It turns out good and evil DO exist…

4 Mar

443909a-i1.0Whenever I speak with someone who advocates for moral relativism – I feel the need to challenge that assertion. There are plenty of times when we have to decide in conversation if an idea is worth fighting for and this is one of them. There are three reasons that occur to me most readily – although there are a host of other good ones as well – and I’ll explore those in this post and follow up with a post on how exactly we can gently challenge moral relativism in conversation.

Ideas have consequences

The folks who were responsible for all the recent scandals on Wall Street all came up through an education system that had (by and large) eschewed moral training for values clarification. This means instead of saying “Johnny, it’s wrong to be selfish with your crayons – why don’t you share?” educators have been trained to help students figure out what their guiding principles are without imposing upon them. (With the exception of a few sanctioned meta-values like tolerance, diversity and inclusion).

The indirect result is that we now have ethicists like Peter Singer advocating for infanticide. I’m not saying that moral realism (the idea that moral absolutes exist) makes people any better, but it gives us a target to aim at. With relativism the target is moving or is different for each person depending on what they have decided that day; which brings up another issue.

There can be no justice

If we are unwilling to call something morally praiseworthy or blameworthy then we have no real foundation for punishing anyone. Nazi war criminals understood this logical extension of moral relativism and tried to use it as a defense in the tribunals that followed World War 2. “We were simply operating from within what we thought to be right at the time, you can’t judge us from outside of our perspective” was essentially the argumentation. Common sense prevailed and criminals were brought to justice – but that is only because the people making decisions decided to point at an action and say “That is truly wrong.” Justice depends on an appeal to an external standard of right and wrong.

Moral laws point to a moral lawgiver

If there really is a right and a wrong, an ought and an ought-not then we must ask about their origin. Logically there are only so many options.

1)      Moral obligations come from people – either as individuals we create and/or impose morality on ourselves (which makes no sense why we would actually be bound by moral obligation if it was self imposed) or society. Society is a popular answer but the fact remains that society is just a greater quantity of people. Do we really think that this person or that person created morality? If so, what do we make of change agents: those who seek to transform a societies moral compass? Under this definition abolitionists and those who fought for women’s suffrage would be immoral.

2)      Moral obligations are the result of chance – Morality evolved. This also makes little sense when we stop to examine what that looks like. We can paint a picture of how our understanding of right and wrong could have developed through evolution over time – but that wouldn’t make things actually good or evil, it would just be the way things are. Under this framework, a few things could have worked out differently and we would think it a moral act to kill and eat the firstborn child from each union. I however am willing to posit that this would ALWAYS be an immoral act. An evolutionary response cannot ground the real moral good or evil going on, but can only offer a story about why we might consider something good or evil.

3)      Moral obligations come from a source outside of humanity – this is the only answer that is coherent and provides any meaning. It is possible that right and wrong are not real things: that there is no moral obligation. I feel the common sense response is the throw out that assertion without considering it, so I do not feel the duty of defending the idea that right and wrong are real things. If the Nazis had won the Second World War, the Holocaust would still be a moral tragedy – even if everyone who was inclined to think that was killed or convinced otherwise. To make sense of this reality we need a source outside of humanity that can produce a concept of goodness. This source is what we call God, and goodness is a reflection of God’s very character. His commands are not arbitrary (i.e. he could have called something else good) nor are they beholden to some law external to himself (i.e. the source of moral law is higher or stronger than God). He IS the good.

These reasons (among others) make moral realism worth defending in conversation.



One Response to “It turns out good and evil DO exist…”


  1. Challenging moral relativism in conversation… | What do I say to that? - March 6, 2013

    […] you agreed with my post on Monday about why it’s worth taking a stand for moral realism, you might wonder how best to challenge […]

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