Myth: Moral relativism is wrong.
Fact: Not even the Bible or Christian leaders hold an act to be wrong in and of itself.
Not even the Bible considers an act to be wrong in and of itself
-- the scriptures are loaded with exceptions and qualifications to the
law. To those who believe that the only exceptions to the law should be
those that the Judeo-Christian God gives us, then there are three places
to find those exceptions: the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the
writings of Christian leaders in the 2,000 years since. Unfortunately,
there are profound problems with using any of these three sources to qualify
the law -- all three condoned slavery, for example. Therefore these are
not reliable guides for establishing moral absolutes; the practice is best
left to modern scholars.
One of the most cherished beliefs of conservatives is that morals
are absolute. If an act is wrong, they believe, it is wrong for all time;
there are no exceptions. Usually, this absolutism arises from the belief
that the law of God cannot be broken under any circumstances.
One of the most dramatic examples of this is an encyclical written
by Pope John Paul II, entitled Veritatis Splendor ("The Splendor
of Truth.") In it, the pope wrote that the morality of an act has
nothing to do with its result, its social context, its circumstance, its
intent, or the process by which a person's conscience comes to his decision.
The act is simply right or wrong, in and of itself, and it will always
be that way, no matter what the surrounding considerations. Furthermore,
the rightness or wrongness of an act is revealed to us by God, through
the highest authorities of the church. They cannot be questioned. Humans
are not supposed to wrestle with moral dilemmas, but to apply these revealed
truths to every situation and problem in life.
The most obvious result of putting this belief into practice is that
it gives supreme power to the highest leaders of the Church. It is no wonder
that religious leaders find moral absolutism so attractive, and are so
insistent upon everyone putting it into practice. Conservatives may object
that the power actually belongs to God, and the church leadership is simply
transmitting the information. But history clearly refutes this idea. African
slavery in America received the full blessing of four centuries of popes.
Considering the social and scientific disasters that the Church hierarchy
(of all denominations) have been guilty of promoting, from the burning
of witches to the enslavement of innocents, no thinking person could ever
place blind faith in the fallible leadership of men.
That's just a practical observation; let's turn to a more theoretical
treatment of moral absolutism. The problem with this theory is that not
even the Bible considers an act to be wrong in and of itself. God gave
Israel the Ten Commandments forbidding certain acts, but then he also ordered
Israel to carry out those very acts against her enemies. This sort of moral
relativism is apparent in Christian history as well. Slavery and war were
not condemned as evil in and of themselves; Christian scholars and popes
wrote entire libraries on what constituted "just and unjust slavery"
and "just and unjust war." They drew all the exceptions permissible
under God for these atrocities, which they viewed as correct in certain
circumstances. They also did this with more positive behaviors, such as
the only correct occasions to have sex, which the Church otherwise viewed
as a great evil. The argument that morals are absolute, then, despite their
context, is completely inconsistent with Christian history and practice.
The most a conservative can argue is that the law is relative, but
it is up to God to decide where to permit the exceptions. Christians should
then follow his exceptions as moral absolutes. This is a bit like the old-school
physicist, who, upon learning that Einstein had proven that the universe
is relative, proclaimed, "But this relativity is nonetheless absolute!"
There are only three places where Christians can look for the exceptions
that God permits to his law. That is the Old Testament, the New Testament,
and the writings of Christian leaders in the last 2,000 years.
The Old Testament
The first exceptions to the Ten Commandments were the levitical law,
which are mostly found in the first five books of the Old Testament. For
example, the Sixth Commandment says, "You shall not kill," but
levitical law generally gives three occasions where killing is permissible:
in self-defense, in times of war, and in the commission of justice.
There are three problems, however, in relying on levitical law to qualify
the Ten Commandments.
First, it is woefully incomplete. The Jews passed down their laws orally,
writing down only the more complicated laws to jog their memory. Levitical
law comes to us with tremendous gaps; for example, we know little of their
laws on libel, business, lending, alimony, lease, rental agreements and
The second problem with levitical law is the religious right's selective
and hypocritical use of it. When it suits their pet beliefs, they quote
laws like the one forbidding homosexuality endlessly. But when the law
proves troubling, or even embarrassing, they simply ignore it. For example,
levitical law allowed fathers to stone their rebellious sons to death,
soldiers to kill their enemy's already captive men and take their women
as plunder, and masters to beat their servants so severely they could not
get up for a day or two. Levitical law condemned the wearing of two different
types of fabric at once, or the planting of two different crops in the
same field, or cutting the sides of one's hair. Furthermore, it described
an elaborate set of laws for temple rituals and Sabbath worship. In all
these cases, Christians mumble something about the law no longer applying,
and for once, they ought to be believed.
The third problem with levitical law is that it is clearly outdated.
The technological and social progress of the human race have given rise
to new legal and ethical dilemmas which Levitical law completely fails
to address. For example, levitical law condemns forced robbery. Yet hostile
takeovers on Wall Street allow one person to take over another's company
against his will. A moral absolutist would have to condemn this practice.
Another example is automobile driving. In America, this activity kills
50,000 people a year. These deaths are accidental, to be sure, but our
decision to participate in an activity which we already know will kill
50,000 people a year is not accidental. We know that there were
virtually no deaths in the days of horse and buggy travel. Yet we assume
that 50,000 deaths a year is worth the convenience. Nowhere in Levitical
law will you even come close to finding support for this idea, and a moral
absolutist would have to renounce automobile travel.
Levitical law also condemns usury, or the loaning of money for interest,
as a great sin. Yet Christians today break this law regularly. There's
no getting around it: Christian conservatives face insurmountable obstacles
in using Levitical law to qualify the Ten Commandments.
The New Testament
The second place where Christians can find the exceptions to God's
law is the New Testament, but this is an even less complete guide than
levitical law. A quick review of Paul's philosophy towards the law explains
why. According to the classical viewpoint, Paul taught that the law only
serves as a mirror to point out sin and imperfection within a person. It
has the power to condemn a person, but not to change or perfect him. It
is only God's grace that saves him, that changes his sinful nature and
makes him want to obey the law. This topic was Paul's chief concern, and
he had little interest in writing out an elaborate legal code. With few
exceptions, he was unconcerned about the civil laws of earthly kingdoms.
He never raised his voice against slavery, and, indeed, once urged slaves
to obey their masters. Paul did tighten the Church's morality on
sex and marriage, and he advocated the elimination of Jewish customs from
the Christian Church, such as circumcision, temple rituals and abstinence
from pork. But Paul was remarkably silent over many civil and legal issues,
and was no more predictive of today's legal and ethical dilemmas than levitical
law. Abortion and contraception, for example, find no mention in the New
Testament. In fact, there are several laws that Paul does mention
that are diametrically opposed to Christian conservative beliefs today;
we have already mentioned the New Testament's firm support of welfare,
the redistribution of wealth to the poor, and even a communist economy.
If the religious right insists on using the New Testament to qualify the
Ten Commandments (as poorly as it does this), then liberals should insist
they use all of it.
The Christian Church
The third place the religious right can look for qualifications to
God's law is the leadership of the Christian church to this day. But for
the past 2,000 years, the greatest crimes against humanity and the worst
scientific errors have been done in the name of the Christian church. And
it wasn't that the church taught one thing but some of its members did
another; no, these errors and atrocities were written into the holiest
canons of the Christian church, taught by both pope and saint alike. The
leaders of all denominations participated in teaching them; you can't find
one denomination before the Enlightenment that did not. So there is a real
question as to which denomination a person can turn to for truly divine
If Christians are troubled by the fact that all three of these qualifiers
of God's law did detestable things like promote slavery, they can look
to the liberal Christian's solution. Liberals note that Paul admitted that
the laws of men are not perfect. These include the corrupt Pharisees in
charge of the temple and its laws, and corrupt popes that built brothels
in Avignon with church money. Paul writes that only God's grace changes
a person, replacing his sinful nature with the natural desire to do only
moral things. In other words, God impresses the qualifications of his law
directly upon the individual, without the interference of the corrupt powers
of the church.
In closing, we should point out that for all the conservative condemnation
of "moral relativism," one of the biggest practitioners of moral
relativism are conservatives themselves. Richard Nixon once said of a murderous
dictator who happened to be an ally: "He may be a son of a bitch,
but at least he's our son of a bitch." Moral absolutism leads conservatives
to oppose the murder of innocent fetuses, but moral relativism led them
to support the potential murder of millions of innocent Russians in a nuclear
defense of America. Jesus told the rich to sell what they have and give
to the poor, but conservatives today believe that the best way to help
the poor is to do the opposite: redistribute what little wealth they have
upward, by slashing taxes on the rich and cutting federal aid for the poor.
We should not be surprised that any philosophy that preaches moral absolutism
is destined to have lots of hypocrites.
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