Relativism Self-Destructs

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/27/2013

Greg finds a prime example of confused morality on a popular TV talk show.

I’ve been following these two cases in the news recently about homosexuality and parenting. There was a young lady in Virginia whose young son was taken away and given to the grandmother because the court had ruled she was an unfit mother, partially because she is a lesbian. The other case involves Katherine Thomas whose child was given over to the custody of Kevin Thomas (no relation) who is a homosexual. She took the child and ran away. Both of these cases were discussed on Larry King Live this week, which I had an opportunity to watch. There was a lesbian who was arguing for the rights of homosexuals to be parents. I had an uncomfortable time with the show partly because there was another guest who I think was a Christian. I didn’t watch enough to find out which group she represented, although she was trying to make a case against this other woman based on something akin to natural law.

At this point, Larry King was really taking her to task for her notion of natural law because he pointed out his understanding that this woman did not choose her homosexual orientation just as the Christian woman he was interviewing did not choose her heterosexual orientation. Therefore, how could she possibly object to this other woman’s fitness as a mother? This poor Christian woman got herself a bit outmaneuvered by Mr. King as he offered this constitutional homosexuality argument, and he was a bit of a steamroller too. That’s when I turned the TV off because my gut started to churn and I wanted to jump in on the discussion and I couldn’t. So, I turned it off so I wouldn’t get all bent out of shape.

There was something that was really important going on in this discussion that was underlying this specific issue of homosexuality. What was really at the root of the discussion was the legitimacy of universal moral rules because the Christian woman was arguing for some type of universal moral rules that would exclude lesbians as unfit mothers because of the patent immorality of their lifestyles. She was having a rough go of it with Larry King, but that was her argument. The reason that those arguments have such a difficult time right now is because relativism is the reigning moral ethic of the day. Relativism is simply that every person should be allowed to make up their own morality and live by their own set of standards of what they think is right and wrong. Larry King was championing the homosexual agenda in some form or another, and this notion of relativism is underlying his entire argument. Who is anyone, least of all the Christians, to judge someone else and to force their views on someone else? That’s the discussion here in basic terms and it’s something you hear in many topics of discussion. We’ve talked about this before, but I want to focus on a few aspects of this relativism issue that were underlying what Larry King was saying and also show how the notion itself is actually destructive to Larry King’s own position and it commits suicide.

I was having breakfast this morning at the hotel where I stayed last night after giving an address at a crisis pregnancy center fund raiser. I got into a conversation with a young lady who was sitting next to me; both of us were dining alone. Her boyfriend was in a conference there at the hotel. Her name was Jenny and we began talking about relativism. I reflected to her, You know, if relativism is allegedly a good ethic--that people ought to allow others the liberty to judge for themselves what is morally good--then it seems to me that those who exemplify it to the greatest degree are the best kind of people. In this case if relativism is a good ethic, then those who manifest it most consistently and persistently, the person who is the most thorough-going relativist, is the person who is the most moral. That, I think, is a reasonable way of assessing ethics, by the way. This points out the utter bankruptcy of relativism as a moral ethic. If we apply that kind of rule to relativism we end up saying something rather absurd. We have a word in the English language for someone who is a thorough-going relativist, in other words, someone who is the most utterly committed to the notion that his ethic ought to be the thing that guides his life and others ought not make rules for him or her. What do we call a person who makes up all of his rules for himself? We call that kind of person a sociopath. If we encourage people to live out relativism consistently, what we produce is a sociopathic individual, a person who does whatever he likes, whenever he likes, without regard to other people’s concerns and well-being. This demonstrates how bankrupt relativism really is.

Now King doesn’t advocate moral anarchy. But my question to Larry King and anyone else who holds to this point of view is: On what basis can he hope to escape the notion of moral anarchy? And on what basis can he escape the conclusion that the best kind of person--if relativism is a good ethic--is the one who lives relativism out to its logical conclusion? The best kind of person is a sociopath? How can you escape it? Larry King’s views of morality are actually hostile and inimical to his own views of justice and morality that he is promoting on his program. Here’s why.

Relativism as a way of thinking actually ends up nullifying the concept of justice and fairness. Larry seems to be arguing for justice and fairness on behalf of a woman who has a child who is taken away, in part, because she’s a lesbian. That’s not fair. That’s not just. But think for just a moment what one has to aver if he holds to a notion of justice and fairness. Justice and fairness are concepts that dictate that comparable treatment be given to different people based on--now watch this--the common standard of what’s right. Justice and fairness dictate how people should act. How they are obliged to act. How they ought to act. Why am I emphasizing all of these oughts and shoulds and obligeds? Because all of those are words that have no meaning in the context of relativism because relativism says that there are no standards that are absolute for all people such that they ought to and they should and they are obliged to act in a particular way. Our notion of justice and fairness is founded on the idea that there are concepts that apply to everyone.

My point is that if we are relativists and if we believe that everyone ought to make up their own morality and live by that, then we cannot in the next moment take that back and argue that people ought to be just and fair in the way they treat other people because justice and fairness are notions that are the content of someone else’s particular morality. And relativism says that you cannot take that content and make it incumbent on some other person. If you do you violate relativism. So in arguing for relativism Larry King actually shoots himself in the foot when he says we ought to be just and fair and allow this young lady to live however she wants to live and not take her child away from her. This is another reason why relativism doesn’t work.

By the way, relativism is among the most bankrupt of all ethical systems and it makes it impossible for us to even have a meaningful discussion about morality. The reason why it makes it hard to even discuss morality and why all the discussions that have a moral flavor to them on programs like this are ultimately incoherent is because you can only have a reasonable moral discussion if you are comparing one morality to another morality, and you are arguing that one is superior to another. You can say that my moral point of view is superior for these reasons, therefore rationally one ought to adopt my point of view. The point is, when we have moral discussions we are arguing based on the notion that there is something that’s better than the other and here are my reasons and this is why you ought to change your mind about a moral system. If the fundamental truth of the matter is that all moral systems are equally good, that each person ought to be allowed to do what they want according to their own point of view, you have lost the foundation for having any meaningful discussion about morality.

If morals are entirely relative, there are no grounds for determining if any moral standard is deficient or unreasonable or unsound or if it’s better or if it’s barbaric or unacceptable. Those things are gone. In a relativistic world view, others’ views--no matter how offensive to our intuitive sense of right or wrong-- can’t be critiqued, they can’t be challenged, they can’t be praised, and they can’t be faulted. And this is true of the opposing view that moral truth is absolute. If relativism is true then moral education becomes impossible and moral discussions become incoherent. Therefore, Larry King has no grounds on which to label as unjust anyone who “forces” their morality on him.

That’s something for you to chew on when you deal with relativism. I hope that these are things that you’re picking up when you watch shows like this.