In other words, when we decide to do something that violates the Moral Law, we are not only acting incorrectly, but offending the God who cares for our correct behavior. This is why objective, right behavior matters: because God is the author of that very behavior Himself. Without a universal standard of right and wrong, no action can be actually right or wrong, and we might as well dismiss the idea of God altogether.