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)