Moral Absolutism vs. Relativism
Reading a recent entry on Pharyngula, I came across a quote from Kirk Cameron that struck me (not because it was Kirk Cameron saying it, but because the topic is a typical view), "Atheism has become very popular in universities--where it's taught that we evolved from animals and that there are no moral absolutes. So we shouldn't be surprised when there are school shootings." Well, the school shooting part's a complete non-sequitir. But I do want to take a look at the moral absolute parts in a bit more detail. There seems to be a sense among many Christians in this country that morals are absolute, and moral relativism is a bad, bad thing.
Now, I'll admit right up front that philosophy isn't my area of expertise, so perhaps my Wikipedia informed definitions of moral absolutism and moral relativism is leading me astray, but it certainly seems to me that most of our morals are relative, and not absolute. Even for Christians, when you look at the 10 commandments, the ones that deal with how to treat other people can all be looked at on a relative basis.
Honor your father and your mother.What about if your parents tell you to worship Ganesh? What if your parents snap, and go on a murderous rampage - should you try to stop them, or honor their wishes and let them kill more people?
You shall not kill [sometimes translated as murder].Is it okay to kill someone in self defense? Execute a convicted murderer? Kill people in war? Shoot a person on a murderous rampage?
You shall not commit adultery.Well - from the Christian perspective, there's not much to argue with in this one, but what about cultures where it's okay for spouses to have sex outside marriage, as long as neither spouse has a problem with it?
You shall not steal.Is it wrong to steal food to feed your starving children? Is it bad to steal a gun from a murderer so that he can't shoot anybody else?
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.Is it okay to lie to a murderer so that he can't find his next victim?
You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.Well, this doesn't exactly cover directly dealing with other people. It's just good advice not to be jealous.
I guess Christians could still argue that certain actions besides those listed above are inherently good or bad, but the Christian basis for good or bad a lot of times simply boils down to "God said so," but this doesn't say that the actions themselves are inherently good or bad. For a popular example, look at eating kosher foods. Before Jesus, it was apparently immoral to eat non-Kosher foods, but now, because of the New Covenant, non-Kosher foods (like shrimp) are on the menu. So, there was nothing inherent in the action that was moral or immoral, just whether or not God said it was okay. To insist on moral
relativism absolutism, when it seems that even God himself can change his mind, seems like a pretty strong stance to take.
A lot of Christians in this country today argue that morals are absolute, but it seems to me that the morality of an action really must be determined in context, and that most people usually do judge actions that way. To insist on complete moral absolutism seems a bit silly.