Why Moral Relativism is Impossible

Pope Benedict XVI often spoke about the dictatorship of relativism.  It is a horribly destructive moral theory that has done more damage to modern society than almost any other philosophy.  You have probably encountered this in one form or another in your life.

Moral relativism is the belief that there is no absolute standard of morality and that moral rules vary from society to society.  

Take, for example, polygamy.  A moral objectivist, as all Christians are, would say that God created us with certain natural ends and thus we must follow the natural law for all people.  Human beings, therefore, should not engage in polygamy regardless of societal traditions.

A relativist would say that if one society objects to polygamy and another accepts it, neither is wrong.  Morality is whatever the culture says that it is and bends to no universal standard.  The common way to say this would be, “Different strokes for different folks.”  But before you can say “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Grayson?”  moral relativism runs into some severe logical problems (forgive the 80’s sitcom joke, I couldn’t help myself).

It should be noted first that moral relativism is a frequent sanctuary for atheists who wish to adhere to some kind of morality.  There are some, like Sartre, who embrace the black void of nihilism, which is the belief that there is no morality; there is no right or wrong.  But most atheists I have met still express a desire to do good.  But since they are materialists (which means that there exists nothing beyond the material world), they rarely make an appeal to a universal, transcendent standard.

There are two things to be understood about morality.  The first is that it is not a feeling.  Some want to reduce morality to some kind of emotion.  It is not.  That is because morality comes with the element of “should.”

Morality is not interested in what I want or desire.  It is interested in what ought to be done by me.  This experience of obligation or duty is experienced by people in a different way than we experience emotion or biological drives.

Dr. Peter Kreeft used the example a sleepy person.  If a person is sleepy and hungry he feels the pull of those two different desires.  But it is a different experience if he is sleepy, but feels a moral obligation to get up and help his friend move furniture like he had promised.  The pull of hunger and the pull of moral obligation feel very different.

The second thing is that morality is a standard.  It is a method to judge behavior and measure virtue and vice in the person.  I use it to determine if my actions are correct or if I am a good or bad person.  And it is on this second point particularly that moral relativism shows itself to be impossible.

Let me be clear.  I am not simply saying that I do not like moral relativism.  I am not saying that moral relativism simply has some problems.

I am saying that moral relativism is a logically impossible system.


Let’s examine:  The moral relativist says that moral rules vary from society to society.  But how do you define society?  Let’s start by country.  In Afghanistan, polygamy is legal, but it is illegal in America.  The relativist would say that one society should not judge another society by its own standards, and therefore neither position is wrong.

But why stop at countries?  In America there are certain pockets where polygamy might be a more popular idea.  About a century ago, the federal government forced Utah to comply with American anti-polygamy laws.  But why?  If the relativist is right, then each state should make its own determination rather than letting others outside the state, with their different moral codes, impose those moral codes on Utah.

But then why stop at states?  Maybe there are neighborhoods in a state that are for something that others in the state don’t want.  Let’s say there is one county in Texas that believes infanticide is morally permissible, but the rest of the state doesn’t.  The moral relativist must say that the majority do not get the right to impose their morality on the minority, and that each morality is equal.

But then even in a neighborhood, don’t we have disagreements about morality?  My family might believe that it’s morally wrong to not recycle my aluminum cans, but my neighbors might think that cans are for the landfills.  Who is right?  According to the relativist, neither and both.  But can’t it break down even more?

Within the same house, we don’t always agree on right and wrong.  My wife might believe that spanking children is morally wrong while I think that sparing the rod spoils the child.  Who is right?  Again, by the moral relativist’s own idea, neither and both.  And now we’ve reduced it as far as it can go.

Moral relativism naturally and necessarily reduces to individuals choosing their own morality.  But see now why this defeats relativism.

As we stated above, morality is a standard.  It is something used to measure.  But if morality is reduced to the individual, there is no standard.  If there is no standard, then there is no morality. 

A relativist might try to say that each person has their own standard, but that is not a standard.  It is too elastic.  If right and wrong are whatever I say they are, then they are ideas without definitions.  It is unintelligible

A meter is a standard of measurement.  But if the length of a meter was whatever each individual decided it should be, it would an unknowable length.  So moral relativism must end in the extinction of morality into nihilism.

And I want to be clear that this is a possibility.  In fact it is the only other possibility other than moral objectivism.  The objectivist believes that there is a universal moral law that exists outside and beyond the merely physical, be it Natural Law, Divine Command, Reason, Plato’s forms, the Tao, etc.  The nihilist believes that there is no moral law of any kind and concepts like right and wrong are empty and fruitless.  Objectivism or nihilism:  these are the only two possible moral philosophies.

Moral relativism cannot exist.  Why is this important?  Because I believe this might be a great opportunity to reach out to atheist brothers and sisters.

As I wrote earlier, most atheists I have met still desire to be morally good.  But when they can be shown that their relativism (if this is their belief) must reduce to nihilism, I believe that many of them will search for a way to live in the moral light rather than sink into the meaningless darkness.

But the choice must be made clearly before their eyes, with no “safe” hiding place in relativism.  As scripture says:

I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Now choose life, so that you… may live. Deuteronomy 30:19

(A note of thanks to Dr. William Langenfus, whom I had as an undergraduate, who introduced me to this idea)

Copyright © 2013, W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

One response to “Why Moral Relativism is Impossible”

  1. […] Why Moral Relativism is Impossible (newevangelizers.com) […]

Leave a Reply

next post: All Saints Day Means Holiness is for All

previous post: What is it that God wants from me?