Relativism is Self-Refuting

People who hold to relativism in the area of goodness, evil, or morality hold that the standard of goodness can change from group to group. Relativists hold that each society can determine its own morality. Atheist Carl Sagan, for example, is quoted as saying the Ik tribe of Uganda systematically and institutionally ignore the ten commandments. This, and other examples like this, are said to be examples of how goodness is determined by each culture. Several problems arise with this view.

The idea is often more than just saying relativism exists, but relativists usually are at odds with objectivists who hold to objective, universal standards of goodness and morality. The relativist says, in effect, that relativism is right, objectivism is wrong, and relativism ought to be the way we all view goodness. The relativist ends up in a major conundrum. He must either hold that (1) relativism explains the way all goodness works for all people, or (2) it does not; these two options exhaust the possibilities. If he holds the first, that relativism is the way goodness works for all people, then the society next door is free to hold to whatever standard of goodness it sees fit. But if the society next door turns out to teach an objective standard of goodness that applies to all people, then the relativist is saying objective goodness is a proper thing for them to hold, which is in violation of his own sense of universal relativism. On the other hand, if the relativist holds the second, that relativism does not explain how goodness works for all people, then the society next door can teach objective goodness.

Perhaps the relativist would respond by saying that relativism is the way he holds morality, and this applies to everyone whether they realize it or not, and the objectivists next door are simply wrong. But this has not gotten out of the conundrum, for now the relativist is again saying that relativism is universally good and true. The relativist is now saying that it is universally true that there are no universals, or that it is unchangingly good to hold that goodness always changes. Our relativist friend has dug a self-refuting hole that cannot be escaped.

But it gets worse for the relativist, for no relativist is actually a consistent relativist. None of them truly believe that it is good and proper for me to steal their stuff. I have challenged several to post their address online and let us all know when they will not be home, but so far I have had no takers. It would seem they all, to a person, would agree it wrong for me to steal their stuff, a clearly universal sense of goodness, which blows a rather large hole in their relativism.

But what about Sagan’s description of the Ik? If there were such a tribe that universally and systematically ignored the ten commandments, would this not be an example that supports relativism, or at least refute the idea of objective goodness?

No it would not. Sagan and many other secularists who view morality as a cultural norm are at best inconsistent, for none of them truly believe that every act is acceptable inside a particular culture merely because the people of that culture practice it. Allan Bloom’s example in his book Closing of the American Mind shows that the Western mind will not accept the idea that Hindus should be allowed to burn healthy widows to death on the funeral pyres of their newly deceased husbands. Such an act is held to be universally wrong, and sitting idly by and allowing it to happen is morally wrong.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we accept that the Ik reject the Ten Commandments and we hold them as morally right. Let’s call this system of describing us and the Ik “The Way The World’s Morality Works” and it were fleshed out in tremendous detail that shows how all cultures can get along. Would it not be true that “The Way The World’s Morality Works” is a universal, worldwide system that applies to all people? If you say yes, then you have supported a universal system of goodness. If you say no, then are you not saying that your system of morality, the one you used to judge the other society, would then apply to all people? Either way, we have a universal standard of goodness that applies to all people.

In truth, if there happens to be a group such as the Ik that believe murder is good, then we would call them wrong for coming to our side of the street to murder people.

The way the conundrum plays out is that relativists seem to always be telling the objectivist next door that he is wrong. But if relativism were true, then the relativist has no grounds for saying any evil exists, for all goodness is relative.

Therefore relativism is self-refuting, and pulls the ground out from under the place where the relativist tries to stand and judge the objectivist. In reality, the relativists end up wanting us to accept their system of goodness instead of ours.

The only logically valid view is that goodness is objective, and that moral laws require a moral law giver. (for more on this, see here)

 

 

 

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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12 Responses to Relativism is Self-Refuting

  1. Nate says:

    I think it’s both. Murder is objectively wrong. Whereas, what constitutes “modesty” from one culture to the next varies, and is relative.

    If one holds to the Christian God as the ultimate source of morality, is that not also relativism? In the Old Law, the 10 Commandments were moral laws. However, under the New Law, the 10 Commandments have served their purpose and are no longer under effect (see Romans, Galatians, Hebrews). In other words, God’s laws of morality have not remained consistent… doesn’t that make them relative?

    • humblesmith says:

      The Ten Commandments are all re-given in the New Testament, with the one exception of sabbath-keeping. That these arel valid outside of the Mosaic Law is also supported when they are held prior to Moses. Even sabbath-keeping has some support prior to Moses, but Romans 14 explains the correct view there.

      The basic morals are all objective and universal, but the applications are not. For example, some cultures hold one wife, some hold multiple wives. But no culture believes men can take any woman they want. But again, even if we found a culture where the men did believe they could rape any woman they wanted, the rest of us would still hold rape to be an evil act that ought not be done by anyone.

      So yes, things like rules of modesty are different from culture to culture. But all coltures have some sense that some things are immodest….the very concept of immodesty, irrespective of specific rules about modesty, shows that we have a universal value of modesty.

      I readily admit that we then have an issue of how to apply it….when is it OK to do such-and-so? But there are principles….for example, Rahab lied to protect the spies from Israel from being killed. Lying is wrong, but protecting a life is also a moral imperative. Some morals are more important, and deciding some of these problem situations can be difficult.

      • Nate says:

        I couldn’t agree more with your last three paragraphs. Theists and non-theists alike are faced with the same problems when it comes to morality. How do you apply it when it gets down to the nitty-gritty details? That’s why I think using morality as evidence for or against theism is a bit of a red herring. It really doesn’t count for evidence either way. Maybe we have morality because we have a supernatural creator, or maybe we have it through natural means like evolution and cultural identity. There’s no way to definitively know, and I think both sides of the debate are kind of wasting time.

        • humblesmith says:

          Like I said, I readily admit that application is not always easy. But scripture does give us principles about which ethics are greater and which are lesser…..Rahab is one example of this.

          But regarding morality as evidence…the point is not epistemological, but ontological. Whether we know the right morals or know how to apply them correctly does not affect whether they exist. The bottom line is that they exist at all, which the proof for God. The moral argument does not hinge on which specific rules are correct, but that we have morality per se.
          See here: http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/does-the-existence-of-moral-evil-prove-or-disprove-god/

          • Nate says:

            No, I think you’re being a bit inconsistent. I don’t see how you can say that we have absolute morals, which proves God, and at the same time say that sometimes morals are relative. It’s either one or the other.

            The scenario you’re describing is the same one that most non-believers ascribe to: some aspects of morality are universal, some are not. That’s not evidence of a supernatural creator. It could just as easily be a product of our upbringing and evolutionary history. If you want to shoot down atheism, I’d recommend another line of arguments. Showing that morality exists only shows that morality exists — nothing more.

          • humblesmith says:

            If you deny that all people hold to a universal morality, then please post your address and let us know when you won’t be at home. So far I’ve not found anyone who thought it OK for me to steal their stuff.

          • Nate says:

            I didn’t deny it. I just take the position (the same one you take) that some morals are universal and some are not. I don’t know if they ultimately come from some god, or if they’re by-products of living in a society. But you don’t know that either. This is why morality doesn’t work as evidence for or against god. It’s just a separate issue.

  2. portal001 says:

    There may be a universal desire to avoid getting screwed over – e.g having someone rob you – I’d say that’s more about self-preservation than morality. Was your example more based on the fact that most people don’t desire to be abused? Morality might extend from that shared desire, but this in itself morality?

    • humblesmith says:

      People do indeed find that being abused is unpleasant and undesirable. If that were the extent of it, we would not have much of an argument. But it is not……people find that other people being abusive is morally wrong, and they ought not do that. I find that the sticker bush is painful to my leg, but I do not think the bush to be morally culpable. But all of a sudden when we talk about people, we go beyond undesirability into the area of being morally wrong. As C. S. Lewis put it, the person who accidentally trips me I find unpleasant, but I get quite upset at the person who intentionally tries to trip me but fails, and hold that person to be morally wrong.

  3. portal001 says:

    It depends on how much intent we ascribe to someone. Even if the intent may not exist, often the threat is still removed. A violent dog that attacks a child is either removed or even put down in some cases because it is violent, not just based on its intent.

    If people believe intent was involved in an action, then the actions taken were taken on purpose. A person can never “accidently” rob a house, but they can accidently kill someone. So yes, universal morality may exist, in the sense that we don’t want to be killed, either intentionally or unintentionally. If a person kills another with intent, then it becomes murder. It then becomes a moral question.

    But even then, morality is more complicated than this. Even given intent, depending on where you stand, morality and justice look very different. One people’s terrorist is another people’s freedom fighter. One persons ally is another person’s adversary. What one person calls murder, another sees as justice. It depends on what governments are recognised, what directly threatens us, and where we and our loved ones are standing in the situation. When we start looking at intent and purpose, there are usually many ideas behind those intents that seem justified in the aggressors mind. Many people would probably consider drone attacks to be murder with intent, yet many on the other side of the fence may just see this as a means to security or even justice. There does however seems to be a universal reaction in some circumstances. For example, despite where they are standing, don’t want to see a child murdered, or a person punished for something they didn’t do, and shared outcries could be called universal morality.

    We might be puzzled that some people might view some things as moral, and yet see other actions as justifiable when we don’t. Well, add some biblical verses to the mix and a belief in a particular interpretation of inerrancy, and even little children being cut up and murdered can be seen as justice. It all depends where you’re standing. Whether this is actually what the Bible truly teaches this, or whether these verses are taken out of context, my point still stands that we might be horrified to encounter Islamic teachers practicing stoning for going against Sharia law, but don’t forget that from their perspective they are doing the will of god. They probably also have apologetics to defend this practice.

    Morality, and peoples understanding of it doesn’t seem that clear cut.

    • humblesmith says:

      Regardless of how complex the system of morality is, if we describe it accurately, we have described how morality is for all people. It is then universal and not relative.

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