It’s hard to think of an idea that governs our post-modern philosophy more than moral relativism. This idea suggests that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint. It asserts that this standpoint can shift throughout time and space, that is, throughout changing times and cultures. For example, human sacrifice in pre-Columbian Aztec civilization is viewed as immoral in the United States today, but was seen as a form of good religious worship to the Aztecs of that era. On the surface, moral relativism appears to be a good explanation of the varying moral landscapes throughout time and cultures, and it provides a sort of “non-conflict” approach to societal norms. Basically, I can hold my beliefs of moral truth, but I can’t expect anyone else to subscribe to my principles because they might adhere to a different version of moral truth.
If you and I hold different moral truths, then this suggests that a definitive moral truth does not exist, and that both you and I hold moral untruths according to the other. In moral relativism, each individual makes their own truth according to the way they see the world. The issue with this is fairly obvious. In the extreme case of moral relativism, there cannot be any sort stable society, which is built around some sort of moral code usually in the form of a law. It is a good thing that it is illegal to kill someone premeditatively (i.e. murder). But why is it illegal? Is it a coincidence that murder is illegal in every country across the world? I don’t think so. There must be some sort of fundamental moral truth from which comes our understanding of right and wrong.
The thing with truth is that it cannot be made. Truth is! Truth is whether I believe it is or not; the Earth is round whether I recognize it or not (sorry, flat Earth-ers). If you and I are looking at a soccer ball and you decide that you think it’s a bowling ball and I decide that I think it’s a blue heron, we are both incorrect. My thinking that it’s a blue heron does not make it a blue heron – it remains a soccer ball. Additionally, let’s say that you try to convince me that I’m being ridiculous and that if I would just open my eyes, I would see that it’s a bowling ball and not a blue heron. Even if I come to believe that it’s a bowling ball, it remains a soccer ball!
It is not a surprise that the idea of moral relativism has taken such firm root especially in the United States where there is a profound sense of individualism. We feel that morality is just another thing we have to make for ourselves. With such an industrious view of life, we view morality as a commodity; we “shop” for it by considering whose version of a moral code would work the best in our lives. Our tenacity for efficiency tends to make us think that we can mold our morality around our lives for convenience and minimal effort. Rather, we have been shown that we must mold our lives around a non-relative morality as disciples of the Son of God.
We have had a moral law since humankind began walking the earth. In the second chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve were given specific instructions not to eat from the tree of knowledge. A while later, Moses was given the Ten Commandments for the Jewish people. Jesus then stressed the importance of following these Commandments and said that the two greatest are to love God the Father and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that the entire law depended on these two things. Therefore, we have been given an absolute and concrete moral law – this is the truth revealed to us throughout history.
Every person desires to seek truth. Seeking truth is a fundamental part of the human experience. As a Catholic and a physicist, I have found that life is about seeking truth, both natural and supernatural. The study of the natural sciences uncovers truths about our natural world; their subjects are of stunning beauty and confounding complexity, and our propensity to understand such phenomena is a wonder in and of itself. However, the limitations of scientific study lie in the supernatural realm. Issues of the soul and of morality cannot be explained by science and therefore, truth about these subjects must come from somewhere else.
Even so, the natural and spiritual truths are not at odds – they can’t be. There can only be one collection of truth, so the natural and supernatural truths must necessarily be complimentary. As Christians, it is our duty to pursue truth through faith and reason. The fullness of truth, natural and supernatural, is revealed to us by God through Christ Jesus. Therefore, let us not be tempted to make truth for ourselves; rather, let us rest in the truth that God himself has given us.
5 thoughts on “Moral Relativism”
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