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Reflections on Ethics 28
Fundamentalists are the real Moral Relativists

by: JT

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One of the accusations fundamentalist preachers like to level at agnostics, atheists, and assorted freethinkers is that we are moral relativists. And it is meant to suggest that it is the opposite of the fundamentalist position of absolute morality.

According to The Importance of Philosophy

Moral Relativism is the denial of truth in ethical questions. A Moral Relativist accepts that his own moral system is meaningless and is accepted on whim, not reason. Intellectually, Moral Relativism is an attempt at destroying the concept of ethics. This is done by claiming that ethics are irrelevant and we accept them due to societal conditioning. Since morality is necessary, Moral Relativism is a default on the responsibility of choosing a rational moral guide.

That strikes me as a pretty extreme position, particularly the phrase "accepts that his own moral system is meaningless." No doubt there are some who do think that way. But more interesting is what follows that phrase; that the moral system is "accepted on whim, not reason."

Let's compare it with what mustardseed.net has to say about absolute morality in its discussion of moral relativism.

An indispensable pillar of Christian truth is the proposition that God is the lawgiver and moral governor of the universe. God is a personal and moral being, unlike the impersonal and amoral Force of New Age imagination. What is good, right, and virtuous is grounded in the triune God of the Bible. Jesus said, "Be holy as the Father in heaven is holy" (Matt. 5:48).

Because the all-knowing and eternal God is the source and standard of ethics, the moral law is universal, absolute, and objective; it is based on His unchanging, holy character.

Once again, we find reason lacking as the basis of morality. Rather, what we have is morality based solely on belief in what is probably a fictional character.

Neither fundamentalism nor moral relativism (at least in philosophical terms) has reason as its basis. As such neither can lead to a rational moral guide.

Consequently, I suggest that to call us moral relativists is in error. Rather we are moral rationalists. We actually think about what is right and wrong in a given situation, and come to a conclusion.

Thanks to my earlier discussion of the Ten Commandments, a number of people raised the issue of "Thou shalt not kill," suggesting that it should have been translated as "Thou shalt not murder." And this translation does indeed occur in many translations of both the Christian and Jewish versions of the Old Testament. And in others, both Jewish and Christian, it remains the traditional "Thou shalt not kill." But regardless of the words used, only a few minor sects of the two religions actually treat "Thou shalt not kill" as a moral absolute. In application, they treat the commandment as if it forbade murder. The problem is that murder is very much a culturally dependent term. It means something quite different than it did 2,800 years ago when the commandment was written down on paper. At it has a different meaning today depending on where you live in the world. A prohibition on murder is not a moral absolute.

And if you examine every one of the 10 commandments, you will find their application amongst those who claim to follow the commandments differs. The present differs very much from the past. And in the present, application differs depending on denomination. Not one of this particular god's commandments fills the bill of being "universal, absolute, and objective." Every one of them is interpreted and applied differently. And every interpretation is based, not on reason, but claimed to be based solely on Holy Writ.

Even mustardseed.net's discussion recognizes this and skates over it with weasel words:

"Although the application of unchanging moral principles may change throughout history, the principles themselves are perpetually binding and irrevocable. God isn't morally moody."

If the principle is "Thou shalt not murder," and the definition of murder continuously changes, then just what is "perpetually binding and irrevocable?"

If anybody determines their moral system by whim, it is these fundamentalists. They are the true moral relativists.