Cultural Relativism and Morality
Chayanne M. of USA wrote to us:
I recently engaged in a conversation about Christianity with an atheist friend. The biggest issue that is preventing him from agreeing with the truth I am proclaiming is his secular view on morality. He believes that morals can change over time and that morality is a hierarchy.
His exacts words are:
“Right and wrong is a hierarchy not an absolute
A man decides if what he dose is [right] or wrong
His community decides if that is [right] or wrong
Then the communities outside of that decide weather they are right or wrong.”
What are the fallacies in this system?
Thank you for writing in.
Your friend’s view can be classified as a form of cultural relativism, where morality is subjective and depends on what the culture at large defines it to be. Entire books have been written on this subject. As such, it is not possible to condense all these problems into a short reply, but we will offer a number of points that might be worth considering.
- First of all, by what standard does your friend appeal to, in order to say that morality is defined by what communities want it to be? And what makes the largest community the highest authority? These are ad hoc assertions with no justifications of any kind.
- How is he going to prove that the communities have the right to decide what is morally right or wrong without appealing to the decisions of these communities themselves? But if he does this, how is he not arguing in a circle and assuming what he is supposed to prove? His third premise is that “communities outside of that decide whether they are right or wrong”, but his conclusion is essentially the same: that “right and wrong is a hierarchy and not an absolute”. He puts forth his conclusion as one of his premises and therefore engages in circular reasoning.
- The idea that morality is decided by the sum of all communities is itself an objective moral claim: namely, something is morally good (objectively) if this is what the sum of all communities deem to be good. If there is nothing higher than the sum of all communities to appeal to, then the totality of all cultures becomes the objective moral standard. But if this is true, relative morality is again refuted. Thus, if your friend’s cultural relativism is true, it is false. The only consistent moral relativism, by contrast, is actually a denial of any such thing as morality. In that case, no person or community would be a higher moral authority than any other, and nothing would be truly wrong.
- This system does not allow for moral progress on the highest level of the hierarchy, because any change in moral direction by the sum of all communities would always be defined as good. If the collective says torturing babies for fun is good, then it is. And if they change their minds, then it isn’t.
- According to this system, any individual moral reformer who goes against the sum of all communities is evil by definition. So if the whole world, by-and-large, accepted chattel slavery, as it once did, then abolitionists were acting immorally when they opposed that practice.
The question of whether morality is objective or subjective is about the foundational reason why something is right or wrong. If morality depends on human subjects, then it is subjective. If the moral nature of an act depends on a fixed standard, then it is objective.
The Christian claims that morality is objective, because it is ultimately rooted in God’s eternal and unchanging nature. It doesn’t fluctuate with ephemeral, arbitrary human opinions. The Bible teaches us that God is good, and does good (Psalm 119:68). There is none perfectly good except God alone (Luke 18:19). So morality gets its meaning from the nature of God. And God’s moral character is expressed to us through His commandments and the conscience He has put in every human heart (Romans 2:15). Scripture tells us that God as the Creator has laid down rules by which man will be judged, so that a person who acts consistently with what God has commanded is good, and a person who contradicts God’s commandments is evil. So, the Christian definition of morality is grounded in God’s nature, communicated to us through revelation and conscience. It is wrong to murder because murder violates God’s moral standard. The Christian justification for morality is grounded upon an external justification—God. But the relativist is stuck with an internalistic justification. He has to ultimately appeal to himself as the basis for his own morality, and so he is guilty of arguing in a circle. (And cultural morality is nothing more than collective individual-morality, so it just repeats the circular argument over and over again.)
Also, there is a pragmatic problem. How can the relativist know what is moral? If he says that he knows morality only based on the majority opinions of societies, how does he know what the majority believes? Through surveys? Through polls? Through inductive reasoning? Who can determine at what point this amounts to a majority? To have a justification of knowledge based on majority opinions, one needs to either have omniscience, or at least know what every individual believes. Otherwise cultural morality is really unknowable. But if we cannot know with confidence what every single community believes, then trying to live a moral life is hopeless. Besides, if some morals are good today, but evil tomorrow, then maybe the consensus of all communities has already moved on.
A common tale that moral relativists often use is the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. In this story, six blind men are said to be touching an elephant for the first time. One man touches the trunk of the elephant and decides that it is a snake, another touches the feet and decides that it is a tree. A third blind man touches the tusk and declares it to be a spear. Yet another touches the ear and declares that the elephant is a fan. The fifth blind man places his hand on the side of the elephant and called it a wall. Finally, the sixth blind man declared that the elephant is actually more like a rope, because he happens to touch its tail. The relativist claims that this story demonstrates that truth is relative. This analogy is also sometimes further extended to apply to morality, so that it is said that each person perceives morality relative to his own situation and circumstances. When it comes to the idea that morality is decided by communities, the cultural relativist claims that when all six of these blind man gather together and discuss, their conclusions reflect reality. So the six blind men might decide that the elephant is like a rope today, but the next day, they might come to a conclusion that the elephant is more like a wall. In this way, the elephant tale is used to not only describe relative truth, but also moral relativism.
In reality though, this analogy actually proves the opposite. It argues, not for relativism, but for objectivism. What most readers fail to realize is that the storyteller is the one who decides the absolute moral standard. The storyteller knows that there are six men who are blind, while he himself sees. The storyteller knows that he is objectively looking at an elephant, and decides that the six blind men are coming to the wrong conclusions when they just feel parts of the elephant. The storyteller in this thought experiment has objective knowledge concerning the reality of the elephant, which represents some moral truth. In the same way, God as Creator is like the storyteller in this story. Regardless of what the six blind men think the elephant is like, God, as Creator and as an omnipotent Being, knows the absolute moral truth; and it is God alone who has the overarching authority to tell us what is indeed objectively moral. This thought experiment only makes sense when we first begin with a storyteller—analogous to the Creator God. The relativist, on the other hand, is like the blind men in the story, who are mistaken by the standard of objective truth. Just as the blind men in this story would be foolish to turn to the storyteller and tell the storyteller that he is wrong, so it is with the relativist who rejects absolute morality based on collective societies’ decision on what they think to be moral.
If God is our Creator as stated in the Bible, then absolute morality necessarily exists. The Bible tells us that God created Adam and Eve as moral beings, and then laid down moral commandments for them. When they disobeyed God’s absolute moral standards, they fell into sin and became sinners. God as sovereign Creator has the right to make moral demands of His creatures.
On the other hand, if naturalism is true, then man ultimately decides what is or is not moral. In other words, a naturalistic evolutionary worldview is devoid of absolute morals. Given naturalism, people cannot even speak about anything being good or evil apart from pointing to their preferences, so that whatever they deem to be moral is no different from saying that they prefer coffee over tea. And if your friend’s relativistic, hierarchical view were correct, then one could not say that slavery or racism is truly wrong—only that the majority doesn’t like it. Nor could one speak about moral progress in society, because whatever the majority says would always be right—by definition. Moral reformers like William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King Jr. would be evil by definition, since they opposed the majority. And, does your friend really think that if the majority of all communities believed it was okay to torture and murder those who merely didn’t conform, that would make it okay? These conclusions necessarily follow from his viewpoint.
In an interview, with Richard Dawkins, it was pointed out that many people are uncomfortable with accepting evolution because it leads to a moral vacuum. Dawkins, who is a Professor at Oxford University and an atheist, simply replied, “All I can say is, that’s just tough. We have to face up to the truth.”1 Elsewhere, Dawkins has said, “I’m a passionate Darwinian when it comes to science, when it comes to explaining the world, but I’m a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to morality and politics.”2 In other words, Richard Dawkins teaches that since naturalism is true, there exists no basis for objective morality.
Consider this syllogism:
- If naturalism is true, morality is relative.
- Morality is not relative.
- Therefore, naturalism is false.
We have offered reasons above as to why morality cannot be relative. And if morality is not relative, according to the syllogism above (including the first premise, which your friend already accepts), then naturalism is also false. In formal logic, this would be expressed as a Modus tollens argument: If P⊃Q; ~Q; ∴~P
If naturalism is false, then it is reasonable to conclude that there must have been a non-naturalistic origin to the universe. That is, there has to be a Creator. Who is this Creator? We believe that this is the God of the Bible (see our article on why CMI takes a classical presuppositional approach), and starting with the presuppositions present in Scripture, the evidence makes far more sense, presenting a more coherent and rational explanation of reality compared with naturalism.3
If you are interested in a fuller discussion on relativism, we would encourage you to read Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl’s book, Relativism: Feet firmly planted in mid-air, 1998. [A note of caution: neither Beckwith nor Koukl are biblical creationists, and CMI does not endorse everything they write. Nevertheless, this book is worthwhile as an insightful critique of moral relativism.]
Joel Tay and Keaton Halley
CMI–US Information Officers
References and notes
- Evolution: The dissent of Darwin, Psychology Today, January/February, p. 62, 1997. Return to text.
- The Descent of Man—Episode 1: The Moral Animal, broadcast on The Science Show on the ABC Radio National, 22 January 2000; abc.net.au/science/descent/trans1.htm. Return to text.
- For more information on Classical Presuppositionalism, See: Beisner, C., Classical Presuppositional Apologetics: Re-introducing an Old Theme, 2001, revised 2006, 34 pp.; ecalvinbeisner.com. Return to text.