Absolute Moral Relativism

One of the evils we are told to fear about Humanism and Secularism, and “PC” is that tolerance leads to Moral Relativism.  The fear, it goes, is that when you allow morals to be relative, then anything can be called moral, and all morality breaks down into immorality as we each choose whatever morals are most advantageous to ourselves.  The remedy, we are told, is to ascribe to an absolute moral authority, and the handiest such authority is the Scripture for whatever the “true” religion is, and we all know that that religion just happens to be our religion.  There are two points I hope to make to start this discussion: First, all morality is relative, bar none, and, any attempt to pretend that morality is ever absolute actually leads to a less moral state. Second, the relativity of morality in no sense means that morality has no meaning or stability.  On the contrary, when we recognize valid ways in which morality is stable and meaningful, we can be more moral, and when we avoid understanding our morality, we act immorally in blissful ignorance.

Let me begin by saying that Religion and Morality are closely linked.  Personal religion is essential to morality, even though there is no reason why that religion cannot be agnostic or atheistic in nature.  When you hold certain truths about how to behave and interact to be self-evident or otherwise above the need to question them, then you have the kind of personal religion to which I refer.  You may have them and refuse to admit it, but I will leave that discussion for other threads.  Suffice it to say that there is far more to personal religion than the narrative that is used to describe it.  Therefore, no one should take this post to be against the morality of any religion on the whole.  I will try to point out how an overly authoritarian moral structure may be harmful, so the shoe may fit for some sects.  Whether your moral basis is in scripture or not, however, the biggest threat to morality occurs when we rationalize with moral platitudes or selfishness what is most advantageous to ourselves in the name of morality, or when we let fear of the unknown disguise itself as moral righteousness.

What do I mean when I say that all morality is relative?  Does that mean that if everybody commits murder it’s okay to commit murder?  Of course not.  To understand what “relativity” really means, let’s consider Newton’s Laws of motion.  The First Law is often stated “a body in motion tends to stay in motion at the same speed and direction, while a body at rest tends to remain at rest”. The Second Law is “The force required to cause a body to change speed or direction (accelerate) is equal to the mass of the object times the acceleration.” The Third Law is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In our day and age, these laws are still the foundation for much of physics, but we now see that all three of these are linked into one, due to the relativity of motion. We can just say that “To affect any change in the trajectory of a body, a force equal to the mass of the body times the change in trajectory must be applied” and the Third Law (equal and opposite reaction) is just that whatever applied the force will be subject to the same laws.  So, a proper understanding of relativity of motion does not change the fact that the laws of motion are in effect.  A proper understanding of the relativity of morality does not change the foundation of what morality is, as long as we have a good idea of what that foundation is.

An example of the relativity of any moral would be the issue of killing.  When is it okay to take a life? The answer is that it is ALWAYS situational.  There are those who believe that taking any life, even swatting a fly, is an immoral thing to do.  Most of those who decry moral relativism do not.  We tend to treat killing to defend an innocent to be morally acceptable, even heroic, while killing for personal gain to be immoral.  But there is not a clear line.  What if to protect a thousand innocent lives you have to take action you know will take a few innocent lives? At that point, some mathematics may come in to play, but the math would only be useful to determine relative morality.  If the morality were not relative, no weighing of relative benefits would be of use in deciding. We could probably formulate some basic rules about this and still pretend that underneath it all, the morality of taking life is not relative.  However, we can keep going with examples and will come back to the same place. Consider the hot-button issue of underage sex.  In America in the twenty-first century, there are a lot of social pressures and norms around sex.  If we look back less than one hundred years, and even expand our gaze back millennia from there, we would find that it was not abnormal for a thirteen year old to be married, and marriage would be fairly common for fourteen to sixteen year olds. There was no social stigma associated with it. It was a sign of maturity and responsibility.  These folks were only scarred by the experience in the same way any married person would be scarred.  Today, however, such a young person, particularly a girl, would be seen as damaged, oversexed, and a victim.  She would be. Today is not like the distant path.  Our ideas about such things today have shaped the reality that what may have not been so harmful in another context does harm today.  And even today, other young people in other cultures may not suffer the same contextual circumstances, and be content to marry quite young and be happier for it.  I don’t presume to say they are, only that this is another example in which the context of the morality renders the same action to have a different moral significance.  We could cite examples of lying, cheating, stealing, etc., but they come out the same.  So, even those who believe that morality is of great concern and not a casual matter should be able to see that there will always be relativity about morality that is essential to true morality, as opposed to concrete rules.

Is there any concrete and solid rule that is not context sensitive?  Even if not, there is one rule that is so fundamental and universal that it shows up in virtually every serious religion that has developed on this planet.  We call it The Golden Rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated if you were in their situation.  It is not absolute, and it really needs a lot more words to make it truly express the rule correctly, so that it is non-trivial, but the corollary to the rule we might just say “be as fair as possible”.  Let’s make sure that we eliminate whatever word games might get in the way of a meaningful discussion.  One way people twist the Golden Rule is to be too personal in the interpretation. “I don’t like chocolate, so I won’t let you have chocolate” is not what it means. A better version would be “I want to pick my flavor, so I should let you pick yours”.  This is not the be-all-end-all of morality, and it is the epitome of relativistic morality, but it gives stability to the relativism. It also gets a bit complicated when dealing with bigger questions.  If I had killed someone, I would not want to go to prison.  But if I consider all of the rest of the people of society, I can say that if there was a murderer out there, I would want to be protected.

This issue of protecting folks from one another does complicate the way we work out what the Golden Rule would mean in a given situation.  A child may not want to be protected, but as a society we recognize that children cannot be fully responsible for themselves. At what point any person is entitled to claim responsibility for themselves tends to be handled more or less arbitrarily based on social norms with a certain give and take for circumstances, but we tend to allow adults of varying competence levels to be considered responsible for themselves.  At that point, their own wish to be protected or not would be important to how we view the Golden Rule. Is it moral to deprive them of things that are bad for them if they feel that these things are in a different way good for them? For example, suppose we know that butter will shorten someone’s life by 20%. Is it more moral to withhold butter to help them live longer, or let them have it to enhance the quality of life?  Clearly, we could disagree on the maximum level of inaction or action that would constitute a moral choice, but if we are trying to make a moral choice, we tend to succeed if we are focusing on what is for the good.  It is far less likely that we will make the most moral choice if we are bypassing this consideration and consulting a rule book that is in denial of the relative nature of morality.

Don’t think for a minute, however, that I suggest that such rulebooks are not valuable.  Scriptures from the major religions are loaded with rules that describe morality in very useful ways.  As it turns out, just as we saw in the previous paragraph, there are a lot of very common situations and many similar situations for which an ad hoc attempt to determine the maximum morality on a consistent basis is likely to fail much of the time.  Even if we were geniuses and pure of heart there is a good chance that the ripples of a choice we make will spread beyond our intended effect.  This is why looking to the ancient texts with a long oral tradition can give us a reference point to consider the impacts of moral choices.  We may find that many are greatly out of context, but probably not as many as we think at first glance.  Many of the religions have a similar formula for their moral structures that looks something like:

1)      Don’t question the moral structure below

2)      Speak the truth at all times

3)      Do not steal

4)      Only kill in war or to enforce the moral code

5)      Sex has a purpose and should not be casual

6)      Stay within your class structure and obey authority

7)      Work hard

8)      Don’t get intoxicated for pleasure

9)      Be clean


The order is not the most important thing in this example, even if each discipline gives significance to the respective orders of their laws. It is easy to see how most of these rules are about staying out of social situations that lead to disharmony, doing your part to make society stable, and generally keeping yourself and your family strong and contributing to society.  Including class structure and authority, including lethal moral authority shows up in many of the moral codes, even if they are largely ignored, or in some cases, contradicted, probably has more to do with the power afforded the priestly classes who controlled access to the scriptures, but that is speculation on my part.  The important thing is that everything from eating shellfish to protecting the protocol for inheritance all came of centuries of tradition and lore on what makes society happy and healthy.  Any attempt at a valid opinion as to whether these remain relevant today must start with asking why they may have been good morals at the time. Only then we can extrapolate whether they are still relevant, and even then, our lifetime is not as rich as the many lifetimes involved in developing ancient moralities, so we should tend to assume that unless there is a compelling reason why the code is no longer relevant, it should be assumed to be relevant.  Arrogance is a dangerous thing.


However, the wisdom of the Ages is worse than worthless when it is construed to justify immorality.  As mentioned, the fact that a character in a scripture may have five thirteen year old wives does not mean that this would be a moral thing in the United States in the Twenty-First century.  A way to prevent an epidemic associated shellfish handling four thousand years ago may not warrant a death sentence today.  We don’t need to kill non-virgins to protect biological inheritance because we have DNA testing, and our agriculture does not rely on every man and woman marrying and having enough kids to lose half of them to infant mortality or wild beasts.  If we pick the “sins” that make us most uncomfortable in order to justify ignoring the Golden Rule when it comes to those who otherwise just want what we have, or if we invent ways to justify enforcement of more recently developed moral codes as if they are ancient and sacred, we are not using the wisdom of the ancients, only the words.




About UncleJoe

I'm a middle aged male who has attended a seminary as well as receiving a degree in philosophy from a secular university neither of which would particularly impress you if I said which. I have pondered and puzzled questions of faith and the lack thereof for many years. I don't not claim to be holy, or an expert on everything, simply observant and interested. I'll make bold statements about what I see as the way things are, and you don't have to take my word for it. Call me on it. I am here for the discussion.
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One Response to Absolute Moral Relativism

  1. Netherman says:

    It seems we may be like lemmings.

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