Do objective moral values exist? Many people believe in a relativistic view of morality because they do not believe in any objective moral values or in an absolute standard of right and wrong. There is sufficient justification for the belief that objective moral values exist, and whether or not one holds this view or an opposing view will affect him in all areas of his life.
In this paper, I am going to show that moral relativism is false because one cannot live consistently with a relativistic view of morality. I will address arguments for and against relativism and after showing that it is false, I will begin to address absolutism. I will not be addressing the various ethical theories that affect one’s view of absolutism because it is beyond the scope of this paper.
There are several ethical systems that oppose the view of moral absolutism: ethical relativism, cultural relativism (which can be a subcategory of ethical relativism), and moral skepticism. These views have some valid arguments, but also have many weaknesses. The shortcomings of these views make it difficult—and nearly impossible—to consistently live out and “own” these beliefs as one’s worldview. These arguments will be developed and evaluated in the following pages of this paper.
In beginning to address this argument of whether or not objective moral standards exist, one must first define morality. Two Christian philosophers J.P. Moreland and William Craig define morality in this way: “Moral values and duties are to be explicated in terms of God’s nature and will rather than of self-interest, social contract, or common happiness” (530). In other words, these authors are saying that moral values are determined by God’s will and his nature, not by other subjective means. In evaluating whether or not there are absolute moral standards, one is ultimately trying to determine if there is an absolute standard of “good/right” conduct or virtue that is universal among all cultures and groups.
Ethical relativism, one of the opposing views to moral absolutism is the belief that there are no universally valid moral principles, but that all moral principles are valid relative to cultural or individual choice (Pojman 363). According to C.E. Harris Jr., author of Applying Moral Theories, “Relativists do not deny moral truth exists, but they believe that moral truth is relative to a culture, class, individual or set of principles” (18). In other words, Harris is saying that ethical relativists believe that some form of moral truths do exist, but they are determined by the individual or a group of people.
There are two main forms of ethical relativism: subjectivism and conventionalism. Subjectivism views morality as a personal decision; “morality is in the eye of the beholder.” Conventionalism views moral validity by social acceptance and which coincides with cultural relativism (Pojman 363).
Two of the main arguments for ethical relativism are the following:
(1) Actions (or morals) that are right for one person are not always right for another person.
This argument is a form of subjectivism because it is being argued that each individual determines what is morally right for him or her. Often people will try to claim that because people behave differently, there are no moral absolutes. One author gives this example: “She is gay and I am straight, so morals are relative” (Harris 18). In this example, there is a difference in behavior and beliefs between two people. As was discussed earlier in this paper when talking about cultural relativism, one can know that having differing views of right and wrong does not give a strong enough foundation to hold the belief that there are no objective standards of right and wrong. Disagreement over moral principles does not account for ethical relativism. Harris says,
“The mere presence of moral disagreement does not demonstrate the truth of moral relativism any more than disagreement over facts demonstrates that relativism applies to factual beliefs. If I believe there is life on Mars and you believe there isn’t, we cannot say that my belief is true for me and you belief is true for you. One of us is mistaken” (20).
What this author is pointing out is the difference between beliefs and truths. He says that even though two people disagree about different moral truths it does not mean that they do not exist. It is important to make this distinction between beliefs and truths, which will be discussed in more detail later.
2) “Different cultures have different moral codes”—this is the key to understanding morality.
This is the conventionalist argument for ethical relativism, which more specifically can be referred to as cultural relativism. The distinction between cultural relativism and ethical relativism is hard to distinguish, however, no matter what category one puts it in, the arguments are the same.
Cultural relativism is the belief that morality “finds its genesis in the subjective conventions of culture” (Beckwith and Koukl 43). Cultural anthropologist William Graham Sumner believes that morality is culturally determined because of the following three reasons:
- Each culture has a unique set of moral values.
- Moral values are generated by the natural influence of pain and pleasure as people seek to satisfy their base wants and desires. These values create a complex system of customs.
- Each group thinks its moral values are right and the others are wrong (qtd. in Beckwith and Koukl 43).
In looking at cultural relativism, one must realize the differences lie in each cultures perception of the facts of a circumstance, and that there is not a conflict in the actual values. Authors Beckwith and Koukl give the example in their book of how killing (murder) has been wrong in every culture at every time in history, and the only thing that has changed is the concept of justification. They say that Hitler justified killing the Jews because he believed Jews to be subhuman. In the case of abortion, most of those in favor of abortion still believe that human life is of value, they just do not believe that an unborn child is considered a human (44-45). “In many cases, apparent moral discrepancies between cultures represent only a difference in the perception of the facts of a circumstance, not a conflict in the values themselves” (Beckwith and Koukl 45). The last of Sumner’s arguments is also weak because even if it is true that cultures have major differences in their moral values, it does not in any way prove that there are no objective moral standards (Beckwith and Koukl 46). A difference in values does not logically show that there can be no absolute morality.
One author gives this example:
- The Greek believed that it was wrong to eat the dead, whereas the Callatians believed it was right to eat the dead.
- Therefore, eating the dead is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture (Rachels 15).
In order to refute this argument, one needs to recognize the difference between beliefs and truths. What people believe is not what is important. People have different beliefs about things all the time, but what matters is which beliefs are true. In the first argument an example was given about two people who believed different things about there being life on Mars. Both people cannot be right. Either there is life on Mars or there is not. Those are two different beliefs, but only one is true. The same argument applies to cultural relativism. While different cultures believe different things, the fact that they have these beliefs does not result in truth. Either one is and the other is not, or they both are not true.
Dr. D.A. Horner points out some more problems with cultural relativism. One of them being that the scope of cultural relativism is “hopelessly vague.” He uses the example of how many people belong to different groups (i.e. American, university-educated, Christian, southern, etc.) so what distinguishes between the groups and what happens if there is conflicting values between the groups? Horner also raises the question, “Who has authority to represent the defining moral values of the culture—majority view, consensus, or political leadership” (Horner 1)? Horner brings up an important argument, and those believing in the ethical theory of cultural relativism must confront this issue.
Another point that Horner raises is the reformer’s dilemma: If what is right is just defined as whatever the cultural majority believes is right, then a reformer (one who disagrees with the culture and seeks to reform it—e.g. Jesus, Martin Luther King) is—by definition—morally wrong (1). What Horner is saying is that cultural relativism leaves no room for any kind of moral or cultural reform because that implies that something needed changing with the culture in the first place. Horner goes on to say the following:
This means that Martin Luther King in trying to change dominant racism in our society was morally wrong; abolitionists who tried to end slavery were morally reprehensible; Jesus, Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, those who worked against apartheid [separation and discrimination against blacks] for decades-the very people who are generally viewed as moral heroes, who stood up against a deeply immoral system—these turn out to be the only ones who were immoral—and the ones who acquiesced, who perpetuated the system, were the moral ideals (1).
The author’s point is that if cultural relativism were true, one would have to change the way he viewed the moral reformers who went again cultural norms to change the way of society. Instead of viewing these people as heroes, one would have to view them as violating the already culturally determined standards of right and wrong.
Another main argument against moral absolutism is moral skepticism. This is the belief that there are no valid moral principles at all, and if there are, that we cannot know that they are true (Pojman 363). There are two main versions of moral skepticism: the epistemological version and the ontological version. The epistemological version does not say there are no objective moral values that are true, however, this belief says that even if objective moral values do exist, we can never know what they are (Moreland and Craig 413). Or, in other words, there is no way of knowing whether or not objective moral values exist, so there is no need to live like they do exist. The ontological version of moral skepticism holds the claim that moral knowledge does not exist because there are no objective moral truths to be known (Moreland and Craig 413). One believing in the ontological version of moral skepticism would say that absolute morality simply does not exist.
The epistemological view of ethical skepticism depends greatly on one’s views of epistemology. According to Moreland and Craig, if one does not leave room for moral knowledge in his view of epistemology he would be able to embrace the view of moral skepticism. Also, if one holds to strict forms of empiricism where all things must be verifiable by one of the five senses, then one can go on to claim that moral knowledge is not empirically verifiable because it cannot be “known” by one of the five senses (413).
The reasons given in support of moral skepticism tend to be self-refuting. “Sometimes ethical skepticism is an outgrowth of views, like strict empiricism, that are self-refuting if one claims to know them. The empiricist principle stated above cannot itself be verified by the senses and thus is unknowable by its own standards” (Moreland and Craig 414). What the author is saying is that if one claims to “know” that moral skepticism is true, his belief is self-refuting, because his knowledge that moral skepticism is true cannot be verified by one of the five senses. And if moral skepticism were to be true, one could not recommend any moral action above another, which means that it could not be said that one must be tolerant of others’ moral opinions (Moreland and Craig 414).
Moral Skepticism cannot be carried out consistently in the way one lives. For example, all one would need to do to prove that this cannot be consistently lived out would be to steal something (i.e. a stereo) from a moral skeptic. The moral skeptic would most likely be angry and not approve of someone taking his stereo. If this person were a true moral skeptic, he would not be able to convict or be angry at the person who stole from him because he could not make any judgment on the thief’s moral actions or beliefs—to do so would be contrary to his belief system.
This issue of tolerance is often talked about in relation to relativism. Society tells one to be tolerant of others’ beliefs because everyone determines what is right for oneself. Despite our society’s push for tolerance among different views and beliefs, there are some universal standards that are simply not tolerated. There would be no laws or standards of living if this view of tolerance were completely accepted. One could justify murder or stealing, by using the excuse that murder and stealing are not wrong for him because he has different moral standards, however, this excuse would not be accepted in our society.
Whether or not relativists will admit it, there are some forms of absolutes in the world today. Cultures would not be able to function without these universal standards. And the issue of tolerance is not realistic, because there are some things no culture tolerates. C.S. Lewis says,
“Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties don’t matter; but then, next minute they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they wanted to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there is no such thing as Right and Wrong—in other words, if there is no Law of Nature—what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature (absolute standards of right and wrong) just like anyone else” (6-7).
Lewis is pointing out that moral relativism cannot be lived out consistently. Even if one holds to moral relativism as his ethical theory, he will not be able to carry out his beliefs in all areas of his life. Lewis shows this by saying how a moral relativist would not put up with someone breaking a promise or a treaty with him because he would say it was unjust and would be upset about it. Lewis’ point is that the very fact the relativist would be upset about someone breaking a promise to him shows that he is not consistently living out his relativistic beliefs. A true relativist could not be upset about this because there would be no absolute standard saying one must keep his promises or treaty. Right and wrong would be determined by each individual person, and if one did not believe he had to keep his promises, no one could hold it against him.
While ethical relativism and skepticism are very common and accepted in society, these beliefs do not have very strong arguments to support them. Many even hold to some form of these ethical systems with out being aware of it. Many problems arise that one must deal with if he is going to hold to these relativistic views. Relativism cannot be lived out consistently and because of the reasons and arguments shown in this paper, one can see that relativism is false.
Now one must begin to consider the opposing side of this argument: moral absolutism. This is the view that there are some absolute standards of right and wrong in the world that are universal among all cultures. Moreland and Craig say that the understanding of absolutism “emphasizes the fact that we discover moral values, we do not merely invent moral beliefs” (416). Once one concludes that relativism is false, all that is left is absolutism, and if one is an absolutist, he must choose which ethical theory will form the foundation of his belief system such as ethical egoism, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, eudaimonism, hedonism, or deontology.
Objective moral standards exist, however, moral absolutism is not without it’s problems either. Many philosophers use the following argument in opposition to absolutism: Suppose that it is decided that it is absolutely wrong to lie under any circumstances and also wrong to murder under any circumstances. And what if one is faced with the choice in which he must either murder or lie and has no other options. For example, in WWII some people such as Corrie ten Boom would hide Jews in their house in order to save them from being murdered. Then, when asked if they had Jews in their house they would lie say “no” in order to save the lives of innocent people. Now the question proposed is: Was it okay for them to lie under these circumstances being that the other alternative was allowing innocent people to be killed? If one says that lying was justified under these circumstances, then lying cannot be considered a moral absolute because under certain situations it can be justified that lying is okay. One can also consider Rahab’s story in Joshua 2. She lied in order to save the lives of two spies, and then is mentioned in Hebrews 11:31 as an example of faith and her lie is not even mentioned. Does this mean that her lie was not a sin, or was it still a sin but God just forgave her because of she had faith?
If one can prove that lying (or another “moral absolute”) can in fact be justified under certain circumstances then it would seem that one can not hold the view that there are concrete moral absolutes which are true in all circumstances.
How one answers this objection to moral absolutism depends on one’s ethical theory. Utilitarianists would argue for the greatest good for the greatest number. Therefore, lying would be justified in this situation. An ethical egoist would choose to do what would be best for himself. In this case he may choose to tell the truth so they would not have to face the risk of being found out and punished for hiding Jews (Lorenzen). Kant’s ethical theory holds to the belief that “consistency requires rules that have no exceptions” (Rachels 113). In this case of hiding the Jews, he would still believe lying to be wrong.
A eudaimonist who holds to virtues and is end-oriented would conclude that lying is still wrong because it is not virtuous. However, murder is also wrong (the other alternative to lying in the case of hiding the Jews), so one must make a choice as to which virtue he will uphold. A eudaimonist’s decision about which virtue to uphold would most likely be based on his determination about what would have the best outcome eternally. In the case of WWII with hiding the Jews, Corrie ten Boom decided to lie to save the lives of innocent people. She chose to uphold the virtue of saving human lives because she had an eternal perspective decided that to be of more importance. Rahab also decided to lie in order to save lives, and was commended for her faith, perhaps because her decision focused on the end and what would benefit the nation of Israel. She also showed great faith because by choosing to protect the spies she put her life in danger, yet had faith that the Lord would protect her.
While these questions are difficult to answer, they do not show that moral absolutes do not exist. The fact that someone is asking the question of whether or not it would be okay to lie in these situations shows that one believes in some standard of right and wrong. Otherwise these questions would not even be raised.
One can conclude, based on the arguments presented in this paper that relativism is false and cannot be lived out consistently in one’s life. That leaves some form of moral absolutism to be true, and one must decide for oneself what absolutist ethical theory one will hold to. One’s decision on how he views these issues are critical in affecting how one lives his life. Moral relativism will only lead to problems and conflict in one’s life and in society. C.S. Lewis said “relativism will certainly damn our souls and end our species” (qtd. in Horner 4).
Many fail to really understand what relativism is or see how it is illogical and inconsistent. Our society tends to hold some relativistic views (even though they are not carried out consistently) because they try to eliminate right and wrong and remove God from their life and beliefs—which would eliminate judgment and their feelings of guilt. And, because of many people’s ignorance, they are blindly accepting these relativistic beliefs. If people would open their eyes to the irrationality of their beliefs they would see that relativism is false. And being that relativism is false, they would be left with absolutism, which would point them to a moral God and creator to whom we are accountable.
Beckwith, Francis J. and Koukl Gregory. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Thin Air. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998.
Harris, C.E. Applying Moral Theories. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1986.
Horner, D.A. “Some Problems with Moral Relativism.” Introduction to Philosophy, class handout. 14 October 2003.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1952.
Lorenzen, Shawn. “Three Kinds of Ethical Theories.” Introduction to Philosophy. 14 October 2003.
Moreland, J.P., and Craig, William Lane. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Pojman, Louis P. Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998.
Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.
 By moral value I mean a position or belief that a person holds about certain actions and whether or not these actions are right or wrong. A moral value is not the same thing as an action, however, one’s moral values will affect one’s actions because they are based on his beliefs.
 Beckwith and Koukl point out that this argument is called a non sequitur; the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise (46).
 “A statement is self-refuting if it falsifies itself and thus cannot be true” (Moreland and Craig 414).
 It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the different ethical theories of moral absolutism.
 It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss how moral standards are determined and where they come from.
 This question against moral absolutism is a difficult one to answer, however, with a more in-depth study in the ethical theories of absolutism, one could come to a more definite conclusion based on the theory chosen.