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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Tolerating Evil: Moral Relativism and the Slippery Pole to Hell

This is the third in my series on relativism.

I began by pointing out the two types of relativism, epistemic and moral, and showed that epistemic relativism is irrational. After that, I did a post showing that whether we are thinking of science or religious belief, we really know things only probabilistically … and that this is okay — that high-certainty belief is much better than low-certainty belief, and that in any case, being a Christian means knowing God both as an evidentiary probability and as a relational Person, which means with pretty great certainty; better, even, than a scientist can offer. So it is true that truth exists, and it is true that we can know that truth exists.

So far, so good.

But there were, we saw, two types of relativism. We have our conclusive defeater for epistemic relativism — namely, that it can only be ‘relatively’ true, which is ultimately to say ‘false’. Do we have any such neat defeater for the other kind of relativism, moral relativism?

Moral Relativism Questioned

The answer is yes and no. Moral relativism does not self-defeat, but rather issues in consequences no rational person should accept, and no moral person can accept.

Let’s go step-by-step. Moral relativism does not insist that factual statements are not true, but does insist that moral ones are not true. And at first, this looks plausible. Maybe factual judgments are true because there’s a reality out there that justifies them, but aren’t moral judgments just statements of opinion? What makes them ‘facts’? We can’t put them in a beaker, pinch them in a pair of vernier calipers or measure them with a thermometer. Some people say one thing is ‘good’ and another say a different thing is. Likewise ‘evil’. Since morals are just opinions, and there’s no single opinion, what sense is there to talking about moral certainties? Morals must be relative to the person having them.

One way to go at this view is to parallel the defeater for epistemic relativism and ask, “Is it bad to believe in absolute morals?” Or “Is it (at least) better, or truer, or more right to believe that morality is relative?” If there’s no ‘bad’, then it’s not bad to believe everyone else is wrong. So moral relativism cannot be asserted as a moral imperative for anyone.

Difficult Cases

But what if we accept that moral relativism, like any other moral belief, is neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good’, and no one has to believe in it, just as no one has to believe in any other kind of morality? Then the defeater doesn’t solve the problem completely. So we will have to try another way.

One way is to pose difficult cases. Professor John Stackhouse asks the question, “Is infant baptism better than infant sacrifice?” It’s a good question, because both are religious rituals of great antiquity, rituals that various societies have blessed and practiced, both have been advocated for ‘moral’ reasons, and both deal with the proper treatment of infants. So if moral relativism is true, then attempting to dedicate your baby to the Lord and incinerating your baby in the arms of Moloch are precisely the same sort of action.

Some people go so far as to argue that perhaps incinerating their children would have been ‘right for them’ (the ancient Phoenicians, for example) but not ‘right for us’ in a modern, Western democracy. But it’s hard to make any sense of what they mean. Are they saying we have no right to criticize what the ancient Phoenicians did? And would it suddenly become ‘right’ for us to do it again, if our society decided to value it? If so, there is no such thing as human rights, and no basis on pointing out that, say, forced female circumcision in modern Somalia or the trafficking of sex slaves in the developing world are ‘bad’ and should be stopped.

Moral Nihilism

As a consequence, moral relativism immediately collapses into what is called moral nihilism, the belief that nothing at all is, or ever can be right or wrong. But if so, it’s a bad bargain. Nobody can live that way, and no society can be formed and sustained around no shared values at all. We desperately need some way to say that at least a limited number of things are genuinely ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, regardless of how individuals or objecting groups feel about them. For there is almost no evil a person can conceive which at one time or another has not been advocated by some person or persons on ‘moral’ grounds. Moral nihilism would leave us undefended in the hands of the despots, criminals and abusers of the world.

But how can we find universal values? The answer depends on our earlier question, epistemic relativism, especially when applied to God. For if there is no God, then, as Tolstoy famously commented, “everything is permitted”, and moral nihilism follows. But if there is a God, then there can be morality. The real question, then, is “Is there a God?”

Divine Commandment?

Now, I know what you think I’m going to say: you think I’ll say that then morality is “whatever God commands”. No, I’m not. It’s partly true, but it’s too narrow a view. Out of it, some people have imagined that if you only keep God’s commandments (whether the big 10 or the 613 of the Jewish tradition) you will have done ‘morally’. But you will not. In between the commandments is the spirit and purpose of the commandments. Jesus taught us this when he said that adultery includes wanting adultery, and murder includes despising people. These extensions are well beyond the letter of the commandments, but undeniably capture the full spirit of them. We are told, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. That’s the total package.

There are some actions that bring one into closer walk and fellowship with God, and into cooperation with his purposes. They are good. There are some that create distance, deny or disrupt the relationship between creature and Creator. They are evil. And it no longer depends on what any particular persons or group of persons think: because the Creator has his own identity and wishes, and he has every right to say what goes for us and what does not.

Morality is conformity with the character and nature of God himself. Morality is any action reflecting a right relationship with the source of all life and goodness. Immorality is any action taken which does not conform or contribute to such a relationship, and hence is marked with death and wickedness. That’s the long and short of it.


As Christians, we don’t need to apologize for the belief that some things are really right and others are really wrong. If we want the very best for people, we want to see them brought into a right relationship with the Source of life, joy, peace and goodness. On the other hand, if we don’t care about that, then we ourselves are behaving immorally, treating others as undeserving of God’s love and the relationship into which he longs to bring them. When we do care, and thus when we insist that some things are really right and some are really wrong, we are not ‘imposing our morality’ upon them; we are signposting them to Christ. It’s not ‘our morality’ anyway; it’s his, provided we keep the focus on the ultimate goal of creating relationship with him.

In fact, what kind of love is this, this absurd, unthinking tolerance that the world advocates? Do they really want us to leave everyone to ‘go to hell’?

And yet that’s what moral tolerance amounts to … it amounts to leaving other people in darkness and self-deception so that they will keep thinking well of us.

With our self-interest, we are smiling while we grease the slippery pole to hell. And that is perhaps the most immoral action of all.


  1. IC, you, probably more than anyone, know of course that there is mainly one big problem with what you are suggesting. That can be summarized by envisioning the following scenario, namely, you assemble 100 secularists, atheists in a lecture hall, present them with your material, give them some time to think it through and discuss it and then hand out a questionnaire asking who has changed their mind.There will not be a single one who has. As a matter of fact, each and everyone will offer their own version of a rebuttal to you that will simply be transparently evasive and intended to subvert your argument by any means possible. This is because any argument offered is ultimately tied to a belief system adopted by a person throughout a lifetime (immature to mature) and there is a nearly infinite variation and nuances of belief systems depending on how it integrates with a person's inclinations and personal convenience.

    Thus your argument is ultimately only useful in that it can serve as an aid to those forces that are capable of disturbing, upsetting, changing, and influencing a person's interior equilibrium on a very personal level. Those forces must come directly from the spiritual side of our existence (God, the Holy Spirit, if you will) and those can manifest themselves interiorly as well as exteriorly (illness, insecurity, powerful experiences, etc.). In other words, plain logic, probability assessment, reason is mostly ineffective without such directed impetuses. It is also clear that those impetuses require a fertile ground, a conditioning, inside the individual that is also spiritually driven and is probably only effective in direct proportion to, and is clearly linked to, that person's character (or even the potential in that person for character). Without any of this, nothing will happen and it will all degenerate to a continual fighting of windmills by those spiritually in the know.

    1. Actually, Q, my target audience on this blog is Christians, not Atheists. My line of thought here is aimed at helping Christians think through the implications of relativism if they allow it in their own position: namely, that "tolerating" for the sake of coming across as "open-minded" is really just greasing the slippery pole to hell.

      I do, in fact, have arguments against Atheism. Those who know me in other realms could tell you that for sure. And while you are correct to say that some Atheists simply do not respond to reason, I have found that some do. In particular, those Atheists who have never been properly exposed to good Christian reasons but do not have a hard-hearted attitude can often open up to truth when they finally hear it. Not all professing Atheists are solid Atheists at all. The reflexive "I-Don't-Know-So-I-Guess-I'm-An-Atheist" Atheist is fairly abundant...and open to reasons.

      But I'm not looking for those here.

  2. You know, Q, I think that sums it up pretty well. Leave out the Spirit of God, and we are all wasting our time.

    Still, I find something like this post immensely useful to me in bolstering a faith that is often more visceral than intellectual. I get to say to myself, "Hey, that all makes as much sense as I instinctively hoped it did!"

    And if it moves one person one inch down the road in their thinking, it makes it very much worth it.