Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Reflections on Truth, Christian Morality and Challenges by Relativism

Relativism: the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.

Absolute: a value or principle regarded as universally valid or able to be viewed without relation to other things.

Absolute Relativism?

Among some who reject Christian teaching, whether as a whole or in part, there is an argument offered that there is no absolute truth.  Therefore there is nothing to require us to behave in a certain way, as everything depends on perspective.  The problem is, people who argue this way create a self-contradicting argument.  The claim that there is no absolute truth, by the nature of its claim, assumes this claim is absolutely true – which cannot exist according to the claim.  The claim that everything depends on perspective assumes something which is true beyond all perspective.

The argument is faced by this dilemma:

  • If [There is no absolute truth] is true in all times, places and circumstances then there is an absolute truth.
  • If [There is no absolute truth] is not true in all times, places and circumstances, it means the claim is not absolute and there can be absolute truths.

The point is, everybody believes in some absolute truth (even if it is the claim that "there are no absolutes"). If they truly did not, they could not dispute anything.  The fact that we recognize that something is wrong indicates we believe there is something which is always true.  Once we recognize that, we can question this kind of skeptic, "Why must we accept your claim to the absolute truth?  What is the basis for it?"  Once we have a recognition that absolute truth does exist (in some form), we can inquire what is the truth when there are different claims as to what the truth is.

Now this is a crude form of relativism which subconsciously assumes what it tries to refute.  Mostly it is claimed in such a bold statement by people who have more enthusiasm for their position than reasoned consideration (in other words, don't assume all relativists think this way).  However, even more restricted forms of Relativism hold to assumptions that cause problems for those who assert them.

Moral Relativism

Let's look at a popular claim made by some who reject Christian moral teaching: That there are no moral absolutes.  Some supporters of this claim think it gives them an escape route because the claim is a claim to truth outside of morality – it gives them an opportunity to make an absolute statement that is not a self contradiction.

We can however show that such a view is not actually believed in an absolute way by the proponents by the behavior of these proponents.

  1. If there are [No Moral Absolutes] then [everything is permitted] (If A then B).
  2. Not [everything is permitted] (Not B)
  3. Therefore there are not [No Moral Absolutes].  (Therefore not A)

The major premise points out that if there are no moral absolutes, then everything can be legitimately done in at least some circumstances.  That would mean in some circumstances it is permissible to rape or commit genocide or to own slaves.  If these things are never permissible, then we have shown that there are at least some moral absolutes.

Once we have shown this, it becomes clear that the dispute with Christian moral values is not a denial of moral absolutes, but rather a claim that some Christian moral values (usually concerning sexual morality) should not be binding.  That claim, however, must not be accepted at face value (that's a logical fallacy called ipse dixit [literally ‘he himself said it’]).  Just as Christianity offers justifications on why its moral teachings are true, those who reject Christian morality must also offer justifications on why their claims on morality are true.

Common Logical Fallacies Used in the Attack on Christian Morality

However, that is exactly what is not done.  We either see the ipse dixit claim, giving us no rational cause to accept, or else we see them offering tu quoque or ad hominem fallacies.

For example, when Catholics speak against the current restrictions on religious freedom in America, some reply by bringing up medieval history when some believed that a minority religion could be restricted.  That would be a tu quoque (literally 'You also!') attack, because a person behaving inconsistently does not mean what is said is false or that the past behavior of some justifies the current behavior of others).  If you think it was unjustified then, it is certainly something that cannot be argued to be justified now.

An example of the ad hominem (literally, 'against the person') would be the people who use terms like "homophobic" or "war on women" or "extreme right (left) wing" and the like.  It attacks the person making an argument and tries to indicate that the person has a repugnant quality, therefore what he says can be rejected.  For example, if I attempted to argue that "People who support moral relativism are a bunch of stupid liberals," this would be an example of the ad hominem attack, because that label does not disprove the argument.

What it comes down to is that the current attacks on Christian morality are not based on a rational, logical argument but rather a set of assumptions which, when examined cannot stand.  Thus these arguments cannot be said to refute Christian morality because the premises are not true and you cannot have a proven conclusion if the premises of the argument are not true.


Of course, it does not mean that because an argument is fallacious that a conclusion is automatically false (for example.  "All 2s are blue.  All 3s are brown.  Therefore 2+3 is 5" has false premises , but 2+3 is 5).  However, showing these attacks against Christian morality do not prove what they claim allows us to say that the justification for Christian morality still stands, and perhaps people should consider what those justifications are instead of claiming ipse dixit that Christian morality is false.

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