Contrast the first absolutist response with the second relativist response,
- Absolutist Argument: “It has to be absolute, logically. Just like there can’t be more than one truth, there can’t be opposing morals that are both right. I think the natural world reveals some of it. We all have a conscience. God’s Word is the ultimate revelation of right vs wrong, though.”
- Relativist Argument: “This is a really great question! I feel as though the idea of there being “One True Morality” is fundamentally at odds with the vast amount of moral diversity we see around the world. For example, there is widespread disagreement over whether the state should be able to execute criminals, whether terminally ill people have a right to die, and abortion. To me, morality is the set of rules we live by that seek to reduce harm and help us live together effectively.”
The relativist essentially says, “Look at all the various forms of morality in the world, one can’t possibly be right!” The absolutist essentially says, “It’s logically impossible to have more than one truth, so only one moral standard is right!” So, which is it?
The relativist argument is faulty because it is merely an observation, not an argument. It would be like a child saying, “Teacher, everyone in the class got a different answer to the math problem, so there can’t be a right answer.” There is one right answer to the math problem, just not everyone got it right.
The absolutist argument appeals to the law of non-contradiction. In logic, the law of non-contradiction states that contradictory propositions cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time.
This appeals to the world in which you and I live. The law of noncontradiction is evident everywhere. Take something as simple as an apple. An apple is an apple, an apple is not an orange. An apple cannot both be an apple and an orange. Now, take something more complex like rape. Rape is either morally good or rape is morally bad. Rape cannot both be morally good and bad at the same time, it violates the natural law of non-contradiction. Recall my grocery store example in an earlier post. It is logical to think that either I or the grocery store owner is right. We both can’t be right. Either I’m wrong for stealing or I’m right for stealing. I can’t be both.
The absolutist argument reminds me of a response I received from a Philosophy major,
“I know there are so many famous philosophers like St Augustine, John Calvin, and I think Kant that take the theory generally teaches that moral truth does not exist independently of God and that morality is determined by divine commands. I believe this, too. This is only because if it was independently determined by each individual there would be no absolute definition of right and wrong…it simply has to come from one ultimate source. In fact, searching for that source, many philosophers drew to the conclusion there had to be a God.”
This is commonly referred to as the “Moral Argument for God’s Existence.” God and objective morality are closely connected. A relativist commented on this absolutist response,
“So does that mean those who do not believe in a god cannot have morals?”
What she is asking is, “Can atheists be good without believing in God?” Yes, atheists can be good in that they affirm the same values as theists like characterizing stealing, rape, and murder as immoral. This is possible because all humans are made in the image of God and they can know what is good even if they don’t believe in God.
Natural moral law is the belief that there is an objective morality that can be known by all people from creation, without the Bible. So, moral values exist whether or not a person believes in them. The absolutist correctly attributes this moral standard to their Creator God who exists outside of them (objective morality). The relativist incorrectly attributes this moral standard to their society or themselves (subjective morality).