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Cultural Relativism and Morality

Chayanne M. of USA wrote to us:

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I recently engaged in a conversation about Christianity with an atheist friend. The biggest issue that is preventing him from agreeing with the truth I am proclaiming is his secular view on morality. He believes that morals can change over time and that morality is a hierarchy.

His exacts words are:

“Right and wrong is a hierarchy not an absolute
A man decides if what he dose is [right] or wrong
His community decides if that is [right] or wrong
Then the communities outside of that decide weather they are right or wrong.”

What are the fallacies in this system?

CMI USA’s Joel Tay and Keaton Halley respond:

Dear Chayanne,

Thank you for writing in.

Your friend’s view can be classified as a form of cultural relativism, where morality is subjective and depends on what the culture at large defines it to be. Entire books have been written on this subject. As such, it is not possible to condense all these problems into a short reply, but we will offer a number of points that might be worth considering.

  1. First of all, by what standard does your friend appeal to, in order to say that morality is defined by what communities want it to be? And what makes the largest community the highest authority? These are ad hoc assertions with no justifications of any kind.
  2. How is he going to prove that the communities have the right to decide what is morally right or wrong without appealing to the decisions of these communities themselves? But if he does this, how is he not arguing in a circle and assuming what he is supposed to prove? His third premise is that “communities outside of that decide whether they are right or wrong”, but his conclusion is essentially the same: that “right and wrong is a hierarchy and not an absolute”. He puts forth his conclusion as one of his premises and therefore engages in circular reasoning.
  3. The idea that morality is decided by the sum of all communities is itself an objective moral claim: namely, something is morally good (objectively) if this is what the sum of all communities deem to be good. If there is nothing higher than the sum of all communities to appeal to, then the totality of all cultures becomes the objective moral standard. But if this is true, relative morality is again refuted. Thus, if your friend’s cultural relativism is true, it is false. The only consistent moral relativism, by contrast, is actually a denial of any such thing as morality. In that case, no person or community would be a higher moral authority than any other, and nothing would be truly wrong.
  4. This system does not allow for moral progress on the highest level of the hierarchy, because any change in moral direction by the sum of all communities would always be defined as good. If the collective says torturing babies for fun is good, then it is. And if they change their minds, then it isn’t.
  5. According to this system, any individual moral reformer who goes against the sum of all communities is evil by definition. So if the whole world, by-and-large, accepted chattel slavery, as it once did, then abolitionists were acting immorally when they opposed that practice.

The question of whether morality is objective or subjective is about the foundational reason why something is right or wrong. If morality depends on human subjects, then it is subjective. If the moral nature of an act depends on a fixed standard, then it is objective.

The Christian claims that morality is objective, because it is ultimately rooted in God’s eternal and unchanging nature. It doesn’t fluctuate with ephemeral, arbitrary human opinions. The Bible teaches us that God is good, and does good (Psalm 119:68). There is none perfectly good except God alone (Luke 18:19). So morality gets its meaning from the nature of God. And God’s moral character is expressed to us through His commandments and the conscience He has put in every human heart (Romans 2:15). Scripture tells us that God as the Creator has laid down rules by which man will be judged, so that a person who acts consistently with what God has commanded is good, and a person who contradicts God’s commandments is evil. So, the Christian definition of morality is grounded in God’s nature, communicated to us through revelation and conscience. It is wrong to murder because murder violates God’s moral standard. The Christian justification for morality is grounded upon an external justification—God. But the relativist is stuck with an internalistic justification. He has to ultimately appeal to himself as the basis for his own morality, and so he is guilty of arguing in a circle. (And cultural morality is nothing more than collective individual-morality, so it just repeats the circular argument over and over again.)

Also, there is a pragmatic problem. How can the relativist know what is moral? If he says that he knows morality only based on the majority opinions of societies, how does he know what the majority believes? Through surveys? Through polls? Through inductive reasoning? Who can determine at what point this amounts to a majority? To have a justification of knowledge based on majority opinions, one needs to either have omniscience, or at least know what every individual believes. Otherwise cultural morality is really unknowable. But if we cannot know with confidence what every single community believes, then trying to live a moral life is hopeless. Besides, if some morals are good today, but evil tomorrow, then maybe the consensus of all communities has already moved on.

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God as Creator is like the storyteller in this story. Regardless of what the six blind men think the elephant is like, God, as Creator and as an omnipotent Being, knows the absolute moral truth; and it is God alone who has the overarching authority to tell us what is indeed objectively moral.

A common tale that moral relativists often use is the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. In this story, six blind men are said to be touching an elephant for the first time. One man touches the trunk of the elephant and decides that it is a snake, another touches the feet and decides that it is a tree. A third blind man touches the tusk and declares it to be a spear. Yet another touches the ear and declares that the elephant is a fan. The fifth blind man places his hand on the side of the elephant and called it a wall. Finally, the sixth blind man declared that the elephant is actually more like a rope, because he happens to touch its tail. The relativist claims that this story demonstrates that truth is relative. This analogy is also sometimes further extended to apply to morality, so that it is said that each person perceives morality relative to his own situation and circumstances. When it comes to the idea that morality is decided by communities, the cultural relativist claims that when all six of these blind man gather together and discuss, their conclusions reflect reality. So the six blind men might decide that the elephant is like a rope today, but the next day, they might come to a conclusion that the elephant is more like a wall. In this way, the elephant tale is used to not only describe relative truth, but also moral relativism.

In reality though, this analogy actually proves the opposite. It argues, not for relativism, but for objectivism. What most readers fail to realize is that the storyteller is the one who decides the absolute moral standard. The storyteller knows that there are six men who are blind, while he himself sees. The storyteller knows that he is objectively looking at an elephant, and decides that the six blind men are coming to the wrong conclusions when they just feel parts of the elephant. The storyteller in this thought experiment has objective knowledge concerning the reality of the elephant, which represents some moral truth. In the same way, God as Creator is like the storyteller in this story. Regardless of what the six blind men think the elephant is like, God, as Creator and as an omnipotent Being, knows the absolute moral truth; and it is God alone who has the overarching authority to tell us what is indeed objectively moral. This thought experiment only makes sense when we first begin with a storyteller—analogous to the Creator God. The relativist, on the other hand, is like the blind men in the story, who are mistaken by the standard of objective truth. Just as the blind men in this story would be foolish to turn to the storyteller and tell the storyteller that he is wrong, so it is with the relativist who rejects absolute morality based on collective societies’ decision on what they think to be moral.

If God is our Creator as stated in the Bible, then absolute morality necessarily exists. The Bible tells us that God created Adam and Eve as moral beings, and then laid down moral commandments for them. When they disobeyed God’s absolute moral standards, they fell into sin and became sinners. God as sovereign Creator has the right to make moral demands of His creatures.

On the other hand, if naturalism is true, then man ultimately decides what is or is not moral. In other words, a naturalistic evolutionary worldview is devoid of absolute morals. Given naturalism, people cannot even speak about anything being good or evil apart from pointing to their preferences, so that whatever they deem to be moral is no different from saying that they prefer coffee over tea. And if your friend’s relativistic, hierarchical view were correct, then one could not say that slavery or racism is truly wrong—only that the majority doesn’t like it. Nor could one speak about moral progress in society, because whatever the majority says would always be right—by definition. Moral reformers like William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King Jr. would be evil by definition, since they opposed the majority. And, does your friend really think that if the majority of all communities believed it was okay to torture and murder those who merely didn’t conform, that would make it okay? These conclusions necessarily follow from his viewpoint.

In an interview, with Richard Dawkins, it was pointed out that many people are uncomfortable with accepting evolution because it leads to a moral vacuum. Dawkins, who is a Professor at Oxford University and an atheist, simply replied, “All I can say is, that’s just tough. We have to face up to the truth.”1 Elsewhere, Dawkins has said, “I’m a passionate Darwinian when it comes to science, when it comes to explaining the world, but I’m a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to morality and politics.”2 In other words, Richard Dawkins teaches that since naturalism is true, there exists no basis for objective morality.

Consider this syllogism:

  1. If naturalism is true, morality is relative.
  2. Morality is not relative.
  3. Therefore, naturalism is false.

We have offered reasons above as to why morality cannot be relative. And if morality is not relative, according to the syllogism above (including the first premise, which your friend already accepts), then naturalism is also false. In formal logic, this would be expressed as a Modus tollens argument: If P⊃Q; ~Q; ∴~P

If naturalism is false, then it is reasonable to conclude that there must have been a non-naturalistic origin to the universe. That is, there has to be a Creator. Who is this Creator? We believe that this is the God of the Bible (see our article on why CMI takes a classical presuppositional approach), and starting with the presuppositions present in Scripture, the evidence makes far more sense, presenting a more coherent and rational explanation of reality compared with naturalism.3

If you are interested in a fuller discussion on relativism, we would encourage you to read Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl’s book, Relativism: Feet firmly planted in mid-air, 1998. [A note of caution: neither Beckwith nor Koukl are biblical creationists, and CMI does not endorse everything they write. Nevertheless, this book is worthwhile as an insightful critique of moral relativism.]

Sincerely,

Joel Tay and Keaton Halley
CMI–US Information Officers

References and notes

  1. Evolution: The dissent of Darwin, Psychology Today, January/February, p. 62, 1997. Return to text.
  2. The Descent of Man—Episode 1: The Moral Animal, broadcast on The Science Show on the ABC Radio National, 22 January 2000; abc.net.au/science/descent/trans1.htm. Return to text.
  3. For more information on Classical Presuppositionalism, See: Beisner, C., Classical Presuppositional Apologetics: Re-introducing an Old Theme, 2001, revised 2006, 34 pp.; ecalvinbeisner.com. Return to text.
Evolution: The dissent of Darwin, Psychology Today, January/February, p. 62, 1997. 
The Descent of Man—Episode 1: The Moral Animal, broadcast on The Science Show on the ABC Radio National, 22 January 2000; abc.net.au/science/descent/trans1.htm.
For more information on Classical Presuppositionalism, See: Beisner, C., Classical Presuppositional Apologetics: Re-introducing an Old Theme, 2001, revised 2006, 34 pp.; ecalvinbeisner.com.

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Readers’ comments
Dean R., Australia, 10 February 2017
Ultimately it is the blind leading the blind & they all end up in the same pit regardless of their limited assumptions about the elephant. Evolution has no moral basis & it's believers are often found leaning on biblical morality for stability & comfort.
murk P., Canada, 11 February 2017
Well written, good response!!! As always the truth denier must invoke what he attempts to deny. In this case an attempt to get rid of an absolute standard for morality is made. And the replacement is to be man himself. This always ends up in silly land and is always dangerous (Jer 17:5-7) We live in God's world, and are made in His image. He has revealed this to all men Thus to deny this is akin to slapping Him in the face And no one can slap Him in his face unless He supports them on His lap. So much for man being king of the hill:) “Right and wrong is a hierarchy not an absolute" And this is an absolute claim that the whole morality is person relative notion hinges on. Try as they might they rest on absolutes beyond the supposed autonomy of man Its really laughable if you think about it As the good book states there is an order to losing understanding: 1. Hard heart 2. Leads to ignorance 3. Separates one from God (The branch is thus cut off from the life giving sap of the Vine) 4. Darkened understanding (Eph 4:18) The hard heart leads to people believing that our minds can correctly ascertain reality But the Bible says this is not so Our minds are also affected by the fall. Depraved we are even in thought. Apart from Him we can do nothing - thus including thinking correctly The intellect is ethical But for His love and work on the cross we could not know how much we need His love and work on the cross. Christ give us sound minds. And i for one am grateful.
Guy W., United Kingdom, 11 February 2017
A day to day practical confirmation of the truth you have explained I can convey in a simple account of my experience as a carpenter on a building site in Godalming in 1984. I was singing praise as I often did while working merrily away when another tradesman on the same job came to me to criticise me about being a Christian. He told me that he felt fully justified in duffing people up who he deemed weaker physically and stealing their money to feed his drug pleasures. I remonstrated with him about having the morality of a fox predating on chickens. His response was that at school he learned and simplistically applied 'survival of the fittest' because that was what the teacher's taught and they were paid by the Government. Interestingly I hear that a Laurence Kraus (highly qualified) asserts that teaching Creation is a form of child abuse and that the Education Dept in the UK under Mrs Nicky Morgan, will withdraw funding for any schools teaching Creation instead of Darwin's Theory of Evolution.
Gene B., United States, 11 February 2017
Well argued. It seems to me that points 4 & 5 are somewhat at odds with each other. I believe, as you point out, that the "system does not allow for moral progress". Yet, I don't see how the change could be defined as good when the actions of a 'moral reformer' are bad. A community is made up of individuals, as is the government of those communities. No community can change it's mind all at once. It takes time, and sometimes a long time to change people's minds. So any collection of individuals that make up a community will believe differently from the community in growing numbers. Those people are then evil from the group standpoint until the group changes it's mind. And then those who have not yet changed their minds are suddenly evil! So at what point does a single moral reformer become a group consensus so that their beliefs are no longer evil, but have 'flipped' to good because enough of the community now believes? It seems "moral progress" is impossible because any deviation from the norm is evil unless there is a group consensus, and that cannot happen all at once. To believe this, then, one must accept that at any given time, over 50% of the group is evil because everybody will disagree with the community on at least one point.
Keaton Halley responds
When we said any change "would always be defined as good" in point 4, we meant that in this system the current consensus view is defined as good—not that the transition itself is good. That is, the new moral direction would become good as soon as it is adopted, as you describe. So points 4 and 5 are not in conflict—they're saying similar things.
Colin N., United Kingdom, 11 February 2017
I think there's another presupposition on the evolutionists' side, or at least it's implied by how changes in morality are presented - that today's moral choices are somehow better because our evolution has progressed. This allows them to feel justified in changing the rules. Of course it doesn't add up, because the idea of moral progress or regress only makes sense if you can measure against an absolute standard. But people are fooled because although logical analysis says they no longer accept an absolute moral standard, they still know instinctively that such a standard exists because God has placed it in our consciences. Thus the idea of moral progress can appear to make sense.
Joel Tay responds
To be logically consistent with the the idea of moral progress, it is indeed necessary to measure up against an absolute moral standard. The fact that many atheists want to affirm moral progress yet at the same time deny an absolute moral standard that exists apart from man, simply demonstrates the logical incoherence of their worldview.
Tommy S., United States, 11 February 2017
Great article. I've heard this argued many different ways and they were all very good arguments, but this one has additional information that helps even more. The thing that really confounds me is that the essential truth of what you're saying is so obvious that it amazes me that anyone could deny it.
Rob L., Canada, 11 February 2017
When athiests attempt to codify their collective morality into laws or just into generally accepted lifestyles, I think they unwittingly draw upon God's moral code. There is no compelling reason offered by evolutionary theory that would lead them to declare murder, theft or various sexual acts as morally wrong. That impetus must be coming from their God-given conscience and/or their theistic heritage.
Doug L., United States, 11 February 2017
I don't know. It just doesn't seem like Chayanne's atheist friend needs to read books to see that his argument is ridiculous. He only has to consider Nazi Germany where "society" decreed that it was moral to murder Jews, or Mao's China where they murdered 50 million people who opposed his atheistic communism, or any number of other anti-Christ governments. Or you could reduce it to the hypothetical situation of 11 survivors of a global catastrophe. Six men, 5 women and the men decide that murder and rape are legal. Majority rule decides morality, right? Then the women rise up and murder two of the men. Rape is now illegal. The men then murder two of the women. It's now legal again. If the hypothetical situation works to make the point with 11 people, it works with 11 billion people. It doesn't take a lot of thought to see the flaws in his argument. I think the KISS approach is the way to answer that person. Keep it simple. The syllogism was good for proving that naturalism is wrong but the atheist's argument was about the minor premise. You still have to show that the minor premise, "Morality is not relative", is true. The simple approach seems the best way to me.
Mitch C., United States, 12 February 2017
I checked out Calvin Beisner's article on "Classical Presuppositionalism" referenced in the footnotes. While I highly respect Dr. Beisner, I am concerned that his article does not represent mainstream Van Tillian apologetics accurately. He cites John Frame as the representative of that viewpoint, and finds several issues with Dr. Frame's presentation of it. I have found that Greg Bahnsen and Michael Butler give a much more compelling presentation of Van Til's apologetic. For example, read Michael Butler's article "The Transcendental Argument for God's Existence", which is posted at his website. Another good resource is a collection of videos by Greg Bahnsen titled "Defending the Christian Faith", some of which may be viewed on YouTube. Also on YouTube is the debate between Dr. Bahnsen and atheist Dr. Gordon Stein which illustrates how effective this approach can be.
Joel Tay responds
Dear Mitch, Thank you for your comments. As someone who has studied the writings of both Van Til and Gordon H. Clark extensively, I would actually conclude that both John Frame and Bahnsen have deferred on a number of points from what Van Til has actually taught. With reference to the paper by Calvin Beisner that you commented on, I would also note that Greg Bahnsen's view does not in any way escape the two charges of circular reasoning that Calvin Beisner has put forth in his paper against John Frame. In any case, Van Til's epistemology is not really discussed in this article on relative cultural morality, so I fail to see how your critique against Beisner's article (even if correct) would really affect the contents of our article on morality. I have sent a quick message to Calvin Beisner to see if he would like to address your questions directly. Here is what he wrote:
"Greg Bahnsen was a friend of mine (I can’t say close—just knew and enjoyed and appreciated each other, though we weren’t able to see each other much), and I enormously respect his intellect. I’m not convinced he understood Van Til’s underlying epistemology correctly and think instead his picture of Van Til is somewhat revisionist—affected, in my hypothesis (which can’t be tested much since Greg died before I formed it), by the fact that his studies under Dallas Willard (who was my main philosophy prof at USC as well) persuaded him of the universal applicability of logic (including to God), contrary to Van Til’s epistemology that such would violate the Creator/creature distinction (since VT considered logic part of creation rather than inherent in God). But Greg admired Van Til so greatly that—again, my hypothesis here—he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge that VT had really taught things that he (Greg) had, after studying with Willard, come to consider badly, even absurdly, wrong—so Greg reinterpreted VT in some important ways. I discuss all this some in a lecture that was well received (including by David Bahnsen, who was there) at the apologetics conference at Branch of Hope OPC in Torrance, CA, in October of 2015. Nowadays my work is almost exclusively well outside those subjects, so I’m content to leave things as they are. Perhaps someday the Lord will lead me back into attention to such, but not now."
I hope that helps, Joel Tay
Jeremy W., Australia, 13 February 2017
Yes, the book Relativism by Koukl and Beckwith is excellent reading on this subject...I finished reading it last year. The chapter on Marriage is especially timely, considering this book was written 20 yrs ago, it's very relevant now.
Peter T., United States, 14 February 2017
I have had many discussions with co-workers about this very subject and was challenged to look up the meaning of morality. The definitions that I found blew me away. Our human nature and local culture shows it to be totally relative. It defines morality as whatever a group of people within a sub-group say that right and wrong is. The big difference for us Christians is that we recognize that every human is immoral in the eyes of God and that only He is Righteous. That is why he gave Himself for us to cover our sins. As our society progresses, it keeps slowly moving away from God and redefining what it means to be morally acceptable. Just look at TV programs from the 50's, 60', 70's, 80's, 90's, 00's, and 10's. Things that people wouldn't dare think, do or say in the past are commonplace today. God gave us the Mosaic law to convict us all in our hearts. He knew that we couldn't keep it. His Son was sent to redeem anyone who will believe what He has done for us through the work of the cross. His Love is unmeasurable and only He can define True Morality.