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Showing posts with label moral relativism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label moral relativism. Show all posts

Monday, December 02, 2013

How Teaching Answers Fails Christian Students

This morning, I talked with a friend of mine who teaches at a local Christian college. The students he instructs come from traditional evangelical homes, and the parents pay high tuition to send their kids to a school that will provide a solid, biblical framework during their higher education. But something still bothered him.

He had given his students the assignment of presenting an argument for some cultural topic or issue of the students' choice, and one of his brightest students chose to discuss the morality of embryonic stem-cell research. She read her paper in front of the class, arguing that the embryo is a human being; thus destroying an embryo for research is destroying a human being and is wrong. She provided reasons for her position and did well in supporting her view.

All of this sounds great, but what happened afterward has me deeply concerned. Because the students presented their papers orally, each student was to leave five minutes for questions and answers at the end of their presentations. When asked to clarify what she means when she said it was wrong, she responded, "Well, I mean it is wrong for me. I wouldn't fund any type of research like this but I couldn't impose my moral views on another person who may want to do so."

I've commented many times on why moral relativism fails as a true way to measure the rightness or wrongness of an action, but my bigger concern is this strange contradiction between the paper this student presented and her about-face during the Q&A. I mean, think about it: if moral claims are subjective and personal, then they don't need to be argued for or against. No one has to provide three reasons why they choose soup over salad for their dinner. We understand that these are subjective choices that cater to the taste of the individual, therefore supplying reasons to make such a choice is superfluous.

So, after all the effort this student put forth in defending her moral objection to the practice of embryonic stem cell research, she simply undercut her whole argument by saying that the case is only applicable to herself. Why would she do such a thing? I think it is because young Christians today compartmentalize their beliefs instead of integrating them. This particular student was very capable at doing the assignment given to her. She knew where to look for the "right" answers to the question she was engaging, and she knew how to create an argument to support her views. She may have even been taught this position in her church youth group, but she didn't really understand it because she didn't really know was right and wrong means.

If this student had truly understood that moral values and duties must be prescriptive, that is people should conform to them, she wouldn't have relativized her response. If the issue was, say, requiring a one race to drink out of a separate water fountain from another, I don't think she would say, "Well, that's wrong for me personally, but I wouldn't want to push my views on other people." No, such a requirement should be rightly condemned and anyone seeking to segregate in such a way should be punished. That means we would force our moral point of view on the segregationist, telling them that they must conform to the proper action. It doesn't matter regardless of what that segregationist believes.

All of this leads me to three points that Christian leaders, and especially leaders of young people, need to be sensitive to if we're going to make a difference in the lives of our students and in our culture:
  1. Christianity is a worldview rooted in objective values. Christians need to understand that the claims that Jesus made were not his personal opinion. When he said "If your brother sins, rebuke him" in Luke 17:3 it didn't carry an asterisk saying "but only if he believed it was wrong." Right and wrong are objective, regardless of what we think.
  2. Christians may say the right thing, but it doesn't mean they get it. Just because our students can answer a question on abortion or sex outside of marriage with the right responses doesn't mean that they have internalized those ideas. They may know what to say, but we as teachers need to see if they really believe what they're saying. This means that students need to feel secure enough to ask tough questions in church and know that they can explore their own positions without being condemned or being dismissed.
  3. Christian leaders need to focus in integrating Christian teaching with Christian living. We need to begin breaking down these different "boxes" that people erect today when discussing faith. Christian teachers need to explain why certain positions matter and how they make a difference to the person in the pew. For example, if an embryo is a human being, then stem-cell research that destroys an embryo is sacrificing a living human being to science. Is such a sacrifice worse than forcing someone to drink out of a separate water fountain? Does the soul of a human being matter? Let's dig deeper into what our parishioners actually believe instead of waiting for them to volunteer the information.
As an apologist, I'm keenly aware that I can assume nothing when talking with people, even those who identify themselves as Christians. I cannot provide "how to answer this" type information without first establishing why such issues matter, why morality is binding, and why Jesus sought to remove their hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh for those with whom He engaged. Without laying a proper foundation, all the apologetics in the world will be nothing more than an academic exercise.

Friday, June 28, 2013

How Does One Define Morality?

In my posts on natural marriage and the recent Supreme Court decision on DOMA, I had made the claim that the Supreme Court cannot define morality. There are many people in the world who will claim that simply because an action is legal it is thus moral; I argue that the former does not necessarily imply the latter. But others have been confused on how I can make such a claim. So, I'd like to back up a bit and talk about just what I mean when I speak of morals and morality.

The study of morality—what it is, how we come to know it, and its distinctions—is a field of study known as ethics. There are several ethical theories on just what morality is, but I will focus on the three main ways people define moral principles: the emotive definition of morality, the subjective definition of morality, and objective definition of morality.[1] Within the objective view, there are two more subsets: morality stemming from the nature of man and morality that transcends man's nature.

1. The Emotive Definition of Morality

The emotive definition of morality simply holds that moral statements are expressing an emotional value to an action but they hold no compulsive value. This view was made popular by empiricists, people who claim that in order for any statement to have meaning it must able to be measured through sensory experience.  They hold that since moral claims exist outside of empirical reality, they are really "pseudo-concepts". [2]  The philosopher A.J. Ayer, one of the most notable proponents of emotivism, explains that moral statements are really the same as uttering "Hooray!" or "Yuck!" and because they are just expressions of feelings they can be neither true nor false. He writes:
"In saying that a certain type of action is right or wrong, I am not making any factual statement, not even a statement about my own state of mind. I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments. And the man who is ostensibly contradicting me is merely expressing his moral sentiments. So that there is plainly no sense in asking which of us is in the right. For neither of us is asserting a genuine proposition."[3]
In Ayer's view, moral claims can be put on the same par as a young child squealing for joy at her first carnival ride. The squeal may display the child's feelings, but if you were to write it down on a piece of paper without a context it would have no meaning for the reader. Ayer holds that moral statements can be considered just as inconsequential.

2. The Subjective Definition of Morality

The second way people understand ethical statements is by considering them to be preferences, either personal preference or preferences agreed upon by a group of people, like a culture, court, or government. So, one culture can state that it is immoral to sleep with anyone other than one's wife while another culture can state that it may be moral to sleep with many different partners whether one is married or not. Morality in this sense is rooted primarily in the agreement of the parties involved.

Anyone who holds to a relativistic morality falls into this camp. The problem here, as we have discussed before, is that such a relativistic view of morality fails to do what moral statements need to do: tell us how we ought to live. Those who believe in moral relativism are stating that moral actions are akin to picking a favorite ice cream flavor: to say anything is right or wrong is merely to express your particular opinion. No moral statements provide guidelines for why a person should do thus and so.

3. The Objective Definition of Morality

The third way to understand moral statements is that they are objectively discerned from the world in which we live. This view of morality does not trade on the opinions of individuals to define what is moral, but they hold that moral values exist and we must discover them. It may be the case that we are mistaken in our moral understanding, but our opinion of what is moral and what is not does not make the action moral or immoral. It is simply our attempt to describe the moral values we believe are true.

J.P. Moreland describes it this way:
"Objectivism holds that moral statements are stating facts about the acts of morality themselves or the objects that are said to have value. The statement ‘The apple is red' says something about the apple. The statement ‘Persons have value' and ‘Murder is wrong' say something about persons and the act of murder. Just as ‘The apple is red' asserts that the apple has a property (redness), so moral statements assert that persons or moral acts have certain properties."[4]
Of the three views above, only objective morality gives us something moral statements are supposed to do: it gives us a prescription for how people should live. Ideas of good and evil carry with them value judgments on how one should behave in a gives set of circumstances. The emotive view holds that moral claims hold no more meaning than "EEEeeyahhh!", which means we can ignore them. The subjective view holds that saying slavery is evil is akin to saying tapioca pudding is evil. Only on an objective view of morality, one that finds its source outside of man's actions, opinions, or preferences, will moral statements become a true guide on how individuals ought to live.

There still remains the question of where objective morality is rooted. Some say morality is rooted in human biology, that it helps us to thrive and survive. Others feel that objective morality must be part of something even larger than mankind and his survival. We'll look at that question next time.


1. These classifications are based loosely on the outline J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig set forth in chapter 19 of Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downers Grove IL.: Intervarsity Press, 2003). 397.
2. Ayer, Alfred Jules. Language, Truth and Logic. (New York: Dover Publications, 1952). 106.
3.Ibid. 107-108.
4. Moreland. 400.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Relativism Suffocates From Its Own Standards

People don't like termites in their house. They gnaw on the house's structure, causing damage and could eventually weaken supports, making the house unsafe. To rid a severely infested house of termites and other pests, people will have their houses fumigated, sealing it tight and replacing the oxygen with lethal gas to kill all the living critters. 

Fumigation is an effective technique, as it penetrates every area of the house so no pest can escape the lethal gas. However, if you lived in a large house that had no exits, would you choose to fumigate to get rid of pests? Of course not, since by being included in the house, you'd be poisoned along with everything else. But this is exactly the main problem with relativism. You see, anytime we say the way something is or isn't we are making a claim about that state of affairs. Claims have truth value. But relativism makes a claim that no claims can be true absolutely. This is known as a self-defeating statement, which is a statement so big it actually denies itself. Examples of self-defeating statements are things like "I cannot write one single sentence in English" or "Everything I say is false." These statements cannot be true on their face. Similarly, the statement "There are no absolute truths" is all encompassing, which means it is making an absolute claim about truth. By doing so, it has contradicted itself.

Relativist claim: There are no absolute truths!

In a past article, we saw that post-modernism is all about rejecting all Grand Stories — which as I said are the basic rules of how the world works. However, by rejecting meta-narratives, isn't post-modernism providing a meta-narrative itself? Isn't it telling us "All viewpoints are equally biased" trying to give us an opinion that they think is unbiased and objectively true? The relativist is trapped in a house of truth-claims, and then seeks to poison the notion that truths can exist.

Relativist: "There are no absolute truths."

Christian: "Is that absolutely true?"

Relativist: "There's no such thing as truth."

Christian: "Would you like me to take that claim as true?"
The fact that relativism is self-refuting will show up in every one if it's different flavors, so it's crucial that you understand that point. Relativism's own rules suffocate itself!

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Relativism Sinks into the Quicksand of Meaninglessness

Whenever I look at the issue of moral relativism, I find that there are many different ways it doesn't make sense. The concepts of right and wrong must be grounded in something beyond our personal opinions or feelings. One of the problems of relativism is that is sinks in the quicksand of meaningless morality. Let me explain what I mean.

If relativism is true, then societies themselves cannot advance to the betterment of its members. There are those relativists who believe that although relativism is not based in absolute values, each person living within a social framework should obey the laws and culture that the society deems proper. Polygamy, for example, is neither right nor wrong in itself. It’s simply that some societies have a history and culture of allowing polygamous relationships and others have a history of promoting monogamous relationships. Neither is really right or wrong- They just have different cultures and each should be allowed to express their preference. They believe that morality is determined by the dictates of the society.

Relativist claim: "Each society does what is right for them and we should allow them to practice the dictates of their own culture and habits"

This is a type of cultural relativism is known as Normative relativism – meaning that whatever mores the society holds should be followed. But what about those people to rally for social change? Slavery was once the majority view in the South, so should it have therefore been left in place? If a society agrees that a practice such as slavery or infanticide is acceptable, then one cannot say abolishing those practices is the right thing to do. In fact, our society today is not better than the slave-holding south, it’s just different. Relativism without a solid foundation of objective standards quickly sinks into a quicksand of moral meaninglessness where no laws or moral frame work is better than any other.

It gets worse, though.  If morality means agreeing with whatever the society says is OK right now, then anyone who stands up to those concepts would be considered immoral since they are fighting against the majority opinion.  It makes those that would push for the rights of the downtrodden to be immoral! The abolitionist movement and Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights protests would be categorized as immoral actions. Concepts of justice are nullified. The idea of fair laws and unfair laws disappears. If there is no absolutes to stand upon, if everything is viewed by what society says is right right now, then fighting for improving things doesn’t make any sense.

 C.S. Lewis said "A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line."1 If you think about it, this is a very profound statement. There is only one way to create a straight line, you find the shortest distance between two points. However, there are many ways to be crooked: a line can have many angles, a soft arc or deviate just slightly from the intended target. Crooked lines come in all kinds of shapes, but the only thing that defines a crooked line as crooked is it is not the shortest distance between two points; it is not straight. That’s how morality works. We need to know what the objective is in order to see what deviates from it. Both individually with good and evil and as a society, an objective morality is necessary for the world to function. Otherwise we’re all slowly being pulled down by the weight of various opinions. The more people struggle to hold onto this view, the faster they sink into meaninglessness.


1. Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. (New York:Macmillan Pub. Co., 1960) 45.
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