Do Objective Morals Exist?

"Is there anyone in the world right now doing things you believe they should stop doing no matter what they personally believe about the correctness of their behavior?" [1]

  • What about poachers slaughtering animals to extinction
  • Or psychopaths torturing babies for fun?
  • The Nazi genocide against the Jews? 
  • Trafficking women as sexual slaves?
  • Attacking homosexuals simply because of their beliefs?
  • Allowing mega-corporations to profit by polluting the earth?

If, like most people, you answer "yes" to the original question, doesn't that mean you believe that there is some kind of moral reality not defined by us that we are all obliged to follow regardless of what any of us feels or thinks?[1] That 'moral reality' is called an objective moral.

Moral Relativists don't believe any objective morals exist. They claim there is nothing  -- no act, or emotion, or impulse -- that can be declared morally wrong for all people at all time, because each person or society gets to determine their own morals. In recent decades moral relativism has broadened its following. You can identify relativists by the quite catchy slogans they use to respond to objective moral statements:

“You’re being intolerant.”

“Live and let live.”

“Who are you to judge?”

“That's true for you but not for me.”

“That’s just your opinion.” 

“Quit forcing your morals on others.” 

These slogans resonate with a broad variety of people. In fact, some surveys conclude only one-third of Americans believe in objective moral truths.[2]

But there is a problem.  Even though relativists have a large following, relativists’ views are intellectually bankrupt. The premises of moral relativism are logically inconsistent; in fact, it is impossible for relativists to consistently live out the principles they espouse.

Objective vs. Subjective

 
If someone says ‘2 + 2 = 5’ or ‘the earth is flat,’ we don’t say ‘that’s true for you’; we simply tell them they are wrong.
 

By definition, an objective truth is true for all people at all time, regardless of circumstances. For example, “2 + 2 = 4” is an objective truth -- it is always true. Importantly, we don't get to create objective truths, or vote on them. Instead, objective truths are “realities in the external world that we discover and [that] cannot be changed by our internal feelings.”[3] 'The earth is round' is an objective truth solely because it reflects reality; that reality is not influenced or changed by anyone's personal opinion.

Further, objective truth is true whether or not an individual believes it to be true, or even knows that the truth exists. Objective statements are true or false based solely upon reality, not based upon anyone's opinion or preference. If someone says “2 + 2 = 5” or "the earth is flat," we don’t say “that’s true for you;” we simply tell them they are wrong.

Subjective truths, on the other hand, are internal personal preferences that can change as feelings change, and can differ from one person to the next.[4] A subjective truth might be true for an individual, depending on how they feel about that truth, and whether or not they prefer that it be true. 'Geology is interesting' is a subjective statement because it is based upon individual preferences or likes. Similarly, if someone says, "chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream," they are making a subjective statement based upon their preferences and likes. This is quite different from stating that "2 + 2 = 4."

To summarize, objective truth is based on the actual nature of the object being considered, and doesn't change from person to person. (E.g. 'Is the earth really flat or not?'). Subjective truth is based upon the preferences or opinions of the subjects (i.e. people) engaged in the discussion, and can vary from person to person. (E.g., 'Does Jim find geology interesting?')

Objective
Truth
Subjective
Truth
Definition Based on the actual nature of the object being discussed.
Always true.
Reality in the external world that we discover.
Based on the preferences or opinions of the subjects (i.e. people) engaged in the discussion.
True for some, but not for all.
Internal personal preference that can change.
Examples
  • 2 + 2 = 4
  • Ice cream is a dessert.
  • The earth is round.
  • Math is fun.
  • Chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream.
  • Geology is interesting.

Moral truths are concerned with what is good or bad, or what is right or wrong. Morals tell us we ought to do, and ought not to do. Moral relativism is the belief that NO objective moral truths exist. In other words, there is not even one moral statement that applies to everyone all the time. Instead, moral relativists believe that morals are subjective, i.e. moral principles depend on what an individual or culture chooses or prefers.[5] Just as one person might prefer chocolate ice cream and another prefer vanilla, for relativists someone (or some culture) could consider any specific act “good” and another consider it “bad” simply based upon what they prefer or desire.

Ask a moral relativist if something is right or wrong, and they will respond, "It depends."

Cultural Differences Exist

Moral relativists employ two key principles to deny the existence of objective morals: the diversity thesis and the dependency thesis.  The diversity thesis, also known as cultural relativism, is simply an empirical observation that what is considered "moral" differs from one society to another.

Key advocates of this view include anthropologists Ruth Benedict, William Graham Sumner, and Melville Herskovits. Benedict argues that there is a vast array of human moral principles, and only a subset of that array will be evident in any one culture.[6]

Indeed, anthropologists have documented well the variety of cultural practices with regard to issues including polygamy, infanticide, euthanasia, treachery, sexual practices, and cannibalism. Clearly, cultural differences exist. Given those differences, some anthropologists suggest that the existence of universal, objective morals seems ludicrous.

But Differences Are About Definitions and Facts

But in assessing cultural diversity, it is critical to determine whether differences are truly about core morals (e.g. is murder wrong?) or instead about definitions and facts (e.g. what constitutes murder?). What anthropologists attribute to differences in morals are often simply differences in how moral principles are applied.  Louis Pojman notes that, regarding morals, there may be much more agreement between cultures than we have been led to believe.[7]

Beckwith and Koukl explain that what may first appear to be a moral difference often, upon further study, is shown to be simply a difference in how the facts are perceived.[8] For example, both the Pro Life and Pro Choice camps in the abortion debate generally agree with the moral premise that human life is valuable. But they disagree on this fact: at what point in its development is the unborn child considered to be human?  Similarly, the moral principle of showing respect for others is universal, but the definition of "showing respect" can vary from one culture to another (e.g. bow, firm handshake, eye contact or not, etc.). And finally, it is considered moral to honor the dead, but the manner in which we do so, the definition of "honor" can vary (e.g. burial, funeral pyre, etc.).

Much Moral Similarity Between Cultures

In addition, concerning anthropologists’ observations of cultures, “the degree of moral diversity is overstated and the high degree of moral consensus is understated.”[9]

  • C.S. Lewis notes that “if anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own.”[10]
  • In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis lists eight pervasive, basic objective morals including “love thy neighbor”, justice, mercy, and duty to parents and elders.[11]  
  • And anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn observes that:

Every culture has a concept of murder, distinguishing this from execution, killing in war and other justifiable homicides.  The notions of incest and other regulations upon sexual behavior, the prohibitions on untruth under defined circumstances, of restitution and reciprocity, of mutual obligations between parents and children—these and many other moral concepts are altogether universal.[12]

  • Further, Paul Copan argues that “there's virtually no dispute that racism, theft, fraud, child abuse, murder, and rape are morally wrong. Even despots who carry out such acts will publicly deny rather than own up to such heinous acts. We still agree about much, even if differences exist at the margins.”[13]

Differences Don't Negate Objective Standards

Finally, even if one believes that morals (not just facts or practices) do actually differ between cultures, it does not logically follow that there must be no absolute, objective moral standards that transcend cultures. Just because five independent observers of an automobile accident give very different accounts of the event, it would be false to conclude that there is not an accurate, objective, and true description of what actually occurred. Truth may be difficult to uncover, but it still exists. Similarly, even though students may disagree about the answer to a math problem, it would be false to conclude that a correct answer isn’t there to be found. “As Hume pointed out long ago, the fact that different cultures have different practices no more refutes ethical objectivism than the fact that water flows in different directions in different places refutes the law of gravity.”[14]

1. If Individuals Decide Morals

The second key principle employed by relativists is the dependency thesis, which asserts that whether an act is considered right or wrong depends on whether the individual or society accepts those morals as valid. “What is considered morally right or wrong must be seen in a context, depending on the goals, wants, beliefs, history, and environment of the society in question.”[15] According to relativists, if both the diversity and dependency principles are true, then it must be true “that there are no absolute or objective moral standards binding on all people.”[16]

Ethicists describe two forms of the dependency thesis: subjectivism and conventionalism. Subjectivism is the belief that morality is determined by each individual, based upon their own tastes and preferences. This is basically an “if it feels good, do it” approach to morals, in which each individual chooses the morals by which he wants to abide (and neglects those he doesn’t like).

Problem 1: No Boundaries

There are several significant problems with subjectivism.  First, as Beckwith and Koukl note, “When morality is reduced to personal tastes, people exchange the moral question, What is good? For the pleasure question, What feels good?”[17] But if each person can do whatever feels good to them, then what we actually have is a lack of morality! Morality, by definition, requires standards or boundaries that constrain our behavior; but subjectivism has no such constraints; instead, it allows us to do anything that feels good to us. Thus, subjectivism simply reflects the absence of morals.

Problem 2:  Can't Condemn Any Behavior

Second, there is no basis upon which we can accuse anyone of doing “wrong.”  Subjectivism “makes morality a very useless concept, for, on its premises, little or no interpersonal criticism or judgment is logically possible.” [18] Under this system we can’t condemn rape, or torturing 3-year-olds for fun, or even the holocaust. “Adolf Hitler and serial murderer Ted Bundy could be considered as moral as Gandhi, as long as each lived by his own standards, whatever those might be.”[19]

Problem 3: Must Remain Silent About Evil

Third, relativists can’t complain about evil in the world, or even participate in discussions about morals. To live consistently as a moral relativist requires silence. If morals simply reflect individual tastes or preferences, how can a relativist argue that anyone’s tastes are wrong? A moral relativist can’t even use words like “ought” or “should” or “unfair,” because they presume that an objective standard exists.[20] Under relativism, “Then what’s morality? Well, it’s a matter of opinion. I like milk; you like meat. Hitler likes to kill people; I like to save them. Who’s to say which is better?[21] Thus, if a relativist sees something that he considers to be wrong or evil, he must simply remain silent, because he has no grounds (other than his own personal preferences) to disagree with someone else’s preferences. “This puts relativists in an untenable position… If they speak, they surrender their relativism. If they do not speak, they give up their humanity.[22] 

2. If Society Decides Morals

Few philosophers actually promote an "individual decides" morality; however, conventionalism, or "society decides" morality, is quite popular today.[23] Conventionalism holds that there are no objective moral principles; instead, “all valid moral principles are justified by virtue of their cultural acceptance.[24] Thus, morals are decided by popular consensus, and a society’s acceptance of morals establishes their validity.

Problem 1: Can't Criticize Another Society, No Matter How Evil

As with subjectivism, conventionalism poses several problems. First, there is no way to criticize another society’s practices, no matter how strange or evil they may seem. “The torture of prisoners by military regimes, the injustice of totalitarian governments, and the apartheid of racist administrations would all be morally benign in this view.”[25] Since each society decides for itself what is considered acceptable, then genocide, slavery, and indiscriminate acts of war could all be deemed moral. If relativism is true, we have no basis to denounce ISIS' efforts (in 2014) to exterminate the Yazidi minority in Iraq.

Problem 2: The Majority Could Be Wrong

Why would we accept that something is moral simply because the majority says so? If the majority approves of cannibalism, or polluting streams, or infant sacrifice, or water boarding of prisoners, or attacking homosexuals, or sexual slavery, would that be sufficient to make it right? Some behaviors are wrong, no matter what the majority of society endorses.

Problem 3: Moral Reformers Not Allowed

Conventionalism also allows no room for moral reformers.  If “moral" and "right” are whatever the culture decides, then an individual who opposes the culture is, by definition, “immoral” to do so. Under this view, many people we consider moral heroes—William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Corrie ten Boom, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Rosa Parks—would instead be considered moral outcasts. Conventionalism “rules out the possibility of moral critique … because the status quo can never be immoral by definition.  Indeed, moral reformers actually turn out to be unethical.”[26]

Problem 4: No Law Can Ever Be Immoral

Finally, under conventionalism, there can be no such thing as an immoral law. If society defines what is considered moral, then any law the society creates must, by definition, be moral. Conventionalism makes no distinction between what the law allows one to do and what one should do. Under this view, the Nazi's genecide against the Jews was moral simply because it was legal, and similarly, today abortion would be considered moral simply because it is legal. “If courts and laws define what is moral, then neither laws nor governments can ever be immoral, even in principle.”[28]

So What’s the Attraction?

Though both the diversity and dependency theses fail, moral relativism appeals to a large number of people, for two significant reasons. First, people today generally have much more exposure to, and interaction with, individuals from different cultures. It may be fairly easy to demonize different groups' morals from a distance, but once we have met, and find we genuinely like, individuals from different cultures, it becomes much tougher to so readily dismiss them and their views. When we know individuals, we strive harder to avoid the taint of imperialism, ethnocentrism, and intolerance.

Unfortunately, in our efforts to be tolerant we have overreacted. Rather than simply showing respect for individuals with whom we disagree, tolerance today requires that we respect and endorse their ideas. That’s a real problem; all people have equal worth, but not all ideas do. Some ideas, like “the earth is flat” or “2 + 2 = 5”, are simply wrong.  

There is a second, and likely more important, reason for relativism’s appeal. As Paul Copan notes:

People tend to be relativists for personal reasons: They want to be in charge of their own lives. Philosopher John Searle notes the “much deeper reason” for relativism's appeal: “it satisfies a basic urge to power. It just seems too revolting, somehow, that we should have to be at the mercy of the ‘real world’.”[29]

Moral relativists do not want to submit to any external standard of virtues or morals, nor follow the rules of any religious system of god. Relativists may choose morals that feel good to them, especially with regard to difficult issues like abortion or sexual practices, without having to logically support their position. This has great appeal today, especially in the Western world.

Logical Inconsistencies

Despite its strong appeal, moral relativism presents logical inconsistencies that its adherents cannot adequately address.  First, moral relativism posits that “there are no objective truths,” yet is itself presented as a universal, objective truth. If there are no absolute truths, then moral relativism itself cannot be true.

To be consistent, the relativist must say, ‘Nothing is objectively true—including my own position. So you’re free to accept my view or reject it.’

No Obligation to be Tolerant

In addition, relativists claim that we should be accepting of the viewpoints of other cultures, and not pass judgment on their beliefs. In fact, “the principle of tolerance is considered one of the key virtues of relativism.”[31] Relativists believe so strongly in tolerance that they elevate the concept to the position of an objective moral truth.

If there are no objective moral rules, however, there can be no rule that requires tolerance as a moral principle that applies equally to all. In fact, if there are no moral absolutes, why be tolerant at all? Why not force my morality on others if it’s in my self-interest and my personal ethics allow it?[32]

This puts relativists in quite a logical quandary: i) if tolerance ought to be practiced by all (or is indeed a virtue), then objective morals exist; ii) on the other hand, if morals are relative, we don’t have to be tolerant. The relativist’s proposition regarding tolerance is self-refuting.

Relativists Are Closet Objectivists

Francis Beckwith points out that most relativists, when pressed, are really closet objectivists.[33] They might say “it’s okay to torture babies” in order to remain consistent with their stated beliefs, but they would almost certainly call the police if they heard the agonizing screams of a child coming from the apartment next door. Deep down, they really do believe that some acts are unmistakably wrong.

Political scientist James Q. Wilson, in his book The Moral Sense, argues that "most of us have a moral sense, but some of us have tried to talk ourselves out of it." It is this internal moral barometer that makes it extremely difficult for relativists to answer direct questions. But a moral relativist must answer "no" to each of these questions:

  • Is it absolutely wrong to torture babies for fun?
  • Was it absolutely wrong for the Nazis to commit genocide against the Jews?
  • Is it absolutely wrong to traffic women as sexual slaves?
  • Is it absolutely wrong to commit violence against homosexuals just for fun?
  • Is it absolutely wrong for mega-corporations to increase profits by polluting the earth?
  • Is it absolutely wrong for poachers / hunters to profit by slaughtering animals until they are extinct?

Relativists face a logical dilemma:

  • If they answer “yes” to any of these questions they are admitting that objective morals exist.
  • If they answer “no” they are denying what Paul Copan calls their God-given “yuck” factor, an innate internal mechanism that allows each of us to recognize that certain acts are patently wrong.[34]

Inconsistency of Relativists' Slogans

The slogans that moral relativists use sound reasonable at first, but they are each logically flawed. Someone who is truly a moral relativist cannot use such slogans and be consistent with their professed position. Instead, they must remain silent, since relativism does not allow condemnation or disagreement with anyone who is simply living out their moral preferences. Here are brief explanations of how one might respond.[35]

  • "You're being intolerant." -- Tolerance only applies if it is a moral standard that all people ought to follow (which would prove that objective morals exist). If relativism is true, then I am free to judge others and force my morality on them if that is my personal moral preference.
  • "Quit forcing your morals on others." --  But isn't the person making that statement trying to force their objective morals on me? When someone makes this statement, ask them "Why not?"  Their likely response will be "Because it's wrong" or "Because it's intolerant."  But those are objective moral statements, which relativists claim don't exist.
  • "Who are you to judge?" -- Well, who are they to judge me (for judging others)? How can they judge me, while also proclaiming that we shouldn't judge? Again, ask them "Why not?"
  • "That's just your opinion." -- Isn't that statement simply their opinion? So they're free to offer an opinion, but I'm not?
  • “Live and let live.” -- Tell them to practice what they preach. Let me live like I want (even if it includes being intolerant, or forcing my moral views on others).

Conclusion:

No One Lives Consistently as a Moral Relativist

To live consistently as a moral relativist requires that one:

  • Delete the words “ought”, “should”, and “unfair” from their vocabulary.
  • Remain silent with regard to individual practices (e.g. rape, torturing babies, serial murder, animal cruelty) or societal practices (e.g. genocide, slavery, child labor, pollution, totalitarianism).
  • Contentedly bear any morally outrageous act committed against them (as long as the perpetrator is sincerely living out their moral preferences).
  • Be tolerant of those who practice intolerance.

But moral relativists don’t live by these principles. Instead, they preach relativism and tolerance as objective truths, while continuing to argue that such truths do not exist! They want to choose their own morals, but also speak out about “wrongs” or “evils” (like intolerance) committed by others. To maintain intellectual honesty, relativists have a hard choice to make:

If relativism is true, then "we live in a universe in which morality is a meaningless concept and thus we are forever condemned to silence regarding any moral issue."[36] We can't complain about any type of evil or intolerance or immorality.

If relativism is false, then objective moral rules exist which apply to all people at all times. We aren't simply free to pick morals we prefer, and reject those we don't.

In reality, moral relativists simply don’t choose.  They find it impossible to consistently live out the principles they advocate.


For Further Study:

  • Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998). Excellent book.

  • A Critique of Ethical Relativism by Louis Pojman. In Louis Pojman and James Fieser, editors, Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings. 6th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), pp. 43-56.  Considered a classic article on this topic.

  • Objective Moral Truth, article by J Warner Wallace of Cold Case Christianity.

  • True for You, But Not for Me by Paul Copan. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009).


[1] Tim Keller, The Reason for God. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 48.

[2] George Barna.  Barna Studies the Research. http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/325-barna-studies-the-research-offers-a-year-in-review-perspective?q=absolute+truth, 2009. Accessed 4-19-15.

[3] Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 28.

[4] Beckwith and Koukl, 27.

[5] Louis Pojman, Who’s to Judge? http://people.morrisville.edu/~GALUSKWJ/pojman.doc, 2. Accessed 4-20-15.

[6] Ruth Benedict, A Defense of Ethical Relativism. In Louis Pojman and James Fieser, editors, Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings.6th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), 39.

[7] Pojman, A Critique of Ethical Relativism. In Louis Pojman and James Fieser, editors, Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings. 6th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), 49.

[8] Beckwith and Koukl, 44.

[9] Scott Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 89.

[10] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 6.

[11] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 97-116.

[12] Clyde Kluckhohn, Ethical Relativity: Sic et Non, Journal of Philosophy (1955): 52.  As quoted in Scott Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 90.

[13] Paul Copan, True for You, But Not for Me: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith. Revised ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 72.

[14] Pojman, A Critique, 44.

[15] Pojman, Who’s to Judge?, 3.

[16] Pojman, Who’s to Judge?, 3.

[17] Beckwith and Koukl, 20. Emphasis theirs.

[18] Pojman, A Critique, 45.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Copan, 77.

[21] Beckwith and Koukl, 64.

[22] Beckwith and Koukl, 68.

[23] Rae, 86.

[24] Pojman, A Critique, 46.

[25] Beckwith and Koukl, 50.

[26] Beckwith and Koukl, 53.

[27] Louis Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong. (Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 1990), 23. As quoted in Beckwith and Koukl, 53.

[28] Beckwith and Koukl, 52.

[29] Copan, 14.

[30] Copan, 27.

[31] Beckwith and Koukl, 69.

[32] Beckwith and Koukl, 69.

[33] Francis Beckwith, The Case for Moral Absolutes.  Lecture as part of Biola University’s “Defending the Faith” series, Module III.

[34] Copan, 81.

[35] See both Copan, and Beckwith and Koukl.

[36] Beckwith and Koukl, 170.