Moral Truth -- The Correspondence Theory of Truth
A statement is true when it corresponds with reality. In other words, a statement is true if it matches up with the way the world really is. This is the common definition of truth that we all know. It is only when we come to moral truth that people change the definition.
Moral Truth – Subjective Truth vs. Objective Truth
What is the best flavor of ice cream? The claim, “Chocolate ice cream is delicious” can be true for me but false for you because it is a subjective claim of truth. This claim is not really about the ice cream, but about me, the subject. Subjective truths are personal, private, and individual [think of ice cream].
What if I said, “Chocolate peanut butter ice cream treats diabetes”? Can this be true for you but not true for me? No, because it is an objective truth, a reality in the external world we discover and cannot change by our feelings. Objective facts are what they are, regardless of how we feel or think about them [think of insulin].
Here are the key questions: Are morals subjective (like ice cream preference) or are they objective (like insulin)? Do we create moral truth or discover it?
Moral Truth – Moral Relativism vs. Moral Absolutism
Moral Relativism is the view that moral truths depend on the individual or group who hold them. There are no moral absolutes, no objective ethical right and wrong. Morals are subjective, like ice cream preferences.
Moral absolutism holds that a moral rule is true regardless of whether anyone believes it, just like insulin controls diabetes whether anyone knows it or not. Morals can’t be created by personal conviction; nor do they disappear when an individual or culture rejects them. Ethical rules are objective and universally binding in all similar cases.
Moral Truth – Why Does It Matter?
Moral relativism cheapens human life. When morality is reduced to personal tastes, people exchange the question, “What is good?” for the pleasure question, “What feels good?” Rather than basing decisions on “what is right,” decisions are based on self-interest. When self-interest rules, it has a profound impact on behavior, especially how we treat other human beings. The notion of human dignity depends on there being objective moral truths. Instead, we can discard people when they become troublesome or expensive.
With moral relativism, anything goes! The death of objective morality is filled with an “anything goes” mentality. Nothing is ultimately wrong if you can get away with it.
Moral relativism creates moral cowards. If all morality is equal, then why take a moral stand against evil? Why stand up for what I think is right if all morality is subjective, personal?
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.
Problem 4: Moral relativism is unlivable. Many of us are willing to be a moral relativist when it’s “convenient,” but as soon as someone attempts to steal our stuff, we quickly become a moral absolutist by appealing to fairness. We know what people believe not by what they say or do, but by how they want to be treated. If someone says he doesn’t believe in justice, cut in front of him in line. Here’s a good rule of thumb: Don’t believe people who say that morality is subjective—that murder or rape may not really be objectively wrong
Moral Truth – The Ultimate Judge
When it comes to moral truth, we’ve all heard the relativist mantra, “Who are you to judge?” Frank Beckwith responded powerfully when challenged at a recent presentation: “I certainly do have a right to make moral judgments. I am a rational person who is aware of certain fundamental principles of logical and moral reasoning. I think I’m qualified. Who would you rather have judge, animals? Your claim that I have no right to make moral judgments is itself a judgment about me. Your claim, therefore, is self-refuting.”
Anyone who says you should not judge has already made a moral judgment about you, namely that you are wrong for judging others. Next time someone says, “Who are you to judge?” you might reply by asking, “Who are you to ask the question, who are you to judge?” If someone says, “You should not make moral judgments,” ask a simple question: “Is that your morality?” If so, “Then why are you forcing your version of moral truth on me?”
Excerpted and derived from the presentation, “Are There Absolute Moral Truths?” by Sean McDowell. Compliments of Sean McDowell. All rights reserved in the original presentation.
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