Moral Relativism Failure #4: Self-Refuting

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Another argument against moral relativism is that the position is self-refuting. This means that when it is tested against its own criteria, it fails to pass. If I were to write “I cannot write a word in English,” the statement would be self-refuting because I had just written the statement in English. Likewise, the claim of the moral relativist refutes itself. If the moral relativist states “there is no absolute morality,” he just made an absolute statement about morality which, by his own definition he is not allowed to do.

Here, however, the moral relativist may interject and make the claim that, because the statement itself, “There is no absolute morality,” is not a moral statement, it is not self-refuting. But, even if the statement is not a moral statement, surely the implication that the moral relativist draws from the statement refutes itself. Since the moral relativist does not believe that any culture’s morality has any more value than another’s, he also believes that each culture should tolerate every other culture. The view generally takes the following shape: “Since I cannot know that my culture’s morality is correct, I (morally) ought to tolerate the morality of other cultures.” But here appears a non-refutable self-refuting moral statement. What if another culture exists that does not share the same value of tolerance? How would the moral relativist seek to remedy such a dilemma? Whose version of morality would he call on to solve this issue? Does he use his own morality or that of the other culture? The moral relativist’s own belief system forbids him to judge the moral belief system of the other culture based on his own moral belief system and thus forbids him from making his original statement about tolerance. He thus cannot fault the other culture for not valuing tolerance just because he does so. Consequently, the other culture has no moral obligation to value tolerance and the moral relativist has no moral basis for making his statement. The position of the moral relativist again fails in its practical application.

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Article by Richard Smolenski

My name is Richard Smolenski and I am a theologian in training. I have an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University and an M.A. in Religion (Biblical Studies), and an M.Div. in Theology and Apologetics from Liberty Seminary. Richard Smolenski tagged this post with: , , Read 107 articles by
4 Comments Post a Comment
  1. David says:

    I’m impressed that you pointed out the objection that “there is no absolute morality” is not a moral statement. Most people consider the argument closed before they develop it that far.

    However, I don’t agree that relativism itself prescribes tolerance. Many relativists would prescribe tolerance, and I personally strive to be understanding of different people, but I would *not* say that any objective standards would require you to be tolerant.

    Relativism also does *not* forbid anyone from making any statements, it just prevents us (relativists) from considering some statements as universal. I can disagree with, vote against, or even prescribe anything I fancy without contradicting a relativist belief set. The only thing I can’t do is expect my disagreement, vote, or prescription to stand on its own without being backed up by a concrete, morality-free argument.

    I could, for instance, say “killing babies is wrong”, but the actual meaning I attach to that statement (“God says don’t do it”, “I want our legal system to prevent it”…), as well as the implications of that statement (“I will physically interfere if you try to do it”, “I will report you to the authorities if I know you’ve done it”…) might depend on the context (“God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac”, “this baby will murder 600 people if it lives”…).

  2. dgfhfghlfla says:

    with all due respect, i think your argument is a bit of a straw man, as the previous poster pointed out (not in those terms). however, i’d also like to point out that you’re creating a problem that really wouldn’t exist in the minds of relativists.

    “What if another culture exists that does not share the same value of tolerance? How would the moral relativist seek to remedy such a dilemma? Whose version of morality would he call on to solve this issue? Does he use his own morality or that of the other culture?”

    issue? solve? relativists wouldn’t see it in those terms. the issue to solve wouldn’t be who is morally right and who is morally wrong because neither society would be, the issue would be to find some mutually agreeable way to live harmoniously. i’ll discuss some approaches later on. for now, i’ll point out that there are two ways to approach this analytically from a relativist’s perspective.

    the first is to elevate relativism to a form of absolutism. your argument implicitly assigns an absolutist response to a relativist culture, so this is the natural response. if my culture is relativist then relativism is absolute within my culture. so, you’re not actually dealing with absolutism vs. relativism, you’re dealing with absolutism vs. absolutism. on the one hand you have a culture that is intolerant and on the other hand you have a culture that is intolerant of intolerance because intolerance would be considered to be absolutely morally wrong within a relativist society. that doesn’t mean that intolerance is absolutely morally wrong, it means it’s perceived that way within a relativist society; the fact that the other society disagrees in fact proves that intolerance is not a universal truth amongst all cultures. so, the relativist wouldn’t respond by saying that it can’t judge the other society, as allowing an intolerant society to be intolerant would refute a clear deduction of relativism, namely that intolerance is morally wrong. in contrast, the relativist society must oppose the intolerant society if it aims to be consistent with itself. then, is the relativist society being intolerant of intolerance? sure, but it must be if it wishes to uphold tolerance. this is not contradictory because in this circumstance the relativist society would be forced to respond absolutely in order to defend relativism against absolutism, which is perfectly consistent with relativism if relativism is treated absolutely.

    the second approach is to deduce that relativism implies nihilism before you make any further deductions. this is a simple argument. if no system of morals is more correct than the next one, there is no absolute system of morals and any attempt put forward towards constructing one is nothing greater than misguided delusion. what is the statement “there is no absolute system of morals” besides moral nihilism? now, moral nihilism is not equivalent to amorality. the rejection of absolute morality does not imply the adoption of amorality, it merely recognizes that despite the hopes and dreams of humans to construct a viable system of morality that is beyond the confines of human thought this system is perpetually hopelessly doomed to failure. it’s maybe even comparable in some ways to godel’s results about arithmetic; just because we can’t construct a consistent system of arithmetic doesn’t mean that arithmetic has no value. post-godel logicians can still accept that 1 + 1 = 2. moral nihilists can accept that in 99% of circumstance it’s not beneficial to anybody to commit an act of murder and that there’s almost no situation where rape is acceptable, excluding some catastrophe that creates a severe genetic bottleneck.

    as relativism implies nihilism, the whole premise falls apart because relativists cannot be held to any imaginary moral ideal whatsoever.

    so, what should a relativistic society do in a situation where it’s in conflict with an absolutist one? well, it should do the following.

    1) if possible, attempt a dialogue with the aims of making some kind of agreement that allows both societies to live harmoniously.
    2) if this is not possible or it fails, it must fight to uphold relativism because when applied to a society relativism becomes absolutist and then necessarily implies intolerance towards intolerance.

  3. JUDITH says:

    I can’t subscribe to your RSS feed. Please help?

  4. Chip Fields says:

    Cut in line in front of a relativist and watch what happens…..suddenly, you have an absolutist.