Author Greg Koukl
Published on 07/31/2023

Five Fatal Flaws of Moral Relativism

In this class from Greg Koukl’s Stand to Reason University course “Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air,” Greg shares tactics for confronting the inconsistencies that make moral relativism impossible in practice.


Is it possible to actually know that moral relativism is false—to actually know that there really are objective moral standards that apply to everyone? The answer is yes. Here are three things you’re going to learn in our time together. First, you’re going to learn a reliable method to show that objective morality actually exists. Second, we’ll cover five fatal flaws of moral relativism. Finally, I’ll give you some tactics to use in conversation with others to show that moral relativism is false.

Now, to show that moral relativism is false, I’m going to appeal to what might be called moral common sense—or some call it moral intuition. Notice that human beings are constantly using moral terms to describe behaviors and to describe events. We talk about right and wrong. We talk about the problem of evil. We talk about justice and fairness and tolerance. We talk about mercy and kindness and self-sacrifice. We talk about heroism. Each of these concepts depends on some objective moral standard for its intelligibility, for what it actually means. But if relativism is true, there are no objective moral truths in the world, and without objective moral truth, those concepts and a whole bunch of others would be meaningless. On the other hand, if it seems to our moral common sense—our moral intuition—that these words and these concepts that we constantly use are describing something real, and we have no reason to doubt they’re real, then moral relativism must be false.

Let’s see how this approach works out in practice. I’m going to give you five fatal flaws of moral relativism. Flaw number one: If relativism is true, no one can ever be accused of doing anything wrong. It’s like saying there’s been an illegal play in a game that has no rules. You can express your emotions about things—your tastes, your personal preferences—but you can’t say others are wrong and have that be meaningful. For example, what sense does it make to say gay bashing is wrong if relativism is true? Even lying to subvert justice and condemn an innocent man can’t be wrong. Relativism, then, becomes the ultimate pro-choice position. That is, every personal choice is okay, even the choice to be a racist or the choice to oppress women or to torture children or kill abortionists. Who are we to make judgments, right? So, you tell me, does it seem accurate to condemn some things as wrong or bad or unethical or corrupt or harmful or dishonest or crooked or cruel? If so, then relativism is false. That’s the first flaw.

Here’s the second flaw in relativism: You have no basis to complain about the problem of evil. Notice, the entire objection to God’s existence based on the existence of evil hinges on the observation that real evil exists out there in the world—objectively. There’s got to be a standard that applies to everyone that is broken when people do bad things—do evil—but relativism holds there’s no standard, that the word “evil” only describes something an individual person doesn’t like, a mere personal preference. Evil for me. Good for me. Relativism, then, reduces the problem of evil, too. How could a good God allow things that I personally don’t like? Well, that’s silly. Obviously, if morality is just a matter of personal tastes—moral relativism—then the argument against God’s existence based on the problem of evil vanishes. If, however, there is real evil in the world, you can just ask yourself that question—even ask the relativist. If there is real evil, then relativism is false.

That’s the second flaw. Here’s the third one: Relativists can’t place blame or accept praise. Now, I want you to think about that. It renders the concept of praise and blame meaningless because, if there are no moral absolutes, then nothing is ultimately bad or deplorable or tragic or worthy of blame. It’s just a matter of preference. And on the other hand, nothing is ultimately good or honorable or noble or worthy of praise because, in moral relativism, it’s all lost in a twilight zone of moral nothingness. And it turns out, relativists are almost always inconsistent here. They want to avoid the blame. I get that, but they want the praise. Think about this. When a relativist praises someone for their good actions, why can’t they just say, “How dare you force your morality on me?” Because praise entails a moral judgment just as much as blame. It’s inconsistent with moral relativism to blame or praise. To be consistent, relativists should just remove those words—”praise” and “blame”—from their vocabularies. However, if the notions of praise and blame seem to be valid to our moral intuitions—our moral common sense—then relativism must be false.

Here’s the fourth flaw: If moral relativism is true, you can never improve your morality, because moral Improvement—becoming a better person—implies an outside standard that you’re getting closer to. This is the very standard that relativists deny, and if there’s no better way, there can’t be any improvement. Now, in relativism, your morals can change, but, by definition, they can never get better. If, however, moral improvement seems to make sense, then relativism can’t be true. That’s the fourth flaw.

Here’s the final flaw: Surprise. Surprise. In relativism, you cannot promote the virtue of tolerance. Oh, really? Yes, you can’t promote tolerance. Why not? Because there is no tolerance in relativism. Why? Because the moral obligation to be tolerant violates the very foundation of relativism. To say you ought to be tolerant is to impose an objective moral standard on everyone, but in relativism there are no objective moral rules. That’s why the principle of tolerance makes no sense in relativism. It may be true for you, but it doesn’t have to be true for other people. That’s the way it works. If it seems obvious, once again, to our moral common sense, that we ought to respect those who differ with us, then moral relativism is false. Think about this. What kind of world would it be if relativism were true? It would be a world in which there is nothing wrong. Nothing is evil or good or worthy of praise or blame. It would be a world in which there is no accountability, no possibility of moral improvement, and where there is no tolerance.

You might be wondering, who could live this way? How could anybody believe this? And here’s the key. No one can live this way, and no one does. They can talk this way, but they can’t live this way. Deep down inside, they know better, and that is the key to refuting relativism. Think about it. A person can wax eloquent with you in a discussion on moral relativism and then complain when somebody cuts in front of him in line. He’ll object to the unfair treatment he gets at work. He’ll denounce injustice in the legal system. He’ll criticize crooked politicians who betray the public trust, and he’ll condemn intolerant fundamentalists who force their moral views on other people. All of these are meaningless concepts in the twisted world of moral relativism.

Look, nobody is really a relativist, and our tactical strategy now involves exploiting that fact. The principal tactic here is to show that relativism self-destructs in practice. For example, somebody says to you, “Well, you shouldn’t force your morality on me.” Notice, the “shouldn’t” word—that’s a moral word. You shouldn’t do that. That’s wrong. You shouldn’t force your morality on me. And then you always just simply ask, “Why not?” What are they going to say? They can’t say, “That’s wrong,” because it’s like saying, “There are no moral rules. Here’s one!” That’s the contradiction, and there are variations of this. And somebody says, “Well, who are you to judge?” You might say, “Well, who are you to ask the question?” or, “Who are you to find fault?” In other words, they’re playing relativism against you, and you’re just going to play relativism back against them. The relativist’s claim kind of cuts in both directions.

Let me give you an example about how this worked out in a conversation I had with a physical therapist many years ago named Gil. In conversation together, when Gil asked me about my view of homosexuality, he objected to what he heard. He said, “You Christians are nice people, but pretty soon you start getting judgmental.” Now, think about the claim. I asked Gil, “What’s wrong with that?” and Gil just said it’s wrong to judge. So, I asked Gil, “If it’s wrong to judge, then why are you judging me?” Notice, I just played it right back on him. Now, he never heard anything like that before, and he was kind of taken aback and was trying to figure out what happened and to find a way out, and, finally, he says, “Well, I guess it’s okay to judge,” because he realized he was doing that, but then he says, “You can’t push your morality on other people.” He thought he’d improved his circumstances, but he hadn’t, as you can tell, because I had another question for him. I said, “Gil, is that your morality? That which you just told me?” He said, “Sure.” And I said, “Then why are you pushing it on me right now?” So, Gil drops back again, and is thinking about this second problem, and he makes a couple of false starts, and he can’t get going, and he says, “It’s not fair.” He’s all frustrated. I said, “What’s not fair?” He said, “I can’t find a way to say it in which it sounds right.” And I said, “Gil it doesn’t sound right, because it isn’t right. You’re doing the very thing you’re telling me not to do.” And this is going to happen all the time with moral relativists.

The key here: Listen to the way they talk, and don’t let them get away with any moral oughts. Just point it out when they do that, and, I’ll tell you, it’s virtually impossible for relativists to live consistently with this belief, and the reason is, they’re human beings made in the image of God, and they live in God’s world. Shoulds and oughts are always going to creep into their conversation. “You shouldn’t judge others, you intolerant bigot.” They want to be relativists when it suits them, then they want to be objectivist when it suits them. What they don’t want to be is consistent.

So, here’s what we covered. First, we learned a specific method of discovering objective morality. We used our moral common sense by looking at words we use all the time that trade on objective moral concepts, and we simply asked if they’re legitimate words. Are they meaningful? Second, we learned five fatal flaws of relativism. If relativism is true, then there’s nothing that’s actually morally wrong. There’s no problem of evil. There are no grounds for praise or blame. There’s no basis for moral improvement. And there is no obligation of tolerance. Finally, I gave you some tactics to use in conversation with others to show that moral relativism is false. You show that, in practice, moral relativism is almost always self-refuting. When people say you shouldn’t push your morality on them, you can ask, “Why not?” When someone says it’s wrong to judge you, ask them, “Why are you judging me?” That’s the way it works.