Friday, February 16, 2007

Moral Relativism vs. Moral Absolutism

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before the papal conclave gathered to elect a new pope, made a speech about the Catholic Church and the world. He said we as citizens must seek to avoid the "dictatorship of relativism". I have been reading a book called A Refutation of Moral Relativism, put together by Peter Kreeft. The following is a short essay of mine of why moral relativism is untenable.

Slavery is wrong, as is murder. Most people accept these. But, how do these people know these things are true? Someone told them, but who told the tellers? Eventually it comes from reason. Each person possesses reason; each has a conscience. How can an action be judged as right or wrong? We must appeal to an authority, and that authority is natural law.

Natural law is as strong and binding as physical laws such as gravity and energy. They do not depend on our interpretation or feelings, they exist independently. Murder is wrong regardless. It doesn’t matter how angry we are, how much higher our status is than the victim’s, it makes no difference how much the person “deserves” it, because it is inherently wrong. Sometimes however, this distinction is hard to make, and we cannot determine ourselves right from wrong.

Most people nowadays accept that slavery is wrong and an affront to each person’s dignity as a human being. It cannot be accepted. But what if you were to speak to someone from 300 years ago who owned slaves. You two could argue about whether or not owning a slave is right or wrong. But the truth cannot have it both ways, truth can only be one. Truth never has and never will change. Your opinion is not the truth, your status does not give you the truth, the truth is the truth, and exists independently. If morals are not based on an absolute truth, what are they based on? The only alternative is a relative truth. This, by definition, is a truth which one person accepts, but someone else may reject. It comes down to opinions. In one person’s opinion, slavery is right, in another’s, it is wrong. So who’s right? According to relative morality, either could be or simple is correct. This makes no sense. You have an opinion, but an opinion cannot be an opinion about an opinion, an opinion is an opinion about the truth. Therefore, you must discover the truth in order to determine if your opinion is right. Your opinion could be wrong.

You cannot simply say something is wrong, especially if you admit you do not know. You just have to sit back and watch things happen and hope they turn out for the best. The only model which you sanction is anarchy. You can accept your own opinions, but you must then also accept everyone else’s, no matter how much they offend you. Otherwise, you are saying that a relative morality applies to you, but that an absolute morality applies to everyone else’s. In other words, you have to accept that a person owns a slave, because in their opinion or their own “personal” morals, that is alright. If you say they should not own a slave, you are overriding their moral perspective, and appealing to a superseding value which surpasses this person’s belief. Therefore you are appealing to something greater than personal relative morality; you are appealing to an objective, transcendent morality. You have two options: you can admit there is an absolute morality, or you can maintain a relative morality, but by doing so you must accept everyone else’s behavior and morals. Law enforcement cannot stop them from doing something, because that would be saying your morals are more worthy than the other person’s morals. You could only do something personally to rectify the situation. Saying something is right or wrong would not be valid either, because you would have to admit that you did not know, and you could not impose your personal morals on anyone else. You could at most say, “I do not personally believe that is right”. Only when you admit that there is a natural law, one which is above personal opinion and beliefs, one which is unchanging, can you claim that an action is morally right or wrong.

1 comment:

  1. It also seems nonsensical to base an entire system of morality on the assertion that "everything is relative," as this is plainly an absolute! Is it not the same nonsense as saying, "This sentence is false?" Why is the idea that everything is relative exempt from the very standards it sets? This appears to undermine perspectivism, and in doing so it points to the real existence of a moral absolute.