Most of us, at some point, have encountered the demon of moral relativism, a philosophy claiming that every system of moral precepts (or lack thereof) is equally good, and adherence to one or another is merely a matter of personal preference. In other words, “Truth is in the eye of the beholder.”
Clearly, no faithful and practicing Catholic believes this, as the Church teaches that She alone contains the fullness of truth and was founded by Christ. More than merely being untrue, though, moral relativism is dangerous, and has been criticized many times by people of faith. It also has consequences that reach beyond only those who believe in it, so it is helpful for Catholics to have some understanding of it. Here is my (very basic) examination of moral relativism and its implications.
God Cannot Be Both the Creator of the World and a Rock
Moral relativism’s essential key point, as I understand it, is: “What’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me.” Basically, it treats religion and other existential questions as matters of personal preference, nothing more. To illustrate whether this actually works, compare pantheism with Catholicism. God cannot be everything in the world while also being the One all-powerful Creator of the world. Nor can such questions about reality be chalked up to”personal preference.” Either God has certain qualities, such as benevolence and omniscience, or He does not. They cannot both be true about Him.
Just like that, relativism is shown to be ridiculous and untenable. Rather than a question of preference, religion is a question of truth. But relativism itself does not stop there, with the premise that God or The Supreme Being or whatever you want to call Him cannot be both personal and impersonal, depending on what someone decides He should be at a given time. Once, I met a kind, well-intentioned Hindu man, who, if I understood and remember his meaning correctly, said “God is like your fingerprint,” meaning Whoever or Whatever God is unique to every person.
However, he also went in another direction and said that if someone decided God was a rock, then God would come down into the rock to honor that someone’s worship. But (again, if my understanding was correct) such a viewpoint is actually less relativistic and more logical than others. The Hindu man said that God would come into the rock if someone believed the rock to be God. If such a statement were true, then it would not, in fact, mean that the rock itself was actually God, but that God was a Being greater than the rock and choosing to accommodate the ignorance of a well-intended worshiper. The idea that God will make allowances for the ignorance of those who do not know exactly Who He is is at least partially correct.
At the same time though, why would a good and loving God want those who loved Him not to have some measure of knowledge about Him? Such a thing would then be contradictory to His nature.
Moral Relativism Only Makes It Worse
Furthermore, the conundrum of the last paragraph pertains more to religious relativism than moral. To expound on moral relativism specifically, that goes beyond the nature of God to the question of what human actions are legitimately right and wrong. If that question is approached from a relativistic standpoint, rather than constituting a system of universal truths that everyone should know and understand instinctively, such as, “Thou shalt do no murder,” right and wrong are nothing but confusing. To take two more unusual beliefs, Muslims believe all consumption of alcohol is wrong, whereas Jehovah’s Witnesses believe all blood transfusions are wrong.
The moral relativist, if he is consistent, would correspondingly say that alcohol is wrong for Muslims, and blood transfusions wrong for Jehovah’s Witnesses, but not the other way around. In that case, then, what would be wrong wouldn’t be drinking wine or getting a blood transfusion in and of itself, but the doing of violence to one’s conscience.
As a Catholic, I agree that no one should ever be forced to violate his conscience, but what is the point of moral guidelines without an objective moral reality to which they may be conformed? Perhaps the moral relativist argues that such guidelines are good simply because they constitute a form of “comfort” for people. While I personally cannot speak to whether or not Muslims long to drink alcohol, it stands to reason that at least some of those Jehovah’s Witnesses who died from inability to accept blood transfusions would have wanted to receive them and live had not they not believed them to be against God’s will. It seems hard to justify giving up one’s own life for the sake of an arbitrary belief as “comforting.” The relativist could then counter by saying the comfort is not the guidelines themselves, but the fact that they give believers a way to be part of something bigger than themselves. I can only speak for me, but I do not find the idea of being “part of something” that may or may not actually be real particularly appealing, especially if it dictates that I must refuse life-saving treatment.
In Reality, Relativism Means Nothing but Human Ignorance
Additionally, if we disregard moral relativism’s backwards implications and pretend for a moment that it could actually be true, what then? What it means is all mankind must then be ignorant about the nature of God or a supreme Being, and even whether He exists at all, as well as the aforementioned moral guidelines. If a relativist would say worship of many gods, worship of the earth goddess Gaia, and Christianity are all right because all three religions have practitioners who want to believe them, what the relativist is really saying is that he has no knowledge of which beliefs are correct and which are not.
If what’s true for one man is not also true for every other, then truth about Who or What is in charge of the universe is reduced to something mutable, non-existent outside of the human mind. And if something does not exist outside of the mind, what then? Moral relativism reduces God, Who has been known as the Great Creator of the universe ever since man came to understanding, to a purely human construct. But if God is what man decides He is, then there is no need for a God anyway. Perhaps this nebulous “great Thing” could then be an actual “comfort” to those who wanted to believe that there was some kind of underlying meaning to life without the restrictions of religious practice, but if such people were to examine their beliefs closely they would see that they make no sense. After all, I would bet everyone, moral relativists included, would not use the “Truth is in the eye of the beholder” logic in other areas of life. Most would agree that I cannot change a rock into a piece of gold simply by telling myself, “It’s gold.” The reality of the rock is greater than my preference. Even atheism, though I find it a deeply flawed viewpoint, is more consistent than relativism. Atheists believe that there never was nor ever will be a God, but that this lack of a God is an absolute truth that applies to everyone everywhere, even to those who firmly believe otherwise.
This still leaves the final questions: who is God and what constitutes good and evil? Those who have read this far can surely tell what my conclusion is. That being said, if you think I am wrong and the answer lies in another faith, such as Judaism, I can respect that. If you think I am wrong because there is no God, I can respect that too. If, however, you can somehow try to claim that what I believe is right for me alone, and what you believe is right for you alone, I suggest you reexamine your train of thought—it may be heading for a crash.