Netflix knows me all too well. The global movie sharing company knows that if they recommend it, I’ll watch anything involving World War II. It is a time in history of interest to me and Netflix is well aware of this.
There is something about the Allied effort against the Nazis and anything involving the Holocaust that has always been of tremendous interest to me.
The fight against something bad and for something good that fires me up. The reality of injustice stares back at me as I watch every show. The contrast between right and wrong are so blatantly broadcasted. The struggle and sacrifice of so many for absolute values like freedom and justice is so evident.
Evil is so real.
Then I turn off the TV and start to watch my own culture. People do not know what to fight for anymore. It is clear that many of us today aren’t so sure about right and wrong anymore. In the West we are not sure about where to draw the line between good and evil, if it can/should be drawn at all. Is there any foundation to call things objectively right and objectively wrong anymore? I have heard people tell me that we have no right to say that what Hitler and the Nazis did was wrong. It shocks me every time.
Moral relativism has permeated our culture, our universities, our media and it has even seeped into the church, a place that should be a bastion for objective moral values and duties.
The Bankruptcy of the Relativist Position
Moral relativism is the philosophical belief that moral judgments are subjective to individuals, cultures or societies. Relativists believe that there are no objective moral values and duties that all people must live under and submit to. This post will look at one of the most deeply entrenched kinds of relativism, subjectivism.* Subjectivism is the idea that if something seems right to an individual (rather than the other forms of relativism in culture or at a societal level), then it is acceptable.
I will show that there are seven flaws to this philosophical idea by showing how they go against our deeply rooted human conscience/intuition (what we “know in our know-er” to be true).
1. No right and wrong
First, if morality is relative then a relativist has no foundation to call anything or behaviour wrong. The Nazis weren’t wrong, greed isn’t wrong, and even torturing babies for fun (as long as the individual feels it is ok) is not wrong.
The subjectivity of morality denies the relativist the claim that any moral position must be universally accepted. I know few people who would agree that a murderer, if convinced he had good grounds to do so, would be allowed to murder anyone he wanted to.
Subjectivism fails by its failure to condemn this.
2. No foundation for problem of evil
Secondly, subjectivism is flawed because it does not allow for a person to complain about the problem of evil. To be consistent, evil must be condemned as something that is bad at a universal level, not just the preference of individuals.
The Nuremburg Trials, the courts that condemned Nazi war criminals knew this. Nuremburg told us that there exists a morality above the national level. That’s why Nazi leaders, even though their own laws permitted their behaviour, were still condemned to death.
We need evil at a universal level because then we would know how to address it. As C.S. Lewis once said that you can judge a crooked stick because you know what a straight one looks like. The subjectivist knows of no straight sticks, nor does he believe in them. He can make no case against history’s most notorious crooked sticks, the Nazis who, by their own moral standard, killed millions of Jewish people, Polish prisoners of war and many sub-cultures they didn’t like during the Holocaust.
Intuitively, we know that mass murder is always wrong no matter who it is committed against. The subjectivist can make no such claim.
3. No encouraging heroes or critiquing foes
Thirdly, those who espouse to subjectivism can accept no praise from anyone nor can they assess blame to anyone. Praising or blaming someone is to assess a moral judgment on another. We praise what we believe is good.
We condemn that which is bad. On the subjectivist position, there is nothing that a collective group can praise as ultimately good or bad – just mere individual preference. The subjectivist could not even praise their act of heroism (like those who went against the German government and risked their lives saving and hiding Jewis people) as a universal good. Under the subjectivist philosophy, there is no universal good to pursue, just what an individual thinks is good.
4. No foundation for justice
The fourth flaw of subjectivism is its inability to call anything unfair or unjust. Terms like these are normative, assuming a universal acceptance of what is fair and just, how things should go and how people should be treated. These ideals make no sense if morality is just left to subjective preference.
A standard of justice or injustice could simply be likened to our preference for rocky road or chocolate chip ice cream.
5. How do you know if you’re getting better?
The fifth flaw of subjectivism is that there are no grounds for improvement of behaviour. Child rearing, the training of children to pursue good and avoid the bad would be a useless task. Subjectivism removes the goal by individualizing ethics and moral choices.
Though individuals may change their morality, there is no way to know what the goal of human behaviour is. As a result, we cannot know whether a person learning to share or respect their parents was a change for the better or worse.
6. No meaningful discussion about ethics and morality
Sixthly, subjectivism fails to provide a forum for a meaningful discussion about ethics and morality. It can be likened to a bunch of sick patients sitting in a waiting room of a hospital and shooting the doctor so the patients can diagnose themselves. Under subjectivism, the pursuit of any kind of moral goal is useless. Statements would be limited to mere preference of the individual making them and as such there would be no way of knowing whether or not it was a good preference or not.
Discussion would be reduced to everyone saying, “I see it this way” and no one being able to judge whether that person was right or wrong (see point one again).
7. Cannot confront intolerance
Seventh and lastly, subjectivism fails as a philosophical idea because those who hold this view cannot even enforce the tolerance they so desperate wish to see in the world. If there are no interpersonal morality duties, there would be no basis to enforce tolerance. Someone who was being intolerant could not be confronted as such. How could you enforce the value of tolerance?
The intolerant person prefers to be tolerant. As such they were merely acting out of their own moral desires. In order to encourage the intolerant person to pursue the objective good value of tolerance, the subjectivist would have to abandon their whole moral system.
All seven flaws are sufficient grounds to show that subjectivism as a form of relativism is a philosophically bankrupt position to hold. This is what twentieth-century Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis had to understand when he found that his worldview was unable to match his experience.
As an atheist, Lewis wanted to call the bad things he observed in the world “evil” and “unjust.” He especially wanted to be critical of God and the evils he saw in the church. His problem came when he realized that according to his atheism, he did not have the logical foundation to do so. Lewis realized he needed the God he was rejecting, to be able to call God, “unjust”! Read carefully why Lewis left atheism, linking his need for God with his desire for justice. He wrote in his book, Mere Christianity:
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed to be cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’?… What was I comparing this universe with when I called it ‘unjust’?… Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too — for my argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies… Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple.”
Lewis did the right thing. He abandoned his atheism and embraced a worldview which supported the objective moral values and duties that he deeply knew to be true. He spent the rest of his life defending his position and exposing the bankruptcy of the philosophy of his day.
That is also what I have tried to do here.
*I am in debt to Stand To Reason‘s Greg Koukl for his outstanding lecture on this subject. I have adapted many of his points for this post. Thank you Greg for your outstanding work defending the Christian faith.