From the November/December 2019 issue of Discern Magazine

The Abyss of Moral Relativism

The ideas that truth is subjective and that morals can be decided by each person have pervaded our culture. But the results of moral relativism are truly bad.

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In today’s world, the concept of absolute moral truths—which are valid for all people, for all times and under all circumstances—has been rapidly falling out of favor. Popular thinking nowadays is, “What’s right for you may not be right for me,” and, “If it feels right, it is right.”

The lines between truth and falsehood, fact and opinion, and good and bad have all but disappeared.

Absolutes are out of style

Numerous surveys and books have documented just how unpopular ethical absolutes have become.

One of the most recent, a 2016 study by the Barna Group, reported that 57 percent of American adults see morals as a matter of personal experience. In other words, they think they should be able to decide for themselves what is right and wrong.

The truth that so many have cast aside is the code of moral conduct set forth in the Bible. God is the one source of absolute ethical truth (John 17:17). Once people have discarded His laws, they feel free to start making up their own rules, just as ancient Israel did in the time of the judges.

We’re told in Judges 21:25 that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

That certainly describes Western civilization today. People are living their lives not in accordance with ethical truths, but based on their individual preferences, perceptions and situations.

The term for this way of thinking is moral relativism.

What is moral relativism?

Those who espouse moral relativism reject the idea that there are unchanging, objective standards that exist eternally for all of mankind to live by. They believe truth is something they can devise on their own, and that what’s right or wrong varies from person to person, and culture to culture. They contend that truth is subject to change; therefore, what was inappropriate in the past may be appropriate today.

Relativism affects all areas of life. People lie on job applications, cheat on tests and pilfer from their employers—and think nothing of it. Scam artists trick investors and customers as a routine way of doing business.

Practices such as abortion, same-sex marriage, cohabitation, adultery and divorce are now seen by society as acceptable. So is the use of profanity and pornography. Couples are praised for not “imposing” gender or sexual preference on their children.

These are all inevitable consequences of people rejecting God’s truths, and instead creating their own “realities.”

The reasoning behind moral relativism

This drift from moral absolutes is hardly unexpected. Romans 8:7 tells us, “The carnal mind is enmity against God.” Human nature does not want to submit itself to God’s laws or have any boundaries put on it.

Moral relativism got its debut in the Garden of Eden when the serpent twisted God’s words about what was right and wrong.Moral relativism got its debut in the Garden of Eden when the serpent twisted God’s words about what was right and wrong. However, it was during the sexual revolution of the 1960s that relativism really took off. That is the case Steven Garofalo makes in his 2013 book, Right for You, but Not for Me.

He writes: “The sexual revolution exerted a concerted effort to obtain liberation from any and all moral constraints. This eventually morphed into mainstream culture’s explicit denial that moral absolutes exist. …

“As the view of moral relativism began to expand, traditional marriage, which had been defined since the beginning of time as a union between one man and one woman, began to be rejected as something ordained by God. Other major societal institutions, ranging from government to business ethics, followed suit in subscribing to moral relativism” (p. 278).

Rejecting God

The way relativists have attempted to justify their rejection of moral absolutes is by rejecting God Himself. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins epitomized this thinking in 2008 when he spearheaded an atheist advertising campaign in England with the slogan, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

As a worldview, moral relativism is built on a philosophy known as naturalism. Simply put, naturalism is the belief that nothing exists beyond the physical world. That means there is no God, no spirit world and no afterlife.

If God does not exist, then He cannot establish a universal moral standard of conduct. If this life is it and there is no higher power to obey, relativists see no reason to deprive the self of any desires.

Relativists believe individuals and cultures construct their own truths. They reason there is no such thing as universal, objective truth, because each person and each social group has a unique way of perceiving and interpreting the world.

Everything is relative to something else, they say, thus there is no ultimate reference point and no actual reality. Relativists maintain there are only subjective truths, which are relative to particular individuals, cultures or contexts. Therefore, no one may decide whether another’s beliefs or actions are right or wrong.

Now, some relativists will concede that there are objective truths about the physical world—the laws of gravity, that 2+2=4, that water consists of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, etc. However, they’ll still deny there are objective moral truths.

Problems with moral relativism

Those who oppose relativism are quick to point out that it’s self-contradictory. For instance, when relativists say, “There are no absolute truths,” they are stating as an objective fact that there’s no absolute truth, when they don’t believe in absolutes. Conversely, when relativists say, “Everything is relative,” the statement itself must also be relative, which means there’s no reason to accept it as fact.

But we don’t have to turn to logical arguments to know that moral relativism is wrong. This belief system is contrary to biblical teaching in so many ways.

For starters, it fosters self-centeredness. By choosing to determine their own truths and values, people are seeking to please themselves instead of God, or even other people. This is a violation of Matthew 22:37-40, which tells us to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The way to love God is to keep His commandments (1 John 5:3), not make up our own rules for how to live.

In 1998 Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl wrote their book, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Their insights are as applicable as ever today: “The notions of human respect and dignity depend on the existence of moral truth. Without it, there is no obligation of self-sacrifice on behalf of others. Instead, we can discard people when they become troublesome or expensive, or simply when they cramp our lifestyles” (p. 21).

They explain that when people hold moral absolutes, those truths restrain pleasures, as they should (“I want to do that, but I really shouldn’t”). But when right and wrong are viewed relatively, pleasure defines morality (“I want to do that and I’m going to find a way to rationalize it”).

When self-interest rules, moral decay is inevitable.

The Bible clearly denotes which types of behaviors are wrong and which are right. In contrast, moral relativism sees all ethical standpoints as equally valid, which means nothing can be labeled as “sinful” or “unacceptable.”

Viewing pornography, for instance, could never be deemed wrong; the strongest statement that could be made about it is, “I personally don’t like it.” There are no grounds to punish undesirable behaviors and no reasons to repent of them, as there are no objective moral standards to judge them by. The best that can be hoped for is that people will be tolerant of each other’s lifestyle choices. The trouble is, society often expects us to be tolerant of behaviors God forbids.

When individuals live by their own “truths,” conflicts inevitably arise.When individuals live by their own “truths,” conflicts inevitably arise. Disputes cannot easily be settled, as no one is looking to God’s Word for direction. Instead, the carnal mind tends to assert itself through fighting, manipulation and power moves. Without a common foundation of truth and absolutes, society can only become fragmented and weak.

Moral relativism is a prime example of Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” No civilization can survive in an environment where its citizens habitually do “whatever feels good” and ethical matters are based on personal desires.

We must hold fast to God’s truth

After Jesus Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God, the entire earth will be filled with God’s knowledge (Habakkuk 2:14). People will learn that there are absolute spiritual truths, and that God is the Lawgiver.

Until then, we must strive to know God’s truth as best as we can and never lose sight of its value. God’s truth gives us peace of mind to face the challenges and heartaches of this world with hope and confidence. It directs our steps so we can live peacefully with others and brings about true happiness, joy and freedom (John 8:32).

But just knowing about God’s truth is not enough. We must live by it. With each decision we make in our lives, we must strive to abide by God’s standards. We need to make time for regular Bible study, so that we know what God’s truths are.

We may not consider ourselves moral relativists or even be aware of all the reasoning behind this belief system. But we could still be living as a moral relativist if we don’t totally commit to God’s way of life, if we start reasoning why God’s laws don’t apply in a particular situation, or if we try to come up with “human solutions” instead of doing what the Bible says.

Moral relativism is a destructive ideology, and we need to do whatever we can to stay clear of it—and that is the absolute truth.

For more, see our online articles “What Is Truth?” and “Are Good Morals Good Enough?

About the Author

Becky Sweat

Becky Sweat is a freelance author and a member of the Church of God.

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