At the end of my undergraduate degree, I took a class on global issues. In the class, the professor showed pictures of the Etoro tribe in Africa. She noted that in this particular culture, men passed on their “life force” to younger boys through the act of oral sex. After explaining this practice, she asked a very simple question, “Do you think that this is wrong?”
Horrified, I openly scoffed, “Yes, of course!” But others were not so quick to agree. Immediately, a cacophony of voices filled the classroom with claims to the contrary:
“But that’s their culture!”
“They were raised that way… Who are you to say that’s wrong?”
“If you had been raised in that culture, you would think it was right!”
Whether the people in the class realized it or not, they were affirming a popular belief system called moral relativism. Under this view, morality is dictated by either an individual or a culture. But while this view is very popular today in our culture, thinking people should reject this view for a number of reasons.
Moral relativism denies our DIRECT and PERSONAL INTUITION
One of the premier ways to discover reality is simply to directly perceive it. In order to determine if you perceive morality as a feature of reality, consider a few examples (please be advised for explicit content):
Ramadan Abdel Rehim Mansour: Mansour was a gang leader who raped and murdered at least 32 children (mostly boys) from the ages of 10 to 14. He raped and murdered his victims, then threw them off of moving trains in Egypt.
Robert Andrew Young: Young was a 23 year old man who tortured a two-month old baby by “bending the infant’s wrist downward until the infant cried.” He did this because he noticed the infant would eventually stop crying and go to sleep when tortured. Physicians found that the “infant had multiple rib fractures” as a result of Young’s torture.
Gang rape and murder: On May 30, 2014, two Indian Police and several other men gang raped two 14 and 15 year old girls, then strangled and hanged them from a mango tree. Roughly 50,000 cases of rape occurred in India from 2001 to 2011; a person is raped every 22 seconds.
What is your immediate perception of these events? If you met the family members of these victims, what would you tell them? Would you say, I don’t personally like what happened… But there is nothing really wrong with it… My culture might tell me that these actions are wrong, but morality is really a matter of opinion… right?
It’s highly doubtful that you would ever say such things. Baby torture is objectively wrong, because your moral knowledge about baby torture is not about the subject (i.e. you), but the object (i.e. the torture itself). That is, your statement that baby torture is wrong is not a statement about your own subjective opinion (i.e. “I don’t like baby torture”); instead, our perception is a statement about the objective action itself (i.e. “It’s the torture that is wrong”). For instance, ask yourself a number of questions to determine what you believe about morality:
Would you want a moral relativist to be on the jury of a murder case?
Would you take a moral relativist’s marriage vows seriously?
Are moral discussions worth having? If moral relativism is true, what is there to talk about?
Do you think my view is wrong? If you are a moral relativist, what do you mean by “wrong”?
What do you think about events like the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition, or the raping and pillaging of the Crusades? Even though these cultures believed that this was morally right, do you agree?
Should Western culture be tolerant to the rampant sex trade in Southeast Asia? Should Southeast Asians be tolerant of Western materialism and greed?
While we cannot discover moral knowledge through scientific experimentation or investigation, it is just as much a feature of reality as anything else. We perceive it quickly and directly. However, moral relativism denies this very obvious, immediate, and intuitive knowledge.
Moral relativists cannot be consistent with their own view
It is easy to say with your lips that morality is relative, but it is harder to live consistently with this in your life. D.A. Carson tells the story of a relativist professor, who went to Africa to help with women’s rights. She found that in a certain province in Africa, men forced women to have female genital mutilation (“clitoridectemy”). The professor was conflicted because she believed that morality was relative to culture, but she wanted to stand up for the women’s moral rights for their bodies. Yet in this culture, women were mutilated so they couldn’t enjoy sex, and wouldn’t cheat on their husbands. Eventually, after witnessing the brutality of female genital mutilation, she abandoning her relativism, claiming that their local practices were wrong.
A friend of mine once talked to a college student who claimed to be a moral relativist. He very politely asked to borrow the student’s cell phone, and put it in his pocket and kept talking with him. Eventually, the student said, “May I have that back now?” My friend said, “No, I’d like to keep it.” The student said, “You can’t do that!” But my friend said, “I can’t do it? I just did. I want it. It looked nice… By the way, I think you meant to say that I shouldn’t do this. But that would mean that what I did was… What would you call it…? Wrong?”
Moral relativism is SELF-DEFEATING
Moral relativists often say, “All morals are relative, so you should be more tolerant of other people’s moral practices.” For example, when we studied the child molestation in the Etoro people, my classmates claimed that we should be tolerant of their culture, because they different moral practices than us. But when we carefully reflect on this, we see that this is a self-defeating statement: The claim to tolerance is defeated by the claim that morality is relative. That is, if morality is truly relative, then why should we be tolerant, intolerant, or anything else? Tolerance (a moral virtue) can only exist, if morality exists.
Moral relativism cannot affirm MORAL PROGRESS
Richard Dawkins openly denies that objective moral values exist. Yet he writes that a culture’s morality “may move, and move in a generally progressive direction, but as I have said it is a sawtooth not a smooth improvement, and there have been some appalling reversals.” However, if there is no ultimate standard for morality, then what can Dawkins mean by “progressive direction” or “appalling reversals”? What would the culture be progressing towards or reversing from?
Consider a golfer who improves her score by shaving strokes off of her game. The only way to affirm that her game is getting better is to affirm that the goal of the game is to get the ball in the hole with the fewest swings possible. Similarly, we say that a bowler gets a “perfect” game, when he throws twelve strikes in a row. But if we cannot agree on the rules of the game, then could we really say that progress is even possible? Without an external standard that is fixed and objective, progress of any kind is illusory.
Secular ethicist James Rachels observes, “Progress means replacing a way of doing things with a better way. But by what standard do we judge the new ways as better?” Likewise, C.S. Lewis writes, “If things can improve, this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate. There is no sense in talking of ‘becoming better’ if better means simply ‘what we are becoming.’”
Of course, we have all observed moral progress. The abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and child labor laws were real moral improvements. Yet if moral relativism is true, then we can’t really affirm such things. Philosophers Craig and Moreland write, “All [moral relativists] can say is that, from the perspective of the earlier code, the new perspective is wrong and from the perspective of the new code, the old principle is wrong.”
Moral relativism makes criminals of MORAL REFORMERS
Corrie ten Boom harbored runaway Jews in her floorboards in the Nazi occupied Netherlands during World War II. William Wilberforce convinced the British Parliament to abolish slavery. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for equality in the racist atmosphere of the 1960’s United States.
What do all of these people have in common?
They all disagreed with their culture’s moral views.
And yet, if moral relativism is true, then these three “moral reformers” were actually the immoral outcasts of their culture. We could make a simple argument from a moral relativist perspective in this way:
1. Our culture dictates what is moral or immoral.
2. Martin Luther King Jr. disagreed with the morality of the racist American majority in the 1960s.
3. Therefore, Martin Luther King Jr. was immoral.
Under moral relativism, moral reformers shouldn’t be praised, but punished, because they were speaking out against the culture norms which surrounded them. Again, Rachels writes, “The ‘reformer’ may not challenge the ideals themselves, for those ideals are by definition correct.” Of course, we quickly see that the work of moral reformers is good—not evil. And yet, if we reject the concept of an objective good, then we need to reject them as moral outcasts.
Moral relativism results in conflicts between cultures
Imagine if Culture A says, “Love your neighbor,” and Culture B says, “Rape your neighbor.” Who is right? What happens if a member of Culture A is raped by a member of Culture B, while they are both on vacation in Culture C? How could we find anyone morally responsible, if morality is relative to our culture?
We might think that these are esoteric and speculative discussions, but they really are not. In our current era of globalization, these moral questions and conflicts arise constantly between cultures and nations. Moral relativists are unable to offer answers into these very serious situations.
Before we conclude, let’s consider a number of objections that moral relativists raise:
“Morality isn’t always clear!”
As we have already argued in our earlier work Evidence Unseen: Exposing the Myth of Blind Faith, like any other area of knowledge, moral choices can often be difficult to discern. For instance, is it right to torture a psychopathic criminal for information, if it meant saving hundreds of innocent lives?
However, this doesn’t invalidate objective morality. Instead, moral dilemmas demonstrate that the right moral action is merely unknown. While we might not know the right moral action, we still know that one must exist. Otherwise, there would be no use pondering the question. Why would we feel torn over these dilemmas if morality were truly relative?
In determining whether morality exists, it’s helpful to begin with the black and white moral issues before moving into the grey areas. For instance, ask yourself: “Is it wrong to rape women for pleasure? Is it wrong to torture babies for fun? Is it wrong to hunt humans for sport?” When we begin with these extremes, we find that the answers to these questions are obvious. Similarly, we might not understand advanced Calculus, but we do understand that 2 + 2 = 4. Therefore, as in any other discipline (e.g. mathematics, history, science, etc.), we should begin with the clear before we move to the unclear.
“But cultures disagree on morality!”
Relativists often argue that cultures disagree on what is moral. Since cultures disagree, this proves that morality is relative.
However, in many cases, there isn’t as much disagreement as is commonly charged. For instance, take a moral maxim like, “It is wrong to kill a human being without justification.” Almost all cultures would agree with this statement. For instance, Hitler killed many Jewish people, but this was because he considered them rats—not people. Pagan cultures performed human sacrifices, but this was because they believed it appeased the gods to bring crops for their entire society. A few were killed with the justification of providing for the greater good. We would agree that all of these actions above are outrageously wrong, but the point is that we share more in common morally than one might think.
We would, of course, believe that cultures do disagree on morality. But this doesn’t prove that morality is relative. The disagreement over truth doesn’t invalidate truth. For instance, if a hundred people can all perceive the difference between red and green, but one can’t, what should we conclude? That red and green do not exist? Or that one of them is colorblind? While certain individuals (or even cultures) could have their moral faculties damaged or distorted, this doesn’t invalidate the presence of objective moral values and duties for those of us who can perceive these quite clearly.
“You are just intolerant of other cultures and beliefs!”
Moral relativists often claim that others are being intolerant for condemning the actions or practices of other people. But, moral relativists are really making a self-refuting claim here. Namely, why should I be tolerant of other people, if morality is relative? The relativist is really being self-contradictory (or hypocritical?) with this statement, because tolerance is a moral virtue that they believe is universally binding on everyone.
From a Christian point of view, we are called to love our enemies, but we are not supposed to agree with them (Mt. 5:44). Christians seek to tolerate people, but we should not tolerate evil actions. In a pluralistic culture, this means that we love our neighbors, seek out their rights, and respect that they have different beliefs than us. The Christian faith should spread through persuasion—not coercion. But at the same time, this does not mean that we should “tolerate” others by agreeing with something that his immoral or harmful to people (Isa. 5:20).
“But what if the majority of people agree on morality?”
Relativists often claim that the majority of people in a culture can dictate morality. But far from being a solution for moral relativists, this claim only further enunciates the problem. Under this view, if 51% of people voted that it was right to kill homeless people for the fun of it, then this would make it morally mandatory. But we would disagree. If such a law were ever passed, the 51% majority would still be wrong.
By way of illustration, note that everyone today agrees on the value of a dollar bill. By placing value on this green piece of paper, society can function more effectively. And yet, overnight, our economy could crash. A dollar bill might have value today, buying me a hamburger at a drive-thru, but after an economic crash, that green piece of paper might be more valuable to use as toilet paper. Even though we place value on that green piece of paper, it doesn’t mean that it actually has value. The same is true with humans. We might place value on human beings, and yet, apart from God, they have no objective moral value. We can point to many examples of this in cultures throughout history:
The Eskimos (1900): The Eskimo people lived in small settlements in North America and Greenland. At the turn of the 20th century, they numbered around 25,000 people. James Rachels writes, “The men often had more than one wife, and they would share their wives with guests, lending them for the night as a sign of hospitality. Moreover, within a community, a dominant male might demand—and get—regular sexual access to other men’s wives.” This is a rather politically correct way of writing that the strongest man in the igloo gets to rape any woman he wants.
September Massacres (1792—Paris, France): During the French Revolution, kangaroo courts were formed by Parisians to execute thousands of prisoners. Thousands of Catholic priests and common criminals were executing during this time due to fear of prisoner revolt.
The Third Reich (1938): Sebastian Haffner estimates that Hitler had garnered 90% of the people’s support by 1938.
The Hudson Bay Tribes (17th Century—India): The cultural practice was to perform euthanasia on their parents, when they were too old to provide for themselves. Philosopher Tom Beauchamp, “Elderly parents were strangled by their children, who, natives believed, had an obligation to perform this ritual act.”
Think about this another way: Imagine if we told an atheist that 90% of people believe in God; therefore, God must exist. An atheist would most likely scoff, “Just because 90% of people believe in God… that doesn’t make it true!”
That’s exactly right! Even if most people believe in something, that doesn’t make it true. And the same is true of creating morality from a moral majority. Either morality exists, or it doesn’t. But we don’t get to make it exist by stuffing a ballot box. Peter Haas writes,
In the law, we claim, resides a standard of right and wrong that guards the basic moral character of our societies. As the Holocaust makes abundantly clear, however, the law is in fact a servant of culture, not its guardian. As we have already seen in ample detail, the Nazi system was one of law… The seminal force behind the Holocaust—the human capacity to redefine good and evil—proves beyond the reach of any legal system, our own as much as the Germans’.
Haas accurately explains the peril of dictating moral values apart from a transcendent “reference point,” as he calls it. Koukl and Beckwith write, “[From a moral relativist view] there can be no such thing as an immoral law. Such a concept is an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. If society is the final measure of morality, then all its judgments are moral by definition.” And yet, we can all observe that something can be legal, but not moral.
“Who are YOU to judge others?”
Relativists usually offer this as a conversation stopper. After this question is offered, that seems to be the end of the discussion. But what merit does this claim really have? When they ask this question, aren’t they judging our view? In order to ask this question, the relativist needs to cast judgment.
Moreover, we all have the right to discern what is true. As rational and moral persons, we should use our moral reasoning and rational ability to make the best case. Moreover, what is the alternative? If we see rape, murder, and torture, are we really too incapable to judge such things as wrong? We think not.
To conclude, ask yourself: How good would arguments for moral relativism need to be in order to overturn your immediate perception that torturing babies is evil? From our experience, most people haven’t heard any good reason to adopt moral relativism; instead, most people in our culture merely repeat mantras and slogans that are cheap substitutes for reason and logic.
Rochford, James. Evidence Unseen: Exposing the Myth of Blind Faith. Columbus, OH: New Paradigm Publishing. 2013.
In Chapter One “The Desperate Dilemma,” we give a case for rejecting various foundations for morality including (1) evolutionary foundations, (2) cultural foundations, (3) empathy, (4) social contracts, and (5) utilitarianism.
Beckwith, Francis J.; Koukl, Gregory. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Baker Publishing Group. 1998.
Koukl and Beckwith’s book is an excellent treatment of moral relativism. Parts 1, 2, and 5 are an excellent critique of moral relativism. Parts 3 and 4 are more applicable for applied ethics in the public arena.
Copan, Paul. True For You, But Not For Me. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1998.
Copan’s book addresses both moral and spiritual relativism. It is an excellent treatment of both.
Moreland, James Porter, and William Lane. Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003.
Read Part Five on “Ethics.”
Rachels, James. “A Critique of Ethical Relativism” in Pojman, Louis P. (Ed.). Philosophy: The Quest for Truth. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. 2002.
Contested passages regarding relativism
(Mt. 7:1) Are we allowed to judge or not?
(1 Cor. 4:5) Can we judge people or not?
 For a similar anecdote, see Moreland, James Porter. Love Your God with All Your Mind: the Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997. 26.
 Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 308.
 James Rachels “A Critique of Ethical Relativism” in Pojman, Louis P. (Ed.). (2002). Philosophy: The Quest for Truth. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. 2002. 374.
 Lewis, C. S., and Walter Hooper. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1970. 21.
 Moreland, James Porter, and William Lane. Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003. 411.
 James Rachels “A Critique of Ethical Relativism” in Pojman, Louis P. Philosophy: the Quest for Truth. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. 374.
 Moreland, James Porter, and William Lane. Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003. 411.
 Christians and Hindus disagree over eating meat, but the meat really isn’t the issue. If you believed a cow could be your grandmother reincarnated, you wouldn’t eat meat either!
 James Rachels “A Critique of Ethical Relativism” in Pojman, Louis P. Philosophy: the Quest for Truth. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. 371.
 Tom L. Beauchamp, Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991), 39. Cited in Beckwith, Francis J.; Koukl, Gregory. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Baker Publishing Group. 1998. 37.
 Haas, Peter J. Morality after Auschwitz: the Radical Challenge of the Nazi Ethic. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988. 203; 213.
 Haas, Peter J. Morality after Auschwitz: the Radical Challenge of the Nazi Ethic. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988. 203.
 Beckwith, Francis J.; Koukl, Gregory. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Baker Publishing Group. 1998. 51.