On the Nature of Morality: A Casual Conversation between Two College Students

“Moral Objectivism” by Colin Eckstein

I am neither bold nor blind enough to defend the militant self-righteousness of legalists within the Christian Church. As a Christian myself, I have studied the Gospels at various literary and historical depths, but nowhere do I find a justification for scorning the downtrodden or adopting the sanctimonious air of the Pharisees. Appalled by the rank condescension of the Crusaders and Puritans to name a few, many have come to reject (and rightly so) this oppressive brand of morality. Unfortunately, however, backlash has led some to despise not only legalism, but the idea of an objective moral standard altogether. These moral relativists hold Christians in contempt for their pretentious attempts to monopolize truth and intolerantly assert an ultimate right and wrong. “Why does my morality have to be your morality?” they demand. “Why can’t right and wrong vary depending on one’s own beliefs?” This article is intended to address these questions. And while I acknowledge there is an argument to be had about why the Christian moral standard is any better than the alternatives, we must first establish that a standard exists. 

Tolerance is, in many ways, the starting point for the moral relativist’s argument—the idea that I should allow all people to follow their own moral convictions, whether I agree with them or not, and refrain from imposing my own. My major concern, however, is this: Where do I draw the line? What am I allowed to not tolerate? Should I tolerate racism? Be okay with sexism? Turn my head when I see people being exploited or abused? Whether you’re an objectivist or a relativist, I suspect that your intuitive response to these questions is no. Such an answer, however, is quite problematic from the relativist’s point of view. If, as a relativist, you allow exceptions in the case of extreme views, you are only really tolerant of people whose beliefs roughly reflect your own... which, frankly, is not very tolerant at all. Even demanding that an intolerant individual alter his or her views to become more tolerant is self-defeating, because in doing so you are asserting a morally better way to behave. All this is not to say I reject the spirit behind tolerance. Rather, I hold firmly to the belief—indeed the absolute moral principle—that every person deserves to be treated fairly and with respect regardless of his or her beliefs.

But does the relativist need universal tolerance? Many individuals who hold a relativistic worldview simply set out to do “the best they can,” committing themselves to fostering the most good for the most people as a purely secular objective. And I will be the first to laud their commitment and join them in their endeavors. The average 5C student advocates for social justice and community betterment with more passion than the average Christian, and the relativist’s internal moral compass often functions quite well in place of an objective moral standard. But what is their “good” grounded in? Evolutionary instinct? Cultural consensus? And is that sufficient?

Good, as maintained by the relativist, is self-defined. While the good of Person A may look like the eradication of suffering, the virtue of such a task goes no further than the boundary of Person A’s own mind. Slavery, for example, is neither inherently good nor bad, neither just nor unjust. These concepts must be defined by each person based on his or her own convictions, and if slavery passes the test for some, it would seem, then so be it. Our moral instincts are no more valid than theirs. Both I (as an objectivist) and many relativists as well would feel perfectly comfortable opposing the slave trade even if it meant being intolerant of those who support it. However, on relativism, one would not really be “right” (in any absolute sense) to oppose the slaveholder’s practices. Neither would an overwhelming consensus that slavery is “wrong” affect the ethicality of the matter. Issues of moral acceptability, as illustrated by Wounded Knee, the Inquisition, and genocide after genocide, are not easily vindicated by majority vote.

While Brad Pitt is not my usual go-to source for deep spiritual truths, I was struck by the delivery and context of his character’s conversation with slave owner Edwin Epps in the recent Oscar-winning picture, “12 Years a Slave”:

Bass (Pitt): The law says you have the right to hold a n*****, but begging the law's pardon. . . it lies. Is everything right because the law allows it? Suppose they'd pass a law taking away your liberty and making you a slave? . . .

Epps: That ain't a supposable case.

Bass: Because the law states that your liberties are undeniable? Because society deems it so? Laws change. Social systems crumble. Universal truths are constant. It is a fact, it is a plain fact that what is true and right is true and right for all. White and black alike.

Slavery is wrong. Now, then, and forever. And the truth behind that statement is either objective, or goodness itself is a farce. Worldviews begin to crumble when people realize that what they profess to believe is incompatible with the way they live. The inherent evil of slavery, I believe, rudely awakens the relativist to the consequences of the beliefs that he or she claims to espouse.

Moreover, I think the relativist needs to recognize that objectivism, at least in the Christian sense, is not about legalistically following rules—about obeying every last burdensome and unbending command. Indeed, all of Christian morality is encapsulated in these words of Jesus: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”(Matthew 22:37-39). Love God and love others. That’s it.

But is this not also a rule? Are these not commands to be followed? It is, and they are. But let me repeat myself: Christianity is not about the rules. The Gospel contains key tenets and core principles, but I do not adhere to them so as to pacify an angry God who dangles me over the pit of hell and will damn me if I fail. Rather, I seek to observe God’s moral standard because He is good. Because when I model my life after Jesus, it’s good for me; it’s good for those around me. And what, exactly, does a Christ-like life look like? Believe it or not, there is no one Christian consensus. Does that mean that objectivism is a sham in the end? Not at all. I freely acknowledge the necessity of a situational morality—one that differentiates between lying for dishonest gain and lying to hide a vulnerable refugee. Indeed the ideal morality would take into account all of our motivations, our backgrounds and experiences, our thoughts, the very orientation of our hearts. One where a destitute widow’s last copper coins are more valuable than the shallow, showy donations of the rich (Mark 12:42). This is the framework that Jesus presents to us, indeed personifies for us, in order establish an unmistakable and enduring foundation to guide the choices that we make. 

 

Moral Relativism by Andrea Green

I wouldn’t define myself as “religious.” I was born and raised Jewish—I went to Sunday school, Wednesday night Hebrew school, and had a Bat Mitzvah at the age of thirteen. But after that, Judaism did not play a huge role in my life. I certainly identify as Jewish, but I don’t base many of my decisions on my Jewish faith, mostly because there is still so much about Judaism (and other varieties of organized religion, for that matter) that I don’t know or understand. So today, I come from a morally relativistic perspective and, as I see it, so does everyone else.

Moral objectivism states that a universal moral framework exists and applies to all people, regardless of whether they believe it or not. One way to assess “objectivism” as a general term is to think about gravity—if I throw an egg off the roof of a building, it will fall and break on the ground, no matter how much I may believe that it won’t.  However, objectivism does not hold up when applied to moral issues. Christianity professes a universal moral framework—a set of beliefs that applies to all Christians. But, if this is the case, how are there disagreements within the Christian community? Consider the debate over gay rights—some Christians believe that gay marriage should be legal, while others do not. If a universal moral standard exists (and is derived from the same Bible/God), how can these two interpretations be possible?

The answer is that relativism inevitably exists in Christianity. Clearly, different interpretations of the Bible exist within the Christian community (and this, I might add, has been the source of frequent, and often violent, disagreements). The widespread nature of moral relativism within Christianity itself suggests that relativism is the best theory to explain moral issues. Indeed, the Bible does not adequately define “right” and “wrong.” If it did, there would be clearer answers for how Christians should think and behave with respect to moral controversies, both past and present. Did every single Christian oppose slavery around the time of the Civil War? No. When slavery existed, there were certainly devout Christian slave owners. Today, do Christians either all support or all oppose gay marriage? Clearly not.

Granted, one potential objection against the argument for moral relativism is the supposed existence of what the objectivist calls “universal moral beliefs.” For instance, nowadays most sensible people believe that slavery is fundamentally wrong. The moral objectivist, however, argues that slavery is not simply wrong because most people think it is wrong; rather, it absolutely is wrong, regardless of what people think of it. Further, the objectivist urges us based on our common sensibilities to conclude that a universal moral standard exists because we all intuitively agree that slavery, among other heinous crimes such as genocide, is absolutely wrong.

However, the objectivist’s appeal to our common sensibilities neither falsifies the relativist’s argument nor proves the objectivist’s argument. His or her appeal to our disdain of crimes such as slavery and genocide does not demonstrate that a universal moral standard exists because it neglects how generations have come to these conclusions (i.e., that slavery, genocide, etc. are wrong). People commonly come to accept these beliefs through societal influence. If most people start to believe that these crimes are wrong because everyone else deems it so, this argues for the relativity of the moral principles in question; people only adopt these beliefs because their relative surroundings influence them to do so. On the other hand, even if a person comes to adopt these beliefs through self-realization (apart from what others say about the issues), his or her conclusions are still morally relative because they are derived from the person’s life experiences.

Another argument against moral objectivism has been proposed by renowned psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg[1], who argued that most societies achieve only what he called the fifth stage of moral development, social-contract-driven-morality.1 Importantly, the goal of this stage—which posits that different people have a variety of opinions but that all perspectives should be treated with equal respect—is to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Seen another way, this is the ideal of the moral relativist. Kohlberg, and other psychologists since his passing, have not found much evidence that people actually reach the sixth stage of moral development, the stage in which they are driven by what they perceive to be universal ethical principles. To illustrate the legitimacy of this fifth stage of moral development, Kohlberg used a classic moral dilemma known as the Heinz dilemma. The situation supposes a case in which a woman’s husband steals a drug in order to save her life because she cannot afford to pay for the drug. I am confident that a general poll of people (even Christians) would reveal different responses to the Heinz dilemma. Ultimately, if Christians—who profess to follow a universal moral framework derived from the Bible—have different opinions on this moral dilemma, they do not actually have a truly universal set of moral principles. If they did, we should not expect their “universalism” to leave so much room for disagreement.

Ultimately, it is not easy to determine that a universal moral framework exists, especially because we often cannot see the consequences of our (im)moral actions. Returning to the gravity illustration, we can see the consequences of gravity immediately: the egg that I drop off the roof shatters. But if one violates a universal moral standard, how can we know? A person is not struck by lightning when he or she commits murder. This lack of immediate consequence, while it does not invalidate the objectivist’s theory, does present an important challenge—how can we prove that something exists if we cannot see its effects? I cannot say with confidence that I have good evidence to support the existence of a universal moral framework. And if a universal moral framework does not exist, relativism would need to take its place in order to explain the “moral behavior” that we see in human society.

 

[1] Anne Colby, Gibbs, J. Lieberman, M., and Kohlberg, L. (1983). A Longitudinal Study of Moral Judgment: A Monograph for the Society of Research in Child Development. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.