By Paul Stark
Hobbes: “How are you doing on your New Year’s resolutions?”
Calvin: “I didn’t make any. See, in order to improve oneself, one must have some idea of what’s ‘good.’ That implies certain values. But as we all know, values are relative. Every system of belief is equally valid and we need to tolerate diversity. Virtue isn’t ‘better’ than vice. It’s just different.”
Hobbes: “I don’t know if I can tolerate that much tolerance.”
Calvin: “I refuse to be victimized by notions of virtuous behavior.” — Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes (Jan. 2, 1995)
Often a defender of legal abortion will say something like, “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one.” But this seems to be a misunderstanding. For opponents of abortion are not saying they don’t like abortion; they are asserting that abortion is wrong, whether they like it or not. (It is true that we dislike abortion, but that stems from the wrongness of the act, not the other way around.) To clearly see the error, imagine someone saying, “If you don’t like spousal abuse, then don’t abuse your spouse.” That’s absurd.
The pro-choice advocate has misconstrued the pro-life position as a subjective claim, rather than a claim of objective morality. He has reduced abortion to a question of personal preference — e.g., “If you don’t like Pixar, watch Dreamworks instead” — rather than objective fact.
Consider another claim: “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but I don’t want to force my view on everyone else by telling them they shouldn’t have abortions.” Again, the person making this statement sees opposition to abortion as a mere personal preference. Imagine someone saying, “I’m personally opposed to slavery, but I don’t want to force my view on everyone else. So if you want to enslave the Canadians, go right ahead.”
Underlying these statements is an idea called moral/ethical relativism. It holds that no objective standard of right and wrong exists; rather, morality is relative to each individual or culture. “What is right (or wrong) for me,” the explicit relativist says, “might not be right (or wrong) for you.” The alternative view is called moral objectivism or realism, which holds that morality is independent of what any particular person or culture thinks, feels or decides.
Relativism is more prevalent than some people realize. New York Times columnist David Brooks once wrote about an in-depth study of the moral views of young people, detailed in the book Lost in Transition (authored by the team that conducted the study, led by distinguished Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith). Brooks explains:
“The default position, which most of [the young people interviewed] came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. ‘It’s personal,’ the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?’” …
Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”
Mona Charen, an author and nationally syndicated columnist, reviewed the same book:
“Six out of ten [young people interviewed] told the authors that morality is a ‘personal choice,’ like preferring long or short hair. ‘Moral rights and wrongs are essentially matters of individual opinion.’ One young woman, a student at an Ivy League college, explained that while she doesn’t cheat, she is loath to judge others who do. ‘I guess that’s a decision that everyone is entitled to make for themselves. I’m sort of a proponent of not telling other people what to do.’ A young man offered that ‘a lot of the time it’s personal. It changes from person to person. What you may think is right may not necessarily be right for me, understand? So it’s all individual.’ Forty-seven percent of the cohorts agreed that ‘morals are relative, there are not definite rights and wrongs for everybody.’”
Often, it seems to me, moral relativism is less a rationally held position than it is an attitude that is thoughtlessly absorbed, the result of intellectual movements that have shaped the way our culture thinks about moral matters. In any case, we must ask whether relativism is true. Advocates offer two main arguments.
First, relativists observe widely differing moral views, particularly among the many cultures around the world and throughout history. But a divergence of moral opinion does not mean that a fact of the matter does not exist, any more than disagreement about the solution to a complex math problem shows that there is no correct answer.
Moreover, differences of moral opinion are not nearly as great as many think. There seems to be agreement concerning broad principles, and disagreement only about their proper application or about matters of (non-moral) fact. C.S. Lewis wrote:
“Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to — whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or every one. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired.”
Even in the abortion debate, notes Francis Beckwith, disagreement can be overstated. Both sides value autonomy and agree that people should be free to make a wide range of choices about their lives; they disagree about whether abortion is one of the few choices (e.g., theft, child neglect) people should not be able to make (i.e., whether it violates the autonomy of another; whether it is unjustified homicide). Both sides agree that persons ought to be respected and protected; they disagree about whether unborn human beings count as members of the moral community.
Some pro-choice people even agree with the moral principle of the equal dignity and right to life of every human being, but are confused about the scientific question of whether the embryo and fetus are living human organisms (human beings). This is a factual disagreement, not a moral one.
Second, relativists argue that to affirm objective moral truth is to be intolerant and closed-minded. But relativists themselves affirm the objective (non-moral) truth of a particular view — namely, moral relativism. Is it “intolerant and closed-minded” to say that all those who disagree with relativism are wrong? Holding an opinion does not make one intolerant. Indeed, this is a misunderstanding of tolerance, which actually presupposes disagreement, since if there is no disagreement one does not “tolerate” but rather embraces.
Moreover, the claim that we “should” be tolerant is a moral claim. But if morality is subjective, then the imperative to be tolerant need not apply to me, or anyone else! As Greg Koukl explains, “There is no tolerance in relativism, because the moral obligation to be tolerant violates the rules.”
On the other hand, if everyone ought to be tolerant, then at least one objective moral norm exists (“everyone ought to be tolerant”), and relativism is by definition false. Tolerance, ironically, is incompatible with relativism.
So the arguments in favor of relativism are completely unpersuasive and point, instead, to the objectivity of moral norms. In addition, relativism is plagued with difficulties. Consider just three problems.
First, relativism provides no basis for moral evaluation. I cannot morally condemn mass murder, rape, child abuse or intolerance; I can only say that they are wrong for me personally or for my own culture. I cannot praise the generosity and selflessness of others as morally superior to stinginess and selfishness, for that is just my own view; others might legitimately favor stinginess and selfishness.
I cannot say that the actions of Mother Teresa were better than the actions of Osama bin Laden in any objective sense; they both “did what was right in [their] own eyes” (Judges 17:6). I cannot morally improve myself, for I am equally “good” the way I am now; nor does trying to reform society by ending practices such as sexism and racism make any sense. Thus, relativism totally undermines the existence of morality as classically understood and translates into a kind of moral nihilism. It is tantamount to the view that there is no such thing as right and wrong; there is only what I think, feel and decide to do.
Second, moral relativism is unlivable. We cannot help but make judgments about good and bad, right and wrong, particularly when we are personally wronged or treated unfairly. This is because we naturally think in moral categories and crave fairness and ultimate justice. “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real right and wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”
Third, relativism is never held consistently. A relativist contradicts himself when he offers moral prescriptions, such as when he says that we ought to be tolerant (discussed above). The relativist, who denies the existence of objective moral truths, is making an objective moral truth claim himself!
Consider the common claim that we ought to not judge the choices of others. This is self-refuting: By saying “you should not judge,” the relativist is morally judging the choice (to judge) of another. Some pro-choice advocates tell pro-lifers: “You shouldn’t impose your personal morality on others.” But in saying this, the pro-choice advocate is trying to “impose” his “personal morality” — that it’s wrong to impose morality on others — on pro-lifers. Thus, the claim that “you shouldn’t impose your morality on others” refutes itself. (“Impose” is a misleading term: Pro-lifers are instead working within our democratic system, proposing and arguing for the position that abortion is the unjust killing of an innocent human being and ought not be permitted by law, just as killing a five-year-old child, for instance, is unjust and ought not be permitted by law.)
Many in the pro-choice community talk as if morality is relative, but no pro-choice activist really believes it. Rather, such activists are committed, whether they know it or not, to moral objectivism: They contend that it is wrong not to permit women to have elective abortions, and that individuals and cultures that disagree are mistaken. (Abortion-promoting international organizations are working tirelessly to “impose” legal abortion on African and Latin American countries that strongly oppose it; abortion advocates in the United States are working to deny conscience protection for health care workers who do not wish to be involved in abortion.) Abortion, they say, is a fundamental and universal right.
For these three reasons, among others, relativism as a moral theory is a complete failure. After all, if the Nazi Holocaust was morally wrong whether or not anyone thought so — if Adolf Hitler really was wrong in his belief that genocide was right — then moral relativism is false and moral objectivism true. Noted Lewis: “People may be sometimes mistaken about [moral truths], just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.”
Morality is real. Elective abortion is wrong, not because we dislike it (though we do), but because it unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being.
Editor’s note. Paul Stark is Communications Associate for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, National Right to Life’s state affiliate. This appeared at prolifemn.blogspot.com.