Point of View: Is morality in the eye of the beholder?

Article Date: Sep 23, 2011

A few years ago, I experienced an “aha” movement—one of the moments when the light of understanding came. As my family and I toured Washington, D.C., we visited two museums. The Museum of Art contained great masterpieces from artists that believed in objective beauty. The Museum of Modern Art contained works by artist that emphasized subjectivity. In such an understanding the viewer of the piece of art, rather than the artist, determines the meaning of the art. The meaning I gave to a piece of art is not the same meaning someone else gave to a piece of art. A thousand interpretations of the artwork could exist and all the interpretations are correct. I confess that I literally asked the question about some of the “art” work, “What is this?”

This modern emphasis on subjective meaning and denial of objectivity dominates our culture. In literature, the reader rather than the author determines the meaning of the text. In our legal system, at times the judge determines the law rather than the original intent of the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The devastating impact of this subjectivity is most clearly evident in the area of morality. In this view, ethics are personal preferences. Some cheer for the Seminoles; others cheer for the Gators. Some personally oppose abortion; others personally support abortion.

Numerous surveys reveal that most Americans deny moral absolutes in favor of moral relativism. Moral relativism affirms that ethics vary from person to person, situation to situation, and culture to culture. People often express this shallow view of ethics by means of mottos. Look out for number one. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. You have your truth; I have my truth.

How do Christians respond to our culture’s moral relativism? Unfortunately, the research of Christian pollster George Barna discloses that the majority of evangelical Christians neither believes nor adheres to moral absolutes. First, Christians themselves need to strengthen the foundations for a personal understanding of moral absolutes. Second, Christians need to understand the fatal errors of moral relativism.

Why should Christians affirm and argue for the existence of moral absolutes? First, and most importantly, God is a moral God and a moral law-giver. Moral absolutes derive from the character and nature of God Himself. Likewise, objective beauty exists because God Himself is beautiful. “Worship the Lord in the beauty of His holiness.” Second, as C. S. Lewis demonstrated in his book The Abolition of Man, it is not the case that ethics vary from culture to culture. Throughout human history, cultures agreed on the basic principles of right and wrong.

What are the weaknesses with moral relativism? First, moral relativism is an a-ethical (no ethics) understanding. Any system of ethics must meet three criteria; provide a guide to action, contain a prescriptive code of behavior, and aim to apply to all people. Moral relativism fails to meet all three criteria. Moral relativism provides no guidance in ethical decision making. Moral relativism does not prescribe behavior—I ought to do this. To universalize moral relativism by claiming all people should live as moral relativists leads to moral anarchy.

Second, advocates of moral relativism are inconsistent. Moral relativists affirm that moral judgments are wrong.  One cannot claim, for example, that Hitler was wrong to kill millions of Jews. Yet, moral relativists make a judgment that I am wrong for my intolerant claim that Hitler was wrong. Further, moral relativists cannot provide guidance when individual moralities conflict. The morality of a serial killer permits him to kill young ladies, but the victim disagrees.

Third, moral relativists also face a dilemma if they define morality as defined by the culture rather than the individual. If culture determines what is right, then all decisions by the culture are morally justified. No law, then, is an unjust law. Based on this understanding of morality, a culture that approves of slavery is correct and the culture allows no dissent. Most individuals actually belong to multiple “cultures.” A person conceivably could belong to a Christian church and a Nazi at the same time. Which culture determines the individual’s morality?

Fourth, moral relativism does not recognize the validity of a moral reformer. Christian leaders that campaigned for the fight of women to vote are not praiseworthy according to moral relativism. Christian leaders, like William Wilberforce, who fought bitter battles to outlaw slavery in the British Empire, were delusional.

Fifth, an individual moral relativist cannot live his or her position consistently. Many young college freshmen find moral relativism attractive. If an individual in the dorm, however, steals the stereo of this freshman, the college relativist feels violated and becomes angry. Why? The college student has no basis for his or her anger.

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mrm (9/30/2011)
An interesting article! A few brief responses: You say that "moral relativism fails to meet all three criteria" of a "system of ethics". Why did you define it as a "view of ethics" earlier in the essay? What's the difference between a system of ethics and a view of ethics? You write: "Numerous surveys reveal that most Americans deny moral absolutes in favor of moral relativism." I'd love to know what surveys you're referring to. Lastly, you write that if an individual who identifies as a moral relativist is the victim of a crime or injury, that person "has no basis for his or her anger." You might speak more precisely here. It seems that any injured or slighted person has an obvious selfish ground for anger, even if -- assuming your rough equivalence of moral relativism with moral nihilism -- he or she doesn't have a principled moral basis for anger.

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