Objective morality is under attack in modern society. Largely driven by what the author observes to be a desire to escape personal and communal accountability, moral relativism contests the very existence of right and wrong. However, reason dictates that such a worldview is invalid. This essay will demonstrate that moral relativism is illogical and even contradictory. As Socrates put it in ages past, “A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.”
What is Moral Relativism?
Before arguing that moral relativism is an invalid worldview, we must first define what it is. Quite simply, moral relativism is the belief that no absolute values exist, rather, they are based on personal and/or societal preferences that have developed through natural and social evolution. Beckwith and Koukl discuss three types of moral relativism:
- Cultural/descriptive relativism claims that various societies have different morals, effectively rendering specific values applicable only to a particular culture.
- Conventionalism asserts that morality is defined by the society in which one lives.
- Individual ethical subjectivism lets the individual define his or her own morality.
Regardless the flavor of relativism one believes, the underlying view is the same—objective morals do not exist, they are simply preference. However, as humans we instinctively know this to be false. Who of us approves of rape? Which of us would not feel aggrieved were our car stolen? If morality is not absolute, is it even reasonable to take a position on these issues? And is not the assertion that all morality is relative actually an objective one? As we unpack these three categories, we will uncover the truth that moral relativism is an illogical position, regardless of race, gender, culture, or religious view. We start by considering the macro level—societal values.
Society Does Relativism—Or Does It?
Cultural/descriptive relativism—what Beckwith and Koukl have termed as “Society Does Relativism,”—focuses on the idea that morals are different for each culture and civilization and therefore cannot be objective. However, there are two issues with this worldview. First, just because values differ among diverse groups of people does not mean a correct moral foundation fails to exist. Is it not plausible that a society is just wrong in some of its ethics? What about the Jewish Holocaust committed by Nazi Germany? Or the slaughter of citizens by the Stalinist Soviet Union? Not to mention the execution of non-Muslims in fundamentalist Islamic countries. To be consistent, the honest cultural relativist would have to agree that although the preference of much of the world is against these acts, no outsider could objectively refute their practice.
Second, the claim that societies have widely varying moral values is not necessarily true. One must analyze the situation. For example, although euthanasia is illegal in many countries, some nations—such as the Netherlands—allow it in certain cases. This would seem to be a conflict in underlying moral principles. However, at stake is not the valuation of human life, rather, a difference in opinion regarding euthanasia as a valid and merciful tool to end suffering. The belief that people are precious is maintained, while the facts of how it plays out vary.
Society Says Relativism—So It Must be True!
Conventionalism (normative ethical relativism or “Society Says Relativism”) says that what one’s society accepts as moral (or immoral) is the defining standard. Society—by definition—is perfectly moral. For example, if the speed limit is fifty-five miles per hour, the moral person will not drive fifty-six. More seriously, if the government tortures and executes homosexuals, then it is immoral to dispute such an action. In fact, one supporting the “Society Says Relativism” position must label any social reformer depraved since such people oppose specific societal norms. Even one protesting a perceived injustice lacks decency because she is going against society. To further illustrate the absurdity of this concept, a consistent conventional relativist would have to admit that emancipation of slaves in the United States was an immoral act because it went against the standards of American society in the nineteenth century. While societal relative morality is clearly mistaken, sadly there exists a prevalent third category.
I Say Relativism—And I’m Right!
Finally, we reach “I Say Relativism,” i.e., individual ethical relativism/subjectivism. This category is at the personal level, and according to Koukl may be the most rooted form in modern society. Subjectivism is the position that morality can only be defined by the individual based his or her preferences. Not being a new idea, a great illustration of this philosophy comes from antiquity, where Socrates and Protagoras are debating the nature of truth:
Protagoras: Truth is relative, it is only a matter of opinion.
Socrates: You mean that truth is mere subjective opinion?
Protagoras: Exactly. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me. Truth is subjective.
There are several issues with this position. An obvious implication is that evil does not exist. Kidnapping children to be sell them as sex slaves is no less ethical than feeding homeless refugees. One may prefer the former over the latter, but that does not make him a more moral person, except in his own mind. Another issue is the concept of fairness. If all moral truth is relative, is it really unfair if the government favors certain classes or races of people over others? If morality is truly only a personal preference, then each individual gets to determine right and wrong without obligation to consider others. This is characteristic of sociopathic behavior.
Although not exhaustively, relative morality is shown herein to be illogical and contradictory. At the heart of this worldview is refusal to accept as self-evident truths of right and wrong. The implications of following such a philosophy on a large scale would be chaos. Fortunately, morality is firmly grounded, and for the most part people innately adhere to an objective code of ethics, whether or not they intellectually admit it. This speaks volumes to the truth of objective morality.
Beckwith, Francis J. and Gregory Koukl. 1998. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.
Koukl, Gregory. “Responding to Relativism.” Defending the Faith I—CSAP 601. Biola University, Los Angeles. 2019.
Plato. 1961. The Collected Dialogues, Including the Letters. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Sahakian, William S. and Mabel L. Sahakian. 1966. Ideas of the Great Philosophers. New York: Barnes and Noble Books.
 Plato, Page 52
 Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books), 36-39.
 Gregory Koukl, “Responding to Relativism,” Defending the Faith I—CSAP 601, Biola University, 4.
 William S. Sahakian and Mabel L. Sahakian. Ideas of the Great Philosophers (New York: Barnes and Noble Books), 28.