10 May Can You Be Good Without God? 5 Reasons Moral Relativism Fails
*This is a shortened excerpt from Prove It: The Art & Science of Understanding & Articulating Why You Believe What You Believe. There is also an accompanying workbook available, here. NOTE: This is not claiming that atheists cannot do good things or that Christians are morally superior in action. The question is whether or not there is a philosophical foundation for goodness without the existence of God.
The Many Failures of Relative Morality
1. Functional Incoherence
Moral disagreements demand objective standards. Real moral disagreements are not possible without an absolute moral standard by which both sides can be measured. The very argument about moral correctness assumes an absolute morality from which to operate toward and away from.
2. Value Statements Beyond the Realm of Science
Think of it this way. The first hurdle that any worldview must overcome, when philosophizing about morality, is to establish some sort of value or worth of a subject. In other words, a worldview must answer the question, “Why is a given subject worthy of being protected from wrong action?” Naturalists, are left with a very poor answer to this question. As the universe is temporal, the greatest ascribable worth, from the perspective of naturalism, is that a subject holds some temporary utility. But even so, to what end? Who cares about the temporary utility that a subject might give to their culture or environment? If naturalism be true, there is no external entity ascribing value to people, places, or things. There is no eternity from which eternal value/worth can be derived. We are no more than chemical reactions that are in some freak process, somehow, self-aware. But this does not answer the question, “From where do we receive our value?” Only a transcendent, external, eternal entity is capable of ascribing transcendent, external, eternal value or worth.
“If moral statements are about something, then the universe is not quite as science suggests it is, since physical theories, having said nothing about God, say nothing about right or wrong, good or bad. To admit this would force philosophers to confront the possibility that the physical sciences offer a grossly inadequate view of reality. And since philosophers very much wish to think of themselves as scientists, this would offer them an unattractive choice between changing their allegiances or accepting their irrelevance.” -David Berlinski
3. Causal Determinism
- If the universe is deterministic
- then choice does not exist.
- If choice does not exist,
- then there is no such thing as moral choice.
According to a naturalistic worldview, that is, a world devoid of anything supernatural(especially a divine agent), the natural world is causally determined. As mentioned in the Kalam Cosmological Argument, this first premise is self-evident and the basic assumption upon which all sciences are built. If the world is determined, choice is an illusion. If choice is an illusion, then moral choice is an illusion. If we do not have the capacity to make moral choices or decisions, then there is no morally incorrect answer.
Moral relativism is self-defeating, or internally inconsistent. Here is how: moral relativism requires denying moral absolutism, which is, itself, a morally absolute claim. As Geisler states, “There is no way to avoid moral absolutes without affirming a moral absolute.” In claiming to be a relativist, one must deny absolutism, thus becoming an absolutist.
5. Violates the Law of Noncontradiction
The law of noncontradiction, which is a first principle in logic, states, “Nothing can both be and not be at the same time in the same respect.” Using this basic logical tool, relative morality is shown to be illogical. If Culture A says that X is morally good, and Culture B says that X is morally bad, they cannot both be true at the same time, in the same sense.
6. Moral Nihilism
Most apologists view moral nihilism as the inevitable reduction of relative morality. Though we are essentially saying the same thing, I go a little further in my language: Relative morality is ultimately indistinct from moral nihilism. Any attempt at distinction is superficial, as concluded by reasonable reduction, and, therefore, really no different from nihilism in the first place. Here is how it works. “Cultural relativism leads to individual relativism, and the autonomous self become the moral legislator[which is the same conclusion of moral nihilism].” There is no rational basis for moral agreement or disagreement, since the self is supreme.” Below is the syllogism for refuting relativism through nihilism.
1. Relativism leads to nihilism.
2. Nihilism is morally unacceptable.
3. Therefore, (a) relativism is morally unacceptable.
4. Therefore, (b) we need another moral theory.
Notice that premise two is opinion. However, it is a widely held perspective. This syllogism doesn’t prove God, but it forces people to either accept moral nihilism or reject relativism. Atheist philosopher, Kai Nielsen admits, “We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me… Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.”