Still drawing on Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP and Nottingham: Apollos, 2011), 338-341:
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that moral standards are simply a function of culture — that is, that moral “truths” are relative to particular societies.
Such an assumption renders the concept of moral “progress” quite empty. Moral standards or ideals may change — e.g., with regard to slavery or the treatment of women, or even the extermination of Jews — but to call this progress would be purely vacuous. If there is no standard of morality outside of the culture or society in question, no ideal external to the culture or transcending it, there is nothing against which to judge changes either good or bad. So the concept of moral “decay” also goes out the window.
To illustrate, let’s say that we have a unit of measurement called the “Bob,” defined as the height of a specific human unit known as “Bob.” When Bob is five years old, he will be of a certain height. When he is twenty-five years old, he will be of a greater height. But — remember that we’ve stipulated that there is no external standard for the Bob apart from Bob himself — he will still be precisely one Bob tall. On the other hand, using the Bob as our external standard of measurement, his father may have gone from four Bobs tall to only nine-tenths of a Bob.
Back, though, to morality or ethical evaluations.
In the anthology of his essays entitled Christian Reflections, C. S. Lewis makes an important point:
If “good” or “better” are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than each other. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring. For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral ideas of one age with those of another; progress and decadence are alike meaningless words.
But, surely, no decent and rational person would deny that there has been considerable progress in the treatment of African-Americans since, say, 1860.
And few if any normal people would disagree that such statements as the following are always and everywhere true:
- It is always wrong to torture animals, to say nothing of innocent people, merely for pleasure.
- Rape is always wrong.
However, if the doctrine of moral relativism is true, such statements can be denied. And, really, they cannot be defended as absolutely, not merely instrumentally, true.
If, for instance, we adopt moral relativism, rape is not always wrong. A culture or an individual might regard it as permissible or even, somehow, as good. In fact, some cultures have regarded rape as acceptable under at least certain circumstances (e.g. in war and conquest).
If you respond that rape is always wrong, though, you have thereby rejected moral relativism. This conclusion follows from applying the elementary logical rule known as modus tollens:
If P, then Q
Therefore not P.
Examples of this rule or argument form are easily found:
If Smith is alive, his head is attached to his body.
Smith’s head is not attached to his body.
Therefore, Smith is not alive.
If you’re in Paris, you’re in Europe.
You’re not in Europe.
Accordingly, you’re not in Paris.
In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin deliberately starved millions of Ukrainians to death. At roughly the same time, Adolf Hitler was launching his Endlösung in order to annihilate the Jews. Moral revulsion is the appropriate response to such cases. So much so that we regard people who aren’t appalled as defective, sick, abnormal, depraved, sociopathic. We don’t simply say “Well, of course I wouldn’t do such a thing, but who am I to judge other people? Different strokes for different folks!”
One might argue, though, that we need cultural/moral relativism because, otherwise, we will tend to be intolerant, dogmatic, and bigoted. If people believe that their moral position is superior to the moral positions of others, they will likely not be able to fully tolerate those other people and their views.
But why should anybody be “tolerant”? If toleration isn’t a universal moral principle, there seems no compelling reason why we should aspire to it or think negatively about those who aren’t tolerant. On the other hand, if tolerance is a universal moral principle, such that we “should” practice it and such that we “should” disapprove of those who don’t, moral relativism has already been abandoned. The tolerant cannot fault the intolerant, and tolerant cultures cannot be regarded as “superior” in that regard to intolerant cultures, if the question of tolerance is a purely relative one. Cultural relativists cannot consistently condemn absolutist cultures.
Perhaps, though, we can all agree that a culture should preferably have a dominant and ruling ethos, if only as a pragmatic means toward social stability and community harmony. That makes sense. Nobody wants to live in anarchy, in a Hobbesian society in which there is “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
But why “should” any individual pay any attention to an arbitrary set of ethical values that just happen to have been selected by his or her society — or, perhaps much more accurately, by some plurality or majority of that society, or by some socio-economic or cultural elite or other within that society? As the late philosopher Louis Pojman asked,
But why can’t I dispense with the interpersonal agreements altogether and invent my own morality — since morality, on this view, is only an invention anyway?
If there is no moral standard that is objective, or that, in some sense at least, transcends a particular society, on what basis can it be plausibly claimed that there is such a standard above and beyond one of the component individuals of that society? So, given such an assumption, it seems to be entirely up to individuals to choose or to make up their own personal moral systems, to decide for themselves what they consider right or wrong, or, even, to dispense altogether with a moral system and to completely ignore questions of right and wrong. Who is to say that they would be “wrong”?
A moral relativist might claim that everybody “should” be a moral relativist, or that moral absolutists are absolutely “wrong,” that we “should” never assert that our moral principles are universal. But it seems pretty obvious that such a stance would be incoherent and self-contradictory. Which appears to make it obviously false.