Why are we moral relativists?

by Neil Shenvi

In light of the discussion in parts two and three, a very interesting question arises. If the hypothesis that objective moral values exist is a better explanation of the evidence than moral relativism and if our own behavior is inconsistent with moral relativism, then why do so many of us claim to be moral relativists? It helps here to take a postmodern view of our own belief systems. Postmodernism rightly recognizes that none of us is a purely disinterested, neutral spectator when it comes to the great questions of life. All of us come to these questions with a whole host of needs, desires, and fears that will greatly influence our consideration of the evidence. For instance, imagine a scientist who has spent decades developing a theory. At the last moment before publication, he suddenly finds what he thinks is a subtle flaw in his experiment which would invalidate all of his results. Can you understand the tremendous psychological pressure that he experiences to find ways of dismissing the error? We might hope that his commitment to truth would win out over his personal feelings. But all of us should be able to understand the terrible temptation he faces to ignore what could be a devastating blow to him.

What relevance does this situation have to the existence of objective moral values? Unfortunately, all the relevance in the world. If we deny the existence of objective moral values, then we never need to ask questions about the rectitude of our behavior. Indeed, there is no way for anyone to ask questions about our behavior because there is no objective standard by which our behavior can be evaluated. No one can ask whether we have lived a good life or a bad life, because there is no good or bad. No one can ask whether we have lived as we ought to have lived, because there is no “ought.” The poor might cry out at our gates that they have been neglected. The broken might weep that we have squandered our life on little luxuries rather than pursuing compassion anhd justice. But no one can bring an objective charge against us because there is no objective charge to bring. But what if there were? What if there were some standard of objective good and evil such that all of our betrayals, slights, and cruelties were moral abominations. What if our whole life could be compared against some perfectly good moral standard? Suddenly we see the charms of moral relativism. I believe that it is not the inherent plausibility of moral relativism that accounts for its popularity, but its emotional appeal. We can be our own lords and masters. We can live our lives to please ourselves. We can do whatever we want and don’t have to answer to anyone, not even our own consciences.

Yet even in the midst of our moral relativism, there is something to be learned from it. I imagine that moral relativism has no appeal at all to those who consider themselves to be good. A man who believes that he has done his duty to God and to his neighbor, who has kept all the commandments, who is righteous and pure, who is not like robbers, evildoers, prostitutes or tax collectors – this man embraces objective moral values with eagerness. The existence of an objective moral standard legitimizes his feelings of superiority. There is a moral law, perhaps even a moral Lawgiver, and it is in his favor. There is a clear line between good and evil and he is on the right side. For all the horrific evil, apathy and falsehood that moral relativism can produce, at least it can produce no Pharisees. In contrast, the very fact that we flee to moral relativism only make sense if we know –deep down inside– that we are guilty. What appeal does moral relativism have, except to a sinner?

So what is the solution? It depends where you are. For a committed moral relativist, I would begin by radically reexamining your worldview. Can you really justify your commitment to moral relativism given the empirical observations I mentioned in Section II? Does moral relativism have more (or any) empirical support when compared to realism? If not, then intellectual honesty demands that you adopt moral realism. But you cannot stop there. You next need to determine which objective moral facts are true. Is extramarital sex good? Is abortion good? Is honesty good? Is charity good? You need to begin to drastically reorient your life around the existence of objective moral values. You also need to ask: what grounds these objective moral values? If they exist, then is naturalism a coherent worldview? Is it, after all, far more plausible that objective moral values are grounded in the character of a morally perfect God? These are all of the important philosophical questions that need to be answered. Moral realism is not for the faint-hearted.

But there is a far more important question that needs to be answered, and it is not a philosophical question. It is a personal one. If the biblical God exists, then He is the standard of objective moral values. It is not some abstract form of moral virtue that you have transgressed. You have broken and rejected the commands of a good, loving, holy and righteous God. You can certainly launch into a project of moral self-improvement. You can adopt moral realism and begin reading utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer. You can even become religious. But you will still not solve your problem. And you will live out your days in an incessant, toilsome, miserable and ultimately vain attempt to achieve a right standing before God by your own effort. What you need is someone to come and rescue you. The gospel, the central message of Christianity, is that someone has.

Neil Shenvi is the author of Neil Shenvi Apologetics, a website on which he publishes many articles and essays with the skeptic, seeker, and those reaching out to them in mind.

The Poached Egg Apologetics


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