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Moral Relativism Versus Faith

Andrea_di_bonaiuto,_apotesosi_di_san_tommaso_d'aquino,_03_fede“Moral Relativism (or Ethical Relativism) is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances” (

Judging by moral relativism, it is folly to believe in a moral rule such as that men should marry women and have children. If there is such a rule in a society, it’s founded on the prejudices of that society and not on any natural law. To state that men should marry anyone is to presuppose that there’s some superior value to entering into an exclusive and committed partnership over a life of solitary, self-motivated promiscuity. To state that men should specifically marry women is to presuppose that there’s some physical balance between the sexes and that diversity is superior to homogeneity. To state that couples should have children is to presuppose that it is good for humans to reproduce, which would lead to the absurd conclusion that it is better to be alive than dead.

Moral relativism is the ultimate reductio ad absdurdum (anyone else finding frequent occasion to use that phrase lately?), because it boils down all truth into binary equations of consistent or inconsistent, fair or not fair, whether or not these equations adequately represent reality. If immediate and absolute proof cannot be provided (which it never can be), the moral relativist considers it his moral prerogative to draw no conclusion and define no rules, to replace the acquisition of truth with a belief that truth cannot be found. Thus moral relativism isn’t so much a philosophy as the manifesto of the cynic, the permission for anything, the condemnation of nothing, and the justification for inaction. Even if lines are drawn, to state that something is right in one society and wrong in another society is to equate right and wrong with cultural whims, putting a fine line between moral relativism and nihilism.

If there are no absolutes, then the very concept of morality is lost in recursion. What, then, can it possibly mean for something to be immoral? Inconvenient? Problematic? Offensive? Without absolutes, what one does in the dark becomes irrelevant so long as he can destroy the evidence. The philosophy echoes the sentiment from Disney’s Alladin: “Trouble? Now way. You’re only in trouble if you get caught.” This so-called moral framework becomes the foundation and justification for ideas such as “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” and “if it feels good, do it.”

More and more, it seems that moral relativism, in all of its paradox, is the rule book by which world society is reinventing itself. The virtues of forbearance, fidelity, integrity, purity, industry, and charity (to name a few) are replaced with the single virtue of tolerance. But ironically, without standards to judge against, there’s no difference between tolerance and apathy. It seems that the only way to achieve the unconditional tolerance the world demands is through widespread moral anarchy. And of course, within this “tolerant” framework, if one society goes against the grain in deeming a certain behavior immoral, the more-enlightened majority will surely pressure this wayward minority into accepting the common doctrine, as evidenced by the way that society, as a whole, has rapidly changed its moral views over the last few decades. Thus the practical implementation of moral relativism becomes very hard, indeed, to distinguish from nihilism. If it weren’t for a universal zeal for the illusive virtue of equality, the two might be indistinguishable.

And now to my justification for this being a Sunday post: where faith comes in. It seems to me that where moral relativism demands instant proof, faith trusts in intuition and discernment until proof can be attained. Where the moral relativist states, “Until I can see it with my eyes and handle it with my hands, I will not believe,” the believer states, “I have no fail-proof arguments, however, when looking at the big picture, this course of action makes the most sense to me.” By maintaining an open mind, faith, ironically, becomes the tool of the scientist, whereas the demanding of immediate proof becomes the tool of the ignorant.

When viewing the immediate and long-term effects on individuals, families, societies, and nations, there are many, many good reasons why, as a rule, men should marry women and have children, but none of these can be adequately represented by the question of fair or not fair, and so the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. By the rules of this new game, I cannot defend myself, and I cannot win. Of course, the game is rigged, though illustrating this epistemalogical quandary in the heat of debate is so difficult that it seldom happens. Occam’s Razor becomes the de facto means for settling truth in all accounts, reinforcing a consensus reality of a one-dimensional and polarized universe filled with lovers and haters.

True enlightenment does not come from judging a book by its cover. It doesn’t fit well into political slogans. It seldom comes furnished with immediate proof. Determining what’s right and wrong requires faith in a grander scheme, a deference of judgment until all evidence is obtained. It requires acute discernment from delicate criteria that cannot be easily put into words. It requires the integrity to accept the inconvenient reality that everything we do has effects, that our actions, big or small, can matter a great deal, whether or not anyone is watching. It requires the courage to reject blind permissiveness and stand for what may be unpopular or against the “rules.” It requires patience and looking at the big picture until it all comes into view.

Thus, it would seem, that true enlightenment requires faith, an idea that doesn’t fit well with moral relativism. But then, truth has never been popular.

3 thoughts on “Moral Relativism Versus Faith

  1. In your April 10 post, you asserted that morality was necessary, even in the absence of God. But now, you say that determining what’s right and wrong requires faith. Which do you believe?

    Let us consider three possibilities: (1) morality is determined by society, (2) morality is determined by God, and (3) morality is independent of society and God. Obviously, 1 is traditional moral relativism.

    2 is what you clearly embrace in this post. However, since you admit lacking evidence and must rely on faith and an open mind to believe in God, 2 is no less relative than 1! At least 1 is anchored by many opinions. 2 is anchored only by the very flexible chain of who you trust to speak for God, what they feel he has said, and what he actually meant to say (assuming the prophets are not pious fraudsters).

    I think you unintentionally dismissed 3 by taking the position that right and wrong require faith. Perhaps, faith may get you there faster, if you trust the right people, but your morality will never be absolute until it is grounded in verifiable evidence. In other words, if there really is a grander scheme, there must be evidence of it. Just look around you. Does not everything testify of the grander scheme? Is not life now more advanced than it was 4 billion years ago?

    Moral relativism does not demand proof before it will believe. That’s just how moral relativists express their faith by doubting yours. Absolute morality demands evidence because it builds on truth.

    1. No, I’m totally asserting #3. I didn’t actually mention faith in God but faith as a means of taking in the bigger picture, as you say, that “everything testifies of the grander scheme.” Faith meaning trusting in a pre-verified principle until all evidence can be considered.

      Good point about moral relativism being faith-based as well. I hadn’t thought of that.

      1. Oh. In that light, I really like the way you describe faith. It seems to manifest a form a humility, rather than a form of stubborn pride.

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