You just call out my name

You just call out my name October 12, 2011

“You just call out my name,” James Taylor sings, “and you know where ever I am / I’ll come running …”

You’ve likely said something similar to someone at some point. “If you ever need me, I’ll be there for you.” That, as Taylor says, is the mark of a friend.

But is it really? Because if that’s what it means to tell someone “You’ve got a friend,” then this is something that none of us can ever say to more than one person. If this is what it means to be a friend, then each of us can have one — and only one — friend.

We can make such a promise and mean it and keep it if we only make it to one person. But we cannot hope to keep such a promise if we make it to more than one person. What if they both “call out my name” at the same time? Or what if “wherever I am” turns out to be by the side of Friend A when Friend B suddenly needs me? If I “come running” to see Friend B, then I break my promise to Friend A. If I stay with Friend A, then I break my promise to Friend B.

What do I do if both friends need me at the same time?

Well, you’re probably thinking, that depends. It depends on the situation — on which friend needs you more right then.

That’s a reasonable solution. In fact, that’s precisely the reasonable solution that nearly everyone lives by — the reasonable solution that allows us to have more than one friend apiece.

Yet while this eminently reasonable solution is nearly universally embraced, it’s also widely condemned. And it’s particularly condemned — with great gusto — in my own religious community of American evangelical Christianity. Because “it depends on the situation” is the very definition of what many American evangelicals denounce as “moral relativism.”

Go ahead and do a Google search on that phrase, or on, say, “moral relativism + apologetics,” and you’ll find no shortage of vigorous denunciations. “Moral relativism,” these screeds and sermons say, is the root of all that’s wrong with the world. It leads to gay marriage, universal health care, progressive taxation, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s why Americans have abandoned God and the gold standard. It’s why kids these days won’t keep off my lawn.

“Moral relativism,” this argument says, erodes belief in moral absolutes, and absolute morality is absolutely necessary.

The problem there, of course, is that such moral absolutes are like James Taylor’s absolute friendship. It works fine if you’ve only got the one friend, but if you’ve got more than that, and if two or more of them require your attention at the same time …

What happens when two or more moral absolutes clash? What do you do?

Well, again, that depends on the situation. But what if you’ve been strictly taught that you must never say “that depends on the situation”? That escalates the dilemma — pushing it from a thorny question to a full-blown crisis of faith. And for those who have been taught to denounce “moral relativism,” such crises are inevitable, insoluble and insurmountable.

I think it’s wrong to put people into that situation — to set them up for such unnecessary and cruel crises. That’s tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and laying them on the shoulders of others, while being unwilling to lift a finger to help them. And that’s just wrong.

I’d say it’s absolutely wrong, except that, well, you know.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Michael Cohn

    Yeah, I agree with the other commenters. It’s not necessarily moral relativism when you decide between multiple unfavorable options based on their outcomes. A more apt name might be “ethical situationalism” or something. You can be a moral absolutist and still say “it’s always wrong to break a promise to a friend, but I can’t be there for Anita and Baldric at the same time, and Baldric doesn’t have anyone else who can help him. So it would be even more wrong not to go to him” — just as long as you’re not arguing that breaking a promise to a friend isn’t really wrong at all. Of course, there are people who decry situationalism as well, or who attach so much importance to certain kinds of duty that almost anything is a lesser evil, no matter how monstrous the consequences.

    An example of moral absolutism but ethical situationalism might be someone who allows that it might not hurt anyone to let gay people have “partnership contracts,” but believes we need to hold the line against calling it “marriage,” because that might look like we think it’s okay.

    Tangentially, I think the scenario of breaking a promise to a close friend is interesting, because it’s one of the worst promises to break, but also one of the most likely to be forgiven.

  • Michael Cohn

    Yeah, I agree with the other commenters. It’s not necessarily moral relativism when you decide between multiple unfavorable options based on their outcomes. A more apt name might be “ethical situationalism” or something. You can be a moral absolutist and still say “it’s always wrong to break a promise to a friend, but I can’t be there for Anita and Baldric at the same time, and Baldric doesn’t have anyone else who can help him. So it would be even more wrong not to go to him” — just as long as you’re not arguing that breaking a promise to a friend isn’t really wrong at all. Of course, there are people who decry situationalism as well, or who attach so much importance to certain kinds of duty that almost anything is a lesser evil, no matter how monstrous the consequences.

    An example of moral absolutism but ethical situationalism might be someone who allows that it might not hurt anyone to let gay people have “partnership contracts,” but believes we need to hold the line against calling it “marriage,” because that might look like we think it’s okay.

    Tangentially, I think the scenario of breaking a promise to a close friend is interesting, because it’s one of the worst promises to break, but also one of the most likely to be forgiven.

  • Mr. Heartland

    Unfortunately, fundamentalists are folks who, on one hand, consider their beliefs so obviously true that only evil fools would reject them, while at them same time considering themselves exceptionally good and wise for believing the obvious.  If they can handle this contradiction, than it’s relatively easy to rationalize opposing absolutes away.  

    This is usually done in the form of the Voice of God, commanding them to do exactly what they wanted to do before. 

  • Mr. Heartland

    Unfortunately, fundamentalists are folks who, on one hand, consider their beliefs so obviously true that only evil fools would reject them, while at them same time considering themselves exceptionally good and wise for believing the obvious.  If they can handle this contradiction, than it’s relatively easy to rationalize opposing absolutes away.  

    This is usually done in the form of the Voice of God, commanding them to do exactly what they wanted to do before. 

  • Even the most staunch absolutist will agree that if two obligations under the same value system conflict, the right action depends on the circumstances.

    That’s not actually true.  That’s not actually close to true.

    I know of two different ways actual staunch absolutists deal with the problem and neither of them involves the circumstances.  This is not to say that no absolutists would agree that when things conflict the right action depends on the circumstances, it is instead to say that there exist absolutists who would not and indeed do not.  (Or rather did not, since several of the people I’m thinking of happen to be dead at this point in history.)

    The first way that comes to mind is the claim that obligations can’t conflict.  They just can’t.  If two things conflict then there are three possibilities and three possibilities only:
    1 The first thing isn’t really an obligation.
    2 The second thing isn’t really an obligation.
    3 Neither is an obligation.

    The non-obligation thing is instead, at most, a tendency towards obligation.  It isn’t the case that X is wrong or Y is right, it is instead the case that X tends to be wrong or Y tends to be right.  Tendencies are ranked below obligations because obligations are inviolable while tendencies are things you can go against with no moral problems if, say, obligation requires it.

    Determining which of the two conflicting things is really an obligation and which is a tendency is not something to be done based on the circumstances because the difference between tendency and obligation doesn’t depend on circumstances.  Once you’ve worked out that X is an obligation and Y is just a tendency then you’ve figured out that whenever X and Y tell you to do conflicting things it will always be correct to do what X tells you, regardless of the circumstances.  This is not something you want to mess up because you were dwelling on circumstances when you should have been trying to work out universal immutable truth.

    If you determine today that, “Protect your friends,” isn’t an obligation where, “Tell the truth,” is then you are saying that, regardless of circumstances, it is always the case that when protecting your friends and comes into conflict with telling the truth you should choose the latter rather than the former.  It might not be the best idea to make that universal determination based on present circumstances.  (This is a time when it’s probably a good idea to think about the Nazis coming to your door and asking where your Jewish friends are.)

    Ok, so that’s one way of doing it.

    The other way is actually almost exactly the same, but it differs in that rather than saying there are obligations and there are tendencies it says that there are different levels of obligations.  They’re all really truly obligations, which means that violating them is really truly a bad thing, but some are more important than others.  When two obligations clash you go with the more important one (they will never be equally important), and you always go with the more important one regardless of circumstances.

    The difference is that by saying the thing you’re failing to obey really an obligation there’s a level a guilt introduced that the first way of looking at things neatly sidesteps.  In the first way of looking at things when you determine that X is the real obligation you don’t have any moral fallout from failing to follow the tendency Y.  You’re in the clear.  In the second way of looking at things Y is still an obligation, just a lesser one.  By following X and not Y you are choosing the lesser of two evils, but you are still choosing evil.  You’ve still done something wrong, your only solace being that it was the less wrong option.

    Anyway, those are the two ways I’ve seen absolutists address the problem, and neither of them considers circumstances.  (That said, neither of them has a problem with choosing between friend A and friend B either.)  Actually, I should clarify that.  They consider circumstances insofar as it is necessary to check to see how their absolute circumstance independent rules apply to them.

    If the top of your obligation hierarchy is, “Protect Friend A,” then you’ve got to consider whether that applies to the circumstances.  If Friend A is safely elsewhere then it doesn’t really apply.  What you do not do is use the circumstances to determine whether that should be at the top of your hierarchy.  If it applies then you do it, at the expense of all else, if it doesn’t then you don’t.  Which obligations are applicable depends on the circumstances, which of the applicable obligations you fulfill does not.

    That’s how it worked for the absolutists I’m familiar with.  I make no claims that that is how it worked/works/will work in the future for all absolutists.

  • Even the most staunch absolutist will agree that if two obligations under the same value system conflict, the right action depends on the circumstances.

    That’s not actually true.  That’s not actually close to true.

    I know of two different ways actual staunch absolutists deal with the problem and neither of them involves the circumstances.  This is not to say that no absolutists would agree that when things conflict the right action depends on the circumstances, it is instead to say that there exist absolutists who would not and indeed do not.  (Or rather did not, since several of the people I’m thinking of happen to be dead at this point in history.)

    The first way that comes to mind is the claim that obligations can’t conflict.  They just can’t.  If two things conflict then there are three possibilities and three possibilities only:
    1 The first thing isn’t really an obligation.
    2 The second thing isn’t really an obligation.
    3 Neither is an obligation.

    The non-obligation thing is instead, at most, a tendency towards obligation.  It isn’t the case that X is wrong or Y is right, it is instead the case that X tends to be wrong or Y tends to be right.  Tendencies are ranked below obligations because obligations are inviolable while tendencies are things you can go against with no moral problems if, say, obligation requires it.

    Determining which of the two conflicting things is really an obligation and which is a tendency is not something to be done based on the circumstances because the difference between tendency and obligation doesn’t depend on circumstances.  Once you’ve worked out that X is an obligation and Y is just a tendency then you’ve figured out that whenever X and Y tell you to do conflicting things it will always be correct to do what X tells you, regardless of the circumstances.  This is not something you want to mess up because you were dwelling on circumstances when you should have been trying to work out universal immutable truth.

    If you determine today that, “Protect your friends,” isn’t an obligation where, “Tell the truth,” is then you are saying that, regardless of circumstances, it is always the case that when protecting your friends and comes into conflict with telling the truth you should choose the latter rather than the former.  It might not be the best idea to make that universal determination based on present circumstances.  (This is a time when it’s probably a good idea to think about the Nazis coming to your door and asking where your Jewish friends are.)

    Ok, so that’s one way of doing it.

    The other way is actually almost exactly the same, but it differs in that rather than saying there are obligations and there are tendencies it says that there are different levels of obligations.  They’re all really truly obligations, which means that violating them is really truly a bad thing, but some are more important than others.  When two obligations clash you go with the more important one (they will never be equally important), and you always go with the more important one regardless of circumstances.

    The difference is that by saying the thing you’re failing to obey really an obligation there’s a level a guilt introduced that the first way of looking at things neatly sidesteps.  In the first way of looking at things when you determine that X is the real obligation you don’t have any moral fallout from failing to follow the tendency Y.  You’re in the clear.  In the second way of looking at things Y is still an obligation, just a lesser one.  By following X and not Y you are choosing the lesser of two evils, but you are still choosing evil.  You’ve still done something wrong, your only solace being that it was the less wrong option.

    Anyway, those are the two ways I’ve seen absolutists address the problem, and neither of them considers circumstances.  (That said, neither of them has a problem with choosing between friend A and friend B either.)  Actually, I should clarify that.  They consider circumstances insofar as it is necessary to check to see how their absolute circumstance independent rules apply to them.

    If the top of your obligation hierarchy is, “Protect Friend A,” then you’ve got to consider whether that applies to the circumstances.  If Friend A is safely elsewhere then it doesn’t really apply.  What you do not do is use the circumstances to determine whether that should be at the top of your hierarchy.  If it applies then you do it, at the expense of all else, if it doesn’t then you don’t.  Which obligations are applicable depends on the circumstances, which of the applicable obligations you fulfill does not.

    That’s how it worked for the absolutists I’m familiar with.  I make no claims that that is how it worked/works/will work in the future for all absolutists.

  • I actually came to the same conclusion via less rigorous means.  I’ve been dealing with depression for a long time and one of the problems with that is a certain lack of feeling, which means that for a lot of things I don’t care.  It’s not nearly as bad for me as some people I’ve heard of, but it’s very hard to make decisions when you really don’t care.

    Also, people who don’t understand that it’s possible to have no opinion can get very irritating very fast.

    “Where do you want to eat?”

    “I don’t care.”

    “You must have some preference.”

    “I really don’t.”

    “Just pick something.”

    [I try, again, to pick something, anything, at random I find yet again that I am unable.] “I can’t.”

    [Lots more conversation, they always seem to go on forever and ever and at least three more evers, by the end of which I’m no closer to decision but I’m quite actively pissed off at the person interrogating me.]

    Thing that I don’t think I’ve ever said but I probably should have said many times:
    “Either you don’t have an opinion either, in which case stop insisting I have to when you don’t, or you do have a preference in which case say it and we’ll go with that.”

    Also:

    “Next time that happens you should just flip a coin.”

    “How do I decide which option is heads?”
    [Yes, this is a problem sometimes.]

    When I need to call a coin flip I almost invariably call tails.  Sometimes I get it in my head that there should be variation and I call heads, but most of the time I wouldn’t be able to make a decision at all so I fall back on my standard choice.  That’s why I have a standard choice in the first place, after all.

    And none of the above compares to the mess I found myself in when I decided to buy a lottery ticket.  Six numbers to pick?  Six?  The decision making process ate up months of my life without ever reaching a conclusion.

  • I actually came to the same conclusion via less rigorous means.  I’ve been dealing with depression for a long time and one of the problems with that is a certain lack of feeling, which means that for a lot of things I don’t care.  It’s not nearly as bad for me as some people I’ve heard of, but it’s very hard to make decisions when you really don’t care.

    Also, people who don’t understand that it’s possible to have no opinion can get very irritating very fast.

    “Where do you want to eat?”

    “I don’t care.”

    “You must have some preference.”

    “I really don’t.”

    “Just pick something.”

    [I try, again, to pick something, anything, at random I find yet again that I am unable.] “I can’t.”

    [Lots more conversation, they always seem to go on forever and ever and at least three more evers, by the end of which I’m no closer to decision but I’m quite actively pissed off at the person interrogating me.]

    Thing that I don’t think I’ve ever said but I probably should have said many times:
    “Either you don’t have an opinion either, in which case stop insisting I have to when you don’t, or you do have a preference in which case say it and we’ll go with that.”

    Also:

    “Next time that happens you should just flip a coin.”

    “How do I decide which option is heads?”
    [Yes, this is a problem sometimes.]

    When I need to call a coin flip I almost invariably call tails.  Sometimes I get it in my head that there should be variation and I call heads, but most of the time I wouldn’t be able to make a decision at all so I fall back on my standard choice.  That’s why I have a standard choice in the first place, after all.

    And none of the above compares to the mess I found myself in when I decided to buy a lottery ticket.  Six numbers to pick?  Six?  The decision making process ate up months of my life without ever reaching a conclusion.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    What people denounce as X and X itself can actually be rather different things.

    See also:  “Radical Socialist Barack Obama”.  :-P

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    What people denounce as X and X itself can actually be rather different things.

    See also:  “Radical Socialist Barack Obama”.  :-P

  • J L

    Yeah. Strawmanning, Fred. It’s beneath you.

  • J L

    Yeah. Strawmanning, Fred. It’s beneath you.

  • Well… not necessarily.  There is the possibility of a values hierarchy.  You can examine all your principles, rank them all in order of importance, and then in every circumstance, decide based on the principle which is higher-ranked.  In Fred’s example, you actually would rank your friends, and always go to the higher-ranked friend when they called, no matter what the circumstances.

    It’s a way to live which most people would find ridiculously rigid and dogmatic and restrictive.  But some people do it.  And it’s the only way to be able to say both “X is wrong” and “Y is wrong” without being, at some point, forced into a situation where you must do the wrong thing because your options are either X or Y.

    Hey, if it is good enough for Asimov’s robots…

  • Well… not necessarily.  There is the possibility of a values hierarchy.  You can examine all your principles, rank them all in order of importance, and then in every circumstance, decide based on the principle which is higher-ranked.  In Fred’s example, you actually would rank your friends, and always go to the higher-ranked friend when they called, no matter what the circumstances.

    It’s a way to live which most people would find ridiculously rigid and dogmatic and restrictive.  But some people do it.  And it’s the only way to be able to say both “X is wrong” and “Y is wrong” without being, at some point, forced into a situation where you must do the wrong thing because your options are either X or Y.

    Hey, if it is good enough for Asimov’s robots…

  • Apocalypse Review

    FearlessSon: Ah, but there’s a wrinkle, courtesy of Han Fastolfe, Chapter 29, The Robots of Dawn ;)

    http://www4.picturepush.com/photo/a/6742302/img/6742302.png

  • Apocalypse Review

    FearlessSon: Ah, but there’s a wrinkle, courtesy of Han Fastolfe, Chapter 29, The Robots of Dawn ;)

    http://www4.picturepush.com/photo/a/6742302/img/6742302.png

  • Anonymous

    Regarding the song, I guess you could always take Unhappy Friend #1 with you when you go to help Unhappy Friend #2.  Maybe both Unhappy Friends will hit it off and become sources of support for each other as well?

  • Anonymous

    Regarding the song, I guess you could always take Unhappy Friend #1 with you when you go to help Unhappy Friend #2.  Maybe both Unhappy Friends will hit it off and become sources of support for each other as well?

  • Ah, Ethics. I have to admit that I find both deontological and teleological ethics unsatisfactory models. On the one hand you have the rigid absolutism of duty ethics and anyone who thinks about it can see that that’s going to give. And if ethics are simply duty why would anyone who doesn’t believe follow them? (There is actually an answer to this – after all there are atheist deontologists – but it’s still uncomfortable). On the otherhand situational ethics can lead to utalitarianism at the extreme and I’m not at all comfortable with that.

    Which probably explains why my ethics are best summed up as Virtue Ethics with some deontological tendancies.

    Also if anyone wants to read an interesting book which discusses ethical standards in the light of pop culture icons including Buffy, The Doctor and Spiderman I recommend Heroes & Villains by Mike Alsford. The conclusion it comes to resonates with me (even though I don’t always agree with the author at other places in the book).

    “True villainy has to do not with our passions or instincts nor even with the dark thoughts we all have from time to time. True villainy has to do with the desire to dominate, to subsume the other within the individual self and that without compunction.”

    Becky

  • Ah, Ethics. I have to admit that I find both deontological and teleological ethics unsatisfactory models. On the one hand you have the rigid absolutism of duty ethics and anyone who thinks about it can see that that’s going to give. And if ethics are simply duty why would anyone who doesn’t believe follow them? (There is actually an answer to this – after all there are atheist deontologists – but it’s still uncomfortable). On the otherhand situational ethics can lead to utalitarianism at the extreme and I’m not at all comfortable with that.

    Which probably explains why my ethics are best summed up as Virtue Ethics with some deontological tendancies.

    Also if anyone wants to read an interesting book which discusses ethical standards in the light of pop culture icons including Buffy, The Doctor and Spiderman I recommend Heroes & Villains by Mike Alsford. The conclusion it comes to resonates with me (even though I don’t always agree with the author at other places in the book).

    “True villainy has to do not with our passions or instincts nor even with the dark thoughts we all have from time to time. True villainy has to do with the desire to dominate, to subsume the other within the individual self and that without compunction.”

    Becky

  • Ah, Ethics. I have to admit that I find both deontological and teleological ethics unsatisfactory models. On the one hand you have the rigid absolutism of duty ethics and anyone who thinks about it can see that that’s going to give. And if ethics are simply duty why would anyone who doesn’t believe follow them? (There is actually an answer to this – after all there are atheist deontologists – but it’s still uncomfortable). On the otherhand situational ethics can lead to utalitarianism at the extreme and I’m not at all comfortable with that.

    Which probably explains why my ethics are best summed up as Virtue Ethics with some deontological tendancies.

    Also if anyone wants to read an interesting book which discusses ethical standards in the light of pop culture icons including Buffy, The Doctor and Spiderman I recommend Heroes & Villains by Mike Alsford. The conclusion it comes to resonates with me (even though I don’t always agree with the author at other places in the book).

    “True villainy has to do not with our passions or instincts nor even with the dark thoughts we all have from time to time. True villainy has to do with the desire to dominate, to subsume the other within the individual self and that without compunction.”

    Becky

  • jackd

    On one recent occasion, I’ve seen a relatively thoughtful Methodist minister claim that only a transcendent source (God, of course) can provide an absolute morality, and that otherwise there is no basis for choosing one moral system over another.

    In hindsight, I guess I would say that first, to follow what is claimed to be an absolute morality is still a choice, and “it’s from a transcendent source” is hardly an adequate justification. Second, even if we did agree on his premise, there’s no objective evidence that the source exists, and finally there is significant  disagreement among those claiming the same source as to what the content of this absolute morality really is.

  • jackd

    On one recent occasion, I’ve seen a relatively thoughtful Methodist minister claim that only a transcendent source (God, of course) can provide an absolute morality, and that otherwise there is no basis for choosing one moral system over another.

    In hindsight, I guess I would say that first, to follow what is claimed to be an absolute morality is still a choice, and “it’s from a transcendent source” is hardly an adequate justification. Second, even if we did agree on his premise, there’s no objective evidence that the source exists, and finally there is significant  disagreement among those claiming the same source as to what the content of this absolute morality really is.

  • Anonymous

    Some folks decry moral relativism so hard that they come to decry general and special relativity, as well.

  • Anonymous

    Some folks decry moral relativism so hard that they come to decry general and special relativity, as well.

  • Anonymous

    I sincerely hope you actually have friends named Anita and Baldric, because it would be extra awesome to be Baldric.

  • Anonymous

    I sincerely hope you actually have friends named Anita and Baldric, because it would be extra awesome to be Baldric.

  • Tucker Lieberman

    Ee wrote:  “moral relativism has nothing to do with deciding between two separate
    moral principles which are both held by the same person/group (that’s
    close to, but not exactly the same as, situational ethics, not moral
    relativism), and everything to do with whether it is possible to decide
    between two directly-opposed principles held by different
    persons/groups.”

    Basically I agree with your analysis.  However, I think Fred may have been attempting a reductio ad absurdum along these lines:
     – Moral absolutism is the view that statements like ‘X is right/wrong’ have truth values.  (The same definition you gave in your comment.)
     – No matter what truth values a person assigns to these statements, some of the rules will always contradict each other.
     – The person may try to qualify the statements, but this reveals itself to be an endless project, as there’s always one more qualification to make.  It becomes harder to see the difference between the general rule and the assessment of the specific situation.  It also moves away from whatever was originally thought to be the source of truth in the first place (God/Bible, family, law, intuition/feeling, etc.) Instead of deriving rules from this absolute source, the person increasingly seems to be immured in a slide puzzle where she is simply trying to put every last detail into place so that it all appears consistent.  This makes a god of consistency.  Identifying how everything is relative to everything else is a way to avoid contradiction and clashes, but it seems as though it might be drifting away from absolutism toward relativism.
      – As Chris the Cynic commented above regarding literary tragedy, it is possible that there are some situations where a person is in an impossible bind:  any move she makes is a morally wrong move, because there are no purely good choices available to her.  An absolutist worldview must recognize the possibility of such scenarios.  Under an absolutist view it is possible that the actual truth-values of moral statements are such that many things are wrong and it is rare and difficult to do good.  But this might not match some people’s commonsense view of the world.  Instead, they may think that where it seems difficult to do good, one must closely analyze the situation and try one’s best, and then one actually has done good.  Where clashing principles are answered with a “try hard,” this would seem to be more of a relativist point of view, since goodness would be determined by personal effort rather than by consonance with external truth.

  • Tucker Lieberman

    Ee wrote:  “moral relativism has nothing to do with deciding between two separate
    moral principles which are both held by the same person/group (that’s
    close to, but not exactly the same as, situational ethics, not moral
    relativism), and everything to do with whether it is possible to decide
    between two directly-opposed principles held by different
    persons/groups.”

    Basically I agree with your analysis.  However, I think Fred may have been attempting a reductio ad absurdum along these lines:
     – Moral absolutism is the view that statements like ‘X is right/wrong’ have truth values.  (The same definition you gave in your comment.)
     – No matter what truth values a person assigns to these statements, some of the rules will always contradict each other.
     – The person may try to qualify the statements, but this reveals itself to be an endless project, as there’s always one more qualification to make.  It becomes harder to see the difference between the general rule and the assessment of the specific situation.  It also moves away from whatever was originally thought to be the source of truth in the first place (God/Bible, family, law, intuition/feeling, etc.) Instead of deriving rules from this absolute source, the person increasingly seems to be immured in a slide puzzle where she is simply trying to put every last detail into place so that it all appears consistent.  This makes a god of consistency.  Identifying how everything is relative to everything else is a way to avoid contradiction and clashes, but it seems as though it might be drifting away from absolutism toward relativism.
      – As Chris the Cynic commented above regarding literary tragedy, it is possible that there are some situations where a person is in an impossible bind:  any move she makes is a morally wrong move, because there are no purely good choices available to her.  An absolutist worldview must recognize the possibility of such scenarios.  Under an absolutist view it is possible that the actual truth-values of moral statements are such that many things are wrong and it is rare and difficult to do good.  But this might not match some people’s commonsense view of the world.  Instead, they may think that where it seems difficult to do good, one must closely analyze the situation and try one’s best, and then one actually has done good.  Where clashing principles are answered with a “try hard,” this would seem to be more of a relativist point of view, since goodness would be determined by personal effort rather than by consonance with external truth.

  • P J Evans

    And none of the above compares to the mess I found myself in when I decided to buy a lottery ticket.  Six numbers to pick?  Six?  The decision making process ate up months of my life without ever reaching a conclusion

    On the very rare occasions when I buy a lottery ticket, I let the machine pick the numbers. It’s so much easier that way….
    (I know exactly what you mean about making decisions. Or not making them.)

  • P J Evans

    And none of the above compares to the mess I found myself in when I decided to buy a lottery ticket.  Six numbers to pick?  Six?  The decision making process ate up months of my life without ever reaching a conclusion

    On the very rare occasions when I buy a lottery ticket, I let the machine pick the numbers. It’s so much easier that way….
    (I know exactly what you mean about making decisions. Or not making them.)

  • Anonymous

    Third hit:
    Moral relativism is the belief that there are no moral
    absolutes; that morality is relative to something (i.e. individual or
    society).

    For clarification, that third one characterizes as relativist these
    statements: ‘What is true for you is not true for me’ — ‘Don’t impose
    your values on me’ — ‘You have no right to tell me what to do’?

    For me the statement “morality is relative to something” is exemplified by “IOKIYAR” and demonstrated abundantly in LB. If someone is “one of us” whatever action they take will be automatically justified. If it is hard to justify, he or she can always be forgiven and after a little lip service will be taken back into the fold. Certainly, Fred has described how Buck ‘n’ Wing (er…Ray) act in ways that don’t seem very moral, but are presented as moral paragons.

    For that matter, isn’t that an issue with God himself? If morality comes from God, then there is no absolute morality. It’s just a matter of God’s whim. So, he can tell Moses to massacre the Midianites (Numbers 31:7-18) and that’s OK because it’s His will. No silly absolute prohibitions against murder apply.

    According to this formulation, morality is relative to the right God or right person or group of people.

    I prefer the moral rules themselves to be consistent–with the acknowledgement that conflicts between rules may mean that some rules cannot always hold and judgements need to be made when they conflict. I can’t figure out why this is tagged as “moral relativism”. Just hard to get my mind around.

  • Em

    I miss Fred’s blogroll.  That has nothing to do with the subject of this entry, of course, but it may relate to the entry’s title:  if I call out Fred Clark’s name, maybe he’ll come running to figure out what Patheos and/or WordPress and/or random internet gremlins have done to his sidebar.  It’s worth a try, right?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    @3040baa07675c7441ae578b2b2ce0f45:disqus It’s back!

  • Wow, I’m so sorry I missed everyone accusing Fred of Strawmanning.  You guys may not have noticed, but everyone has a different internet now, and two different people can come up with different google hits.  If I google a doctor’s name, it’s more likely to show me North Carolina doctors or Atlanta doctors, one because that’s where I live, and the other because that’s “where” I work, and so I rarely have to type a location anymore, it just “knows.”  With a little work (adding “evangelical”) I was able to easily find a whole bunch of people making ridiculous arguments about relativism, and having been IN the position Fred describes, I find it really upsetting to hear people saying that it isn’t real and doesn’t happen.  I love how diverse this community is, but sometimes y’all weird me out; some of you know so little about what it’s like to grow up with evangelicals and just don’t GET it sometimes.