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 civil rights.

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 guidance.

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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