Relativists & Sociopaths

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/27/2013

How can some people commit sensationalistic crimes? Greg suggests perhaps they are just championing their moral point of view.

Yesterday morning I saw something in the paper that happened in Florida. It absolutely disgusted me and ought to have surprised me, but it didn’t. The L.A. Times , a small piece, says that a youth is charged in slaying a motorist who ran into a girl. Here’s basically what happened, ladies and gentlemen, a man had a collision with a pedestrian. The pedestrian was a small girl, apparently. She was banged up a little bit, but not seriously injured. He’d gotten out of his car to check her and was immediately mobbed by a number of youths who beat him up, robbed him of something like $23.00, and shot him dead, killed him. You think, well maybe they’re bugged because he hurt the girl. No. They were just a mob. They’re a bunch of youths, youngsters basically. They mobbed him, beat him up, robbed him and killed him.

If that isn’t bad enough, the other side to this, the other aspect of this-- and this wasn’t in the L.A. Times today but I heard it on the radio yesterday--is that there were a number of pedestrians, people standing around, watching it happen who were adults. Not only did they not intervene but they also wouldn’t cooperate with the police unless they were paid, apparently. In other words they wanted the T.V. crews to interview for cash before they would give any material information that would lead to the apprehension of any of the people who were involved in this brutal slaying.

This is another one of those things we hear that cause us to cluck our tongue, shake our head and say, What’s becoming of the world? Last week I had occasion to speak quite a number of times on the issue of moral relativism. Even though this is a disgusting event it doesn’t surprise me in many ways when many people espouse a moral viewpoint of relativism--in other words, that people are, by in large, responsible for their own values and responsible for making their own moral rules. This is, by the way, expressed in government and educational programs like values clarification in schools where kids are led through moral exercises to decide for themselves what they think is important when it comes to what’s right and wrong. It doesn’t surprise me when those who hold to an absolute morality are vilified and criticized and condemned in public for their position, not just for their moral position but for the fact that they hold a particular moral position that they think applies to everyone.

When we champion those kinds of things in a culture, ladies and gentlemen, why should it be surprising to us when young people in our society begin practicing what we’re teaching them. We teach them ultimately that values are an individual kind of thing and that morals are the kinds of things that are subjective and relative to every person’s view of right and wrong. When we say, Don’t force your morality on me, and, Who are you to say?, well, we’re essentially teaching our children that they need not be accountable to anyone. Why are we surprised when they’re not accountable to anyone?

I want to share with you two particular points that I made in this talk that I think relate to this incident that happened in Dade County, Florida this last week. The first one has to do with an overall critique of relativism as a moral point of view. I outlined eight serious flaws with moral relativism, individual ethical relativism, the idea that people make up their own moral rules and that we ought not force our morality on other people. All of the eight flaws, though they’re expressed differently, really hinge on the same basic idea. The idea is this, that in order for certain concepts that we hold dear and valuable--concepts that seem to be intuitive, that seem to be true concepts on the face of them, things like praise and blame, the existence of evil in the world, the value of justice and fairness, the reasonableness of personal accountability, the idea of moral discourse and moral improvement and reform, and the idea of tolerance--all of those things are tied up with a particular idea. The particular idea that these notions rest upon--have as their foundation--is the very idea that is repudiated by those who hold to moral relativism. That is that there is a moral standard of some sort that stands outside of a person and that is a judge on the person whether the person accepts it or not. In other words, for those concepts that I just listed to make any sense whatsoever there must be some kind of absolute standard, some morality that is not utterly subjective and not utterly personal. That’s why if you hold moral relativism--let everybody make up their own rules and decide for themselves what’s right and wrong and let’s not push our morality on any one else--then if you’re going to be consistent you have to abandon the idea that there is anything like an absolute right or wrong.

Therefore, your language of wrong-doing has to be excised from your vocabulary. The language of things being evil in themselves or wrong in themselves must be removed because there is no such thing. There are only things that you like and dislike so your moral assessments are merely reduced to autobiography. What feels good or bad to you, not what is morally right or wrong in itself. You have to get rid of the idea that there is blame and praise because you can’t blame or praise people unless you have a standard by which blame and praise make any sense. You can’t ask for justice or fairness because that implies that there is a moral standard that stands outside of everyone that says, for example, that we must treat people equally or we must not punish the innocent and let the guilty go free.

If relativism is true then there is no standard like that standing outside of us so there’s no sense to the notion of justice or fairness. There’s no accountability. Everybody does their own thing. There’s no possibility of moral improvement or moral discourse, you can’t even discuss things morally in an intelligent fashion because there’s no better or worse morality in the context of relativism. Ultimately there’s no tolerance either because the rule that one ought to be tolerant is an absolute rule that stands outside of our individual tastes. If there are no absolute rules then the absolute “Be tolerant” is no longer there either, and therefore relativism, the fact that everybody makes up their own rules, ultimately does not lead to tolerance either. My point being that if relativism were really true then we would be living in a world in which nothing is wrong, nothing is considered evil or good or worthy of praise or blame, a world in which justice and praise are meaningless concepts, in which there is no accountability, no possibility of moral improvement or even a moral discourse. Also, it would be a world in which there is no tolerance.

When I did that talk I had a note that following this belief in and practice of relativism produces this kind of world. But I left that out in some of my talks. I thought that’s too strong of a statement. Just because you believe in relativism doesn’t mean it’s going to produce this kind of world because maybe there’s something else of goodness or something inside of you that will redeem you in the long run so you don’t end up living consistent with your alleged world view. I think this is even truer as I reflect on what happened last week than I was willing to admit even to my own audiences when I talked about relativism. That belief in and practice of relativism does produce a world like this and we’re seeing the fruits of that, and we did in Dade County, Florida.

One of the things that I mentioned as I was talking about relativism last weekend is that you can, in a sense, assess the significance or the value or worth of a particular moral point of view by asking what kind of moral champion does this point of view produce. For example, if your moral point of view is that you should take no thought for yourself but always think of other people, and you watch people who live that out most consistently, this ethic produces someone like a Mother Theresa, for example. Or if you have someone who says that one of the highest ethics is non-violent passive resistance and lives that out in exemplary fashion, it produces a Gandhi. If the ethic is to obey the Father in all things and you live that out thoroughly, it produces a Jesus Christ. When we look at the moral champions of these different viewpoints it speaks well for the standard they espouse.