Religion and Moral Relativism


By Gaither Stewart


The Roman Catholic Church just cannot seem to get it right. As a rule it is centuries behind. Perhaps in the name of the continuity its theologians harp on. Shortly before he became Pope Benedict XVI in the year 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man behind the neoconservative politics of the World Church since the relatively liberal times of Pope Giovanni XXIII, delivered in his inimitable, sickly sweet style a ferocious denunciation of relativism:

We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goals one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

The future Pope said that western liberal practices on contraception and abortion are in, but for the Catholic Church, they are out. For that matter for the Church’s hierarchy, most modernity is out. Ratzinger warned of the need to preserve the Church's traditional Catholic tenets against such modern trends, especially against the "dictatorship of relativism".

Moral standards, the Pope and Catholic conservatives believe, should be perfect and unchanging. Everywhere. Anywhere. Forever and ever, amen. The new leader of the Roman Catholic Church denounces specifically, over and over, moral relativism, the idea that moral principles have no objective standards. Pope Benedict XVI characterizes moral relativism as the major evil facing the Church of Rome.

            Readers will justifiably wonder what he is driving at. You only have to listen to one of Pope Benedict’s Sunday or Wednesday messages or read any of the Catholic press to know: besides meddling in national politics, the Pope attacks the tendency toward each and every relaxation and revision of traditional Church prohibitions in the West on matters like abortion, divorce, stem cell research, euthanasia, same sex marriage and, in general, the continuing secularization of political states.


As I often do I again turn to my trusty Italian Rizzoli encyclopedia for its entry on moral relativism: “Moral relativism is the philosophical doctrine that affirms the relativity of consciousness, that is, of what we consider good or evil.” It is the attitude that negates the possibility or the usefulness of arriving at absolute conclusions about matters like divorce or abortion.

Then, online I read, “Moral relativism is the view that ethical standards, morality, and positions of right or wrong are culturally based and therefore subject to a person’s individual choice. We can all decide what is right for ourselves.”  

Moral relativism is the idea that moral principles have no objective, bias-free standards. Its most extreme version is that there are no hard and fast rules on what is right and what is wrong, on which values are set, and should be fought for. Relativism thus contrasts with the categorical absolutism of religious fundamentalists according to which there exists one truth. Relativism means different opinions, as many truths as there are people or societies or cultures.


In our times, the Roman Church and conservative governments with authoritarian tendencies and religious fundamentalist natures, those like the United States of America, harp on values—“family values, traditions and the future of our children.” Values are the favorite line of attack of American fundamentalists, of radical Islam and of the Roman Catholic Church, all of which claim to possess the true truth. The discussion is obviously explosive: everything is permitted at one extreme and fundamentalism of ‘everything is forbidden’ at the other. Therefore I offer these considerations on the position of moral relativism vis-à-vis ethical values.

In western society there are two opposing views on moral relativism that are summed up in the following responses to a recent BBC broadcast on our subject:

One: The Pope is absolutely right. It's time to jettison the nonsense of moral relativism, which emerged in the social upheaval of the 1960s and has been responsible for the modern dysfunctional society we now have. You cannot have half-rights and half-wrongs; there is only right and wrong and we must face up to that truth even if it makes some people uncomfortable.

OR: The belief that there is only one moral truth and the conviction that you are following the only one moral truth is the source of all bigotry and hatred, in religion, politics and elsewhere. It allows you to demonize others as evil, refuse to see their point of view and refuse to accept that moral standpoints are based in culture and change alongside it.


My Rizzoli encyclopedia goes on to say that at the base of modern relativism stands the consideration of alterations to our consciousness (judgment), of what we believe right or wrong, caused by the subject himself and by the conditioning by his social reality. Eighteenth century relativism considered the thought of Kant as an antecedent: Kant’s theory of consciousness constitutes the most coherent form of subjective relativism: man can never know reality as such.

Early Nineteenth century English philosophers founded their relativism based on such points. Spencer and others accepted such a line prudently, with conciliatory nods and prostrations toward religion: “Since the absolute escapes human consciousness, which is limited and relative, we are left with the legitimacy of faith.”

The reduction of life to faith sounds like the Baptist faith I grew up in.

Some pragmatists however find in the relativist position the practical and useful character of human awareness and judgment. Those who consider moral principles and values in general as significant ONLY in the society that elaborates and professes them represents the radicalization of relativism.

In considerations of relativism, Protagoras’ saying that “man is the measure of all things” seems to be an obligatory commonplace. However for the Greek Sophist such an affirmation implied a pure, non-relativistic defense of the rights of human intelligence against views of the constituted order and tradition.


Traditional philosophy had its own language. Terminology has however changed in modern times. Fundamentalist neoconservatives charge that moral relativism means that anything and everything is permissible. That a relativist society is adrift, out of control, degenerate and lawless.

            I recently read a review of the book The War for Children’s Minds by Stephen Law in which the author argues, as did Kant, that moral consciousness is founded on the rock of human reason and that children need to be taught from the beginning to think critically about moral judgments. Such a view might seem self-evident. But as we all know that is not the case.

            Authoritarians of all shades and complexions, in all societies, claim the contrary. Fundamentalist authoritarians claim an external source for moral judgments—they especially claim religious faith. They try to impose their wills on everyone else. In his book, Law criticizes proponents of organized religion. He is likewise dismayed by the British government’s subsidizing of religious schools. The author’s intent is to defend the basic philosophical principles of liberalism. The key to his argument is that people must take responsibility for their own moral judgments and not delegate such responsibility to others.

            The fundamentalist view is that if everyone may have an independent moral opinion, then all moral positions are equally valid. Therefore, they believe, anyone who advocates moral autonomy is a “pernicious relativist” and a threat to society. For the neoconservative fundamentalist, always a hairsbreadth away from authoritarianism, just being a liberal is tantamount to supporting moral relativism. 


Moral relativism has steadily been accepted as the primary moral philosophy of modern society and its culture, which was previously dominated by a "Judeo-Christian" view of morality. While "Judeo-Christian" standards continue to be the foundation for civil law, most people today hold to the concept that right or wrong are not absolutes, but can be determined by each individual. Morals and ethics can be altered from one situation, person, or circumstance to the next.

I emphasize: Only in its extreme form does moral relativism say that anything goes.

Moral Relativism is a worldview. I reject—as liberal thinkers must—the authoritarian affirmation that to determine which position to hold concerning morality, you must first determine what you believe about the origin of life. Are you a Creationist or an Evolutionist? Evolution, liberalism, and moral relativism do seem to go hand-in-hand, for evolution teaches that life is accidental; yet, admittedly, many people, many evolutionists too, have doubts. Precisely because of tradition and conditioning, I believe, one is unable to decide freely what one believes. Tradition would have us believe that a powerful nation or a powerful faith is impossible without inequities and injustices. I reject that. The reality is that like an individual, the more powerful a nation or a faith is, the less it needs morality at all. Without some kind of relativity, morality becomes arid and in the end, its opposite: immorality. 

However, if you truly believe we are created, moral relativism cannot of course work. Creation implies a Creator God. And in the Church interpretation, all things created are subject to a set of laws, whether natural or divine. Moreover, the Creationist in our times is more likely to be a fundamentalist.

As an evolutionist, I, for one, do not believe anything goes. For after all there are natural laws that apply because we are all men.



Modern Moral Relativism


Thus, the term ‘moral relativism’ is understood in a variety of ways. Most often it is associated with the empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and with the ethical thesis that the truth of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons. Moral relativism is also connected with a normative position about how we ought to think about or act towards those with whom we morally disagree and most commonly that we should tolerate them.

Moral diversity was recognized by ancient Greek philosophers. But the more common reaction then was that there was no certain moral knowledge. Rather than moral relativism, the view was that moral truth is relative to a culture or society. This pattern continued through most of the history of Western philosophy. Prior to the twentieth century however, moral philosophers did not generally feel obliged to defend a position on moral relativism.

Nonetheless, the awareness of moral diversity between Western and non-Western cultures in the modern era is an important antecedent to the concern with moral relativism in Europe today. Based on the experiences of Eighteenth and Nineteenth century colonialism, the majority view among Europeans—perhaps until discussions of the Iraqi war and the exportation of democracy—has been that their moral values were superior to those of other cultures. Few thought all moral values had equal or relative validity. Today, a cultural abyss divides thought about European moral superiority, liberals on one side, and religious fundamentalists on the other. Liberal relativists believe that the truth or falsity of moral judgments is not absolute or universal, but relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.

The term ‘moral relativism’ is also associated with a normative position concerning how we ought to think about, or behave towards, persons with whom we morally disagree. This position is formulated in terms of tolerance. In particular, it is said that we should not interfere with the actions of persons simply because they are based on moral judgments we reject, and when the disagreement cannot be rationally resolved. Here one would cite on one hand Iraq: Europeans cannot resolve the problem and for the most part rejected intervention. On the other hand, Europe agreed to intervention in the Balkans, considered part of Europe, where disagreements could be rationally resolved. It is evident that views about the right to wage war against Iraq reveal the chasm separating European and American thought on moral relativism.


Many obstacles thwart attempts to understand human cultures empirically. For example, it is said that the evidence is incomplete or inaccurate because the observers themselves are biased. Anthropologists often have preconceptions rooted in political ideologies that have led them to misrepresent or misinterpret the empirical data. Even the most objective observers have difficulty understanding another society's actual moral values because of their own preconceptions. One great obstacle is the role of religions, in the case at hand, the Roman Catholic Church.


Yet, there is significant evidence for much moral agreement across different societies. For example, the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is endorsed in Confucianism and Buddhism as in Christianity. Moral prohibitions against lying, stealing, adultery, killing human beings, etc. are found in many societies. The international human rights movement indicates substantial moral agreement.

On the basis of such evidence you may only conclude that there exists a universal minimal morality, that there is a common “global ethic” across the world's major religious traditions regarding respect for human life, justice, truthfulness, and the moral equality of men and women. Though people may be influenced by passion, prejudice, ideology, self-interest, religion, and the like, it is possible to imagine that there is a moral tradition superior to one's own tradition. 

The most common claim is that there is a specific moral framework rationally superior to all others. So far, so good. But paradoxically here is where the problems begin. For example, it might be claimed, following Aristotle, that human nature is such that virtues such as courage, temperance, and justice are necessary for any plausible conception of a good life. 

However, to reveal the fragility of such a claim one can advance the counterexample of the quality of “courage.” If courage is understood in terms of confronting a difficulty to achieve some good, then most everyone values courage. But this is open to interpretation. Both warriors and pacifists value courage but they regard very different kinds of actions as courageous. If courage is defined as the virtue of a warrior who faces the threat of death in battle, as for example going to war in Iraq, then there is little disagreement about the concept but considerable disagreement about whether this kind of courage should be valued. Pacifists certainly do not agree.


One problem of pure moral relativism is that it cannot account for the fact that some practices such as the holocaust in Germany or slavery in the United States are obviously objectively wrong. The reaction to such is outrage: the suggestion is that relativists pose a threat to civilized society.

Here is a pertinent counter consideration: the most likely degeneration facing the modern world is when a limited number of members of a society hold great power over the others with the agreement of the society itself as we see in the United States today. Though those with less power are stupid to agree to such an arrangement, such an agreement does not delegate authority to establish what is right and what is wrong, which is precisely what unlimited power does. Here is the point: the people without power do not have to accept a set of values imposed by the minority just because they agreed to give them power. If your officer orders you to shoot women and children in Iraq, you are not morally obligated to shoot them.

Another set of concerns arises from similarities and interactions across different societies vis-a-vis morality. People in one society sometimes make moral judgments about people in another society on the basis of moral standards they take to be authoritative for both societies. Relativism is sometimes associated with such a normative position, i.e., as to how people ought to behave toward those with whom they morally disagree. The accepted position in this connection is tolerance. The idea that tolerance is a good thing and that we should be tolerant has been increasingly widely accepted. Yet, this idea is challenged and the understanding and justification of tolerance has become less obvious.

Moral relativism should provide more support for tolerance. In a healthy context, tolerance does not mean indifference or just absence of disapproval. But it does mean an active policy of military non-interference with the actions of persons or with another society that are based merely on moral judgments we reject, when the disagreement cannot be rationally resolved. Otherwise, the result is interminable war and exacerbation of the objectionable practice (in the case of Iraq, terrorism).

Philosophers however do not agree that moral relativism promotes tolerance. Relativism may approve tolerance, but it does not imply that tolerance is obligatory or even permissible in all cases. Still, mere recognition of the fact that there are moral disagreements by itself entails nothing about how we should act towards those with whom we disagree.

A mixed position could contend that tolerance too is a relative truth. However, even this is problematic. In some cases we should be tolerant of those with whom we morally disagree. In others not. For example, the practice in fundamentalist Islam of chopping off hands for theft is abhorrent. The practice cannot be established as an objective moral truth no more than execution of the death penalty by lethal injection. The truth-value of such practices varies from society to society. Hence, the statement, "people ought to be tolerant" may be true in some societies and false in others. We know it is not everywhere. Nonetheless, the thought persists among relativists that there is a connection between relativism and tolerance.

The fact that we regard a society as morally wrong in some respect does not mean that we should always, in any case, interfere. The chief reason is that it ultimately leads to war and imperialism in which the cure is worse than the disease. For who in his right mind believes that moral indignation is the reason for the Iraqi debacle?

            One might recall here that morality is not only a question of different societies determining different standards. Also political movements like Communism and religions and sects have their own morality which they proclaim as the right ones. In the Communist morality, the end justified the means. Deviations from standard universal values were justified in the name of the end: Socialism.

            The Church has always justified its means in the name of the salvation of souls … and too often in the name of continuity of the Church. In the Middle Ages a prominent Bishop uttered these words: “When its existence is threatened, the Church is freed of moral laws. The end which is its unity blesses any means; perfidiousness, betrayal, tyranny, simony, prison and death. Every holy order exists for the ends of society and the individual must be sacrificed for the general good.”


Here I want to interject some of the bullshit arguments against moral relativism, which in my opinion only serve to belittle and cheapen a serious discussion:

“Moral relativism is a philosophical myth that is accepted by no one who has critically examined its tenets.” (Wrong: philosophers since the Greeks have accepted many of its tenets.) 

“Moral relativism claims that nothing is really right or wrong, but thinking makes it so.” (No comment to a ridiculous charge.)

“Moral relativists believe anything goes.” (Nazis believed this.)

“Relativists say we should not judge another's personal morality.” (Of course we do; contemporary international politics is a battleground of such judgment.)

“They say no society is better or worse than another.” (No one in his right mind claims that, certainly not serious relativists.)

Such statements are NOT bandied about in ordinary conversation as if they were truths about which no one should disagree. Moral or ethical relativists do not declare simply that: "All morals are relative and that's the end of it."

I read of opinion surveys recently taken in America that show the pervasiveness of positions promoted by moral relativism. For instance, in one survey where adults were asked if they agreed with the statement "there are no absolute standards for morals and ethics," seventy-one percent said that they agreed with it. Even higher numbers purportedly think that morality and ethics are a matter of personal opinion and that there are no universal standards by which one can determine the rightness or wrongness of a human act. The latter too is as ridiculous as it is unbelievable.

Now, in their attack on moral relativism belittlers and neoconservatives in radical clothes charge that “those who claim that all truth is relative may spout that belief, but they never act as if it’s true.” Moral relativists are labeled instead moral absolutists—which is what the neoconservatives themselves are. Neoconservatives base their charge on the behavior of liberal political people who claim to be moral relativists, but who, the charge goes, “promote a doctrine that includes an absolutist program, that is, that statements that are politically incorrect must be eliminated or even made illegal, who want to suppress what they consider offensive language and views.” Fundamentalists throw promoters of multiculturalism into the pot of moral relativism for good measure, together with all those who consider beliefs and practices of non-Western cultures as "good" regardless of the belief and practice, and Western civilization and the "white European" as evil and to be eliminated as soon as possible.  Pro-abortion groups are added to the moral relative list: all those who claim that morality is a matter of personal opinion. Such groups, neoconservatives charge, are now attempting to legally quash any opposition to their position; they want "special protection" and do not want to confront any philosophical opposition. 


Here I quote Kenneth Cauthen, the John Price Crozer Griffith emeritus Professor of Theology at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The author of twenty books, including The Impact of American Religious Liberalism, which was the standard text in the field for a quarter of a century. Cauthen, his biography reads, has served as Baptist pastor, college professor at Mercer University, and as a professor of theology for forty years.

The theologian states unequivocally that he is a moral relativist and that he is dedicated to defending liberal Christianity.

Cauthen writes, “Absoluteness of subjective confidence in a belief is, of course, no guarantee that it corresponds to reality. This inability to cross the line between subjective belief and objective knowledge defines the human predicament in relation to morality and religion.”

In other words - Is there a God? Does life have meaning and purpose? What is the supreme good human beings ought to seek? Should assisted suicide be legally permitted? Abortion?

Moral beliefs are the expression of the dogmas, customs, convictions, beliefs, preferences, feelings, or attitudes of some group or individual—and nothing more than that. They do not mirror an objective order of reality and have no validity outside the minds of those who profess them. There is no objective order of morality that can be used to judge among contrary outlooks. Moral standards do vary from one culture to another, and no universal, absolute culture-transcending standards can be employed to grade them according to their degree of truthfulness.

This argument might be supposed to purport that one should always obey the culture in which he lives. If my culture says that slavery is okay, does it make it so? Though slavery was once permitted by the Supreme Court in the United States, we know that slavery is wrong. So what made us overturn that decision? The answer is that there is a higher law than the civil law. This is natural law or moral law. In this sense, morality is not dependent on the government, but the government is dependent on the morality.

Perhaps morality is not determined by situations, but it is at least conditioned by them. Situations determine morality partly, not wholly. Situation, motive, and the act itself make an act good or bad. Objective principles have to be applied to particular situations. This of course does not prove moral relativism, but perhaps what is called situational relativism.

For example, murder is wrong, but one must murder someone for self-defense. Killing for self-defense makes killing not murder. Therefore killing for self-defense is not wrong. A situation may make a wrong deed right. On the other hand, good intentions are not enough. Though a good intention can in some situations make a deed good, a good intention does not make a bad deed good. Overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein may be a good intention but it does not make the war in Iraq good.


Limited Moral Relativism


Limited moral relativism is the belief that moral relativism is not absolute truth but that it is accurate in the assertion that circumstances are conditioned by countless variables. In other words, a limited moral relativist believes that nothing is set in stone and that cultural influences and creative knowledge change one’s situation.

A limited moral relativist believes that humans are not accountable to a divine creator. This divine creator disrupts their beliefs because through divine inspiration changes are wrought in human character and actions. Humans cannot invent changeless truths. We cannot change the direction of the revolution of the earth.

That there is nothing new under the sun is a truism: it is impossible for human beings to create an idea that has not been created before. We only modify or sometimes change an existing idea for a different and we hope better purpose. Yet, we were conceived so uniquely that it is impossible for one human to think exactly like the next. Cultural differences and upbringing play a part in the development of a person but that doesn’t make him the authority on any idea or action.


Thus, moral relativism is the view that what is morally right or wrong does depend on what someone thinks. Still, there are two aspects of this view: subjective and conventional. In the subjective view, what is morally right or wrong for you depends on what you think is morally right or wrong. But the 'moral facts' may vary from person to person.

In the conventionalist aspect, what is morally right or wrong depends on what the society we are dealing with thinks, i.e., morality depends on the conventions of the society. The 'moral facts' may vary from society to society. How could they not vary? That is the question. Maybe we need still another generation of philosophers and sociologists to teach us ethical-social living. Many non-Western societies missed too many steps of development during imperialism and are still missing them under globalization. And as far as relativism is concerned, many of our urban concentrations resemble tribal life in Arabia or Afghanistan—under the control of gangs and cliques and clans and mafias and, as everywhere, religions. However that may be, in Western society, though at doctrinal extremes in matters of faith, the Roman Church and Southern Baptists are as one in support of the fundamentalist condemnation of all forms liberalism and modernity concerning moral ethics. No heresy. No vacillation. The trenches are the guarantee on the path to salvation.

Finally, one wonders why moral relativism has become an increasingly popular view in modern times, no longer a field of meditation reserved for philosophers. One reason is organized religion, which in itself suggests that morality is independent of us. However, with the widespread turning away from religion doubts have arisen about the possibility of objective morality. In that regard, Dostoevsky wrote his famous line: "If God doesn't exist, everything is permissible".

Dostoevsky is my favorite writer but it has never made sense to me that if there's no God, there's no such thing as morality. I think his was a catch phrase made for effect and clamor. The mere belief that there is a Creator God does not establish which things are right and which things wrong. Aztecs sacrificed on the killing stones at their pyramids hundreds of thousands of persons to their gods, convinced their gods demanded human sacrifice and that it was good. That is obviously ridiculous from a humanistic point of view. Some things are simply good and some bad independently of whether God exists or not.

 Immanuel Kant thought that all acts should be judged according to a rule he called the Categorical Imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."

© Gaither Stewart