Moral Truth – The Problems with Moral Relativism
Problem 1: Moral relativism suffers from what is known as the reformer’s dilemma. If moral relativism is true, then societies cannot have moral reformers. Why? Moral reformers are members of a society that stand outside that society’s moral code and pronounce a need for reform and change in that code. For example, Corrie ten Boom risked her life to save Jews during the Holocaust. William Wilberforce sought the abolition of slavery in the late 18th century. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for civil rights in the U.S. If moral relativism is true, then these reformers were immoral. You see, if an act is right if and only if it is in keeping with a given society’s code, then the moral reformer himself is by definition an immoral person. Moral reformers must always be wrong because they go against the code of their society. But such a view is defective for we all know that real moral reform has taken place!
Problem 2: Moral relativists cannot improve their morality. Neither cultures nor individuals can improve their morality. The only thing they can do is change it. Think of what it means to improve something. Improvement means becoming better at something. But becoming better at something requires an external standard of comparison. To improve a society’s moral code means that the society changes its laws and values closer to an external ideal. If no such standard exists, then there is no way for the new standard to be better than the original; they can only be different. A society can abolish apartheid (racism) in favor of equality. A society can provide equal rights for women. It can guarantee freedom of speech and the press. But according to moral relativism, these are mere changes, not improvements. The Nazis used moral relativism as a defense for their crimes at the Nuremberg trials. The court condemned them because they said there is a law above culture.
Problem 3: Moral relativists cannot complain about the problem of evil. The problem of evil is one of the most commonly raised objections to the existence of God. Some of the great atheists— Bertrand Russell, David Hume, H.G. Wells— concluded on the basis of the evil and suffering in the world that the God of the Bible must not exist (genocide, child abuse, suicide bombings). The common argument is that if God was all-good and all-powerful he would deal with evil. But evil exists, so God must not. The force of this objection rests upon moral evil being real and some things being objectively wrong. But such a claim is peculiar if we understand the nature of evil. Evil is a perversion of good. There can be good without evil, but not evil without good. There can be right without wrong, but not wrong unless there is first right. If morality is ultimately a matter of personal tastes, like ice cream flavor, the argument against God’s existence based on evil vanishes. If evil is real, then so is absolute good, which means moral relativism is false.