All Morality Is Relative

I think the starting point in a piece like this should include a definition of what is meant by ‘relative morality’. To me the term encompasses a belief that what one person believes to be morally right cannot be proven to be morally wrong by another because it would involve nullifying the first persons belief system. This allows the acceptance of judicially sanctioned torture and mutilation in foreign cultures without condemnation on the basis that we cannot know any fundamental ‘truths’ about morality, that every person or state’s individual morality is equally valid.

I do not think this is a sustainable point of view in the modern world where, due to worldwide media and globalisation, we all occupy the same global space and time. This is not the same as a refusal to condemn the murderous and barbaric acts of much of the European nobility during the middle ages, the rulers of those times had no access to the moral education available in more modern times. We all know now that religious persecution is wrong but there is a huge difference between the execution of Socrates for impiety (among other things) in classical Athens and the execution (often public) of an apostate in a modern Arabic country (or indeed the media character assassinations of ‘unbelievers’ by irrational sensationalist journalists who know better but choose to forsake their ‘Christian’ morality to get better copy).

The opposing view to moral relativism is known as ‘absolute morality’, which, to me, is defined by the belief that actions and beliefs are always either wrong or right independent of the contexts of culture, time or emotion. We all, from whatever cultural background, believe murder to be wrong; this is often used as evidence for ‘god-given’ morality, how could so many nations and cultures share the same moral notions without a divine cause?

As it turns out, quite easily. My dog is quite large and powerful, he would easily be capable of killing other, smaller dogs if he so wished, I have never trained him not to and he is not (as far as I know) religious, yet he is yet to so much as bare his teeth at another dog. Even dogs that are naturally aggressive will not kill other dogs without provocation and/or training, did god give them that morality? He must also then have given my cat the moral compass that allows him to catch a mouse and play with it until it eventually dies of fright, maybe god allows torture for fun but not murder.

Despite the bestial tangent, there are a number of holes in the argument for the kind of god-given absolute morality preached by so many modern Christians seeking to combat the inevitable social liberalism that comes with scientific advancement (independent documentary evidence backing up bigoted beliefs is hard to come by). Firstly, if this morality is truly absolute, unchanging with time or context and given by god, why are there so many biblical tales of apparently ‘righteous’ men doing terrible things that we would today find abhorrent? Lot seems to have been quite willing to offer up his two daughters for gang rape as long as his guests (who he did not at the time know to be angels) were spared the same ordeal. Despite Jesus’ calls later for us to honour our mother and father, it is not hard to see why a child of Lot could become a sexual deviant as shown by their later incest. Joshua commits a string of heinous war crimes that amount to genocide and the ethnic cleansing of an entire nation on the basis or religion and race, which were (at the time) interchangeable due to the prohibition of intermarriage. Many of the laws and punishments given in the early chapters of the bible would be considered horrendous by modern standards, yet they were apparently gifted by god to his ‘chosen people’. How fair, true or ‘moral’ could these laws have been if we are told by a controversial later Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth that the greatest commandment was the love of god and the so-called ‘golden rule’ or treating others as you would wish they treat you (I’m guessing god forgot to tell Joshua that last bit, or maybe he changed his mind later). Jesus also tells us that enforcers of the law must themselves be ‘without sin’, which seems to have gone unheeded throughout history; that charging interest on loans or money exchange is wrong, a belief understandable without a modern knowledge of economic inflation; forgiveness, asceticism and humility feature in all four of the Gospels although they seem to be much less popular with the organised church at large yet he seems to have been peculiarly quiet on homosexuality, despite the modern Christian obsession with the topic.

It seems to me, an outsider from Christianity (although formerly a church-going, confirmed Anglican, believer) that despite the name ‘Christian’, the belief system of most of the followers of Christ since the establishment of the orthodox early church in the 4th century C.E. have owed more to the teachings of St Paul and the Torah rather than the Gospels which seem instead to have been used both as proof of the miraculous power and the historical authenticity of a man for whom we have very little other evidence.

Despite the clear problems with a belief in an absolute morality prescribed by god, the arguments between absolute and relative morality are not confined to the religious sphere. Many atheists are not, as some would have you believe, true moral relativists. Many modern humanists do believe that there are absolute moral boundaries, they just tend to have differing opinions to religious groups as to where these boundaries are.

I do not think this is the end of the story however. I believe that these ‘absolutes’ are not truly absolute. They can and do move with time, they are in a constant state of flux, affected and moulded by us just as we are moulded by them. Until fairly recently in Europe and still in most of the rest of the world, homosexuality was and is socially unacceptable and/or illegal. What has changed our value system to permit this behaviour in modern Britain? With the gradual relaxation of religious orthodoxy in previous centuries the level of tolerance in the general population progressively increased and a sense of ‘live and let live’ came to pass. Eventually it became clear that allowing those previously known as sexual deviants to fully participate in society was of detriment to nobody and most of us now wonder what all the fuss was about. This has made Britain a better place to live, constant hatred and persecution on the basis that god may have said it to someone thousands of miles away and thousands of years ago cannot be of any benefit to anyone.

Our morality is exactly that, ours. Not ours to choose, not consciously anyway, its is ours because it is both unique to us and uniquely made by us. All our societal knowledge and experience, our successes and failures, our fears and hopes all pooled together and shared through the new media. Just as a person entering middle-age often mellows with their accretion of wisdom, so too should humanity as a whole. Despite the ‘mid life crisis’ being experienced by religious zealots worldwide, there can be no going-back on this. Pandora’s box is indeed open and no amount of pious screeching will make me disbelieve what I know to be right.

All morality is absolutely relative.

This is a follow-up to a previous piece – “The True Origins Of Morality” –

Thanks for reading.



2 Responses to All Morality Is Relative

  1. Of course morality is relative to time and place; that is obvious. But you don’t seem to be concerned with, or aware of, the problems that this implies.

    How can you be so sure that liberal democracy can exist without the belief in an absolute moral order (whether there really is one or not)?

    Morality and mores are relative – so too are democracy, freedom and equality. These are specifically Western – even Anglo-Saxon – concepts. They are products of a particular time and place.Liberal democracy grew out of Judaism and Christianity, and for centuries the Western democracies were deeply Christian cultures. Christianity not only gave rise to liberal democracy, it also provided the preconditions that sustain it: a culture of moderation, restraint and peace. (Note that whether or not God exists is not relevant here.)

    Given that morality is relative; given that humans, because of their impulsive, animal nature, tend naturally towards tribalism; given that liberal democracy is an anomaly in the 200,000 years of human existence; and given that humans have very little control over the unfolding of events (especially when a complex system such as a whole culture is concerned) – given all these things, how can you be so sure that liberal democracy can endure if it is removed from the sustaining soil from which it sprang?

    Nietzsche, a great inspiration for both the Nazis and the 1960s counter-culture revolution, wanted to destroy Christianity precisely because he wanted to destroy democracy and bring society back to a pre-Christian culture, in which the strong dominate the weak.

    I can understand why atheists don’t believe in God or absolute morality. What I cannot get my head around is why they are so determined to rid the world of all Christian influence. I don’t think they realize what they are doing.

  2. I don’t believe that modern liberal democracy grew out of Judaism & Christianity. It was only possible after the elightenment removed the necessity for god in all things, Christianity is by necessity an extreemly hierarchical, centralised institution and the individualism that sprung from a core Anglo-Saxon culture was present in Northern Germany well before Christianity took hold there. What enabled democracy to take hold was the spreading of a belief in the general populace that what happened now, in this life was important. It was not just for suffering and reward in heaven. The growth of the middle classes during the industrial revolution added to this.
    My understanding of Nietzsche is that he wanted to remove god in the process of removing the class system and beginning a genuine meritocracy rather than the ‘might is right’ of former times.
    My point is that god is not necessary for any moral code, in fact in the modern world, a god whose rules were written in a time so far distant to our own is genuinely harmful.

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