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Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Moral relativists cannot fully escape the reality and inevitability of their own humanness.

In a famous scene in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," the ruler of a castle seeks to bring peace to warring opponents by saying, "Now, now, let's not fight and squabble about who killed who." His point is that a little mayhem and death are inevitable, but enough's enough when he's had enough. And who was to say he was wrong? He was the ruler.

Moral relativism is a bit like that. Moral relativists, like Dr. Jesse Prinz, believe that morals are a function of emotions. While a certain amount of emotion is necessary, and gives rise to our sense of moral "oughtness," too much emotion can be dangerous and, thus, needs to be controlled. In the same issue of Philosopy Now as Dr. Prinz's article appeared, Dr. David Wong, another moral relativist, takes a bit of a different tack in trying to justify his relativist approach to moral behavior ("Making An Effort to Understand," January 9, 2011).

Dr. Wong explains his view that morality arises not as a function of emotions, but as a result of culture. People cannot not live together; therefore, they must learn to cooperate and get along. As they do, systems of cooperation emerge that solidify, over time, into moral codes which prescribe proper ethical behavior. He writes, "Because moral norms have functions, the content of moral norms can be assessed on the basis of their effectiveness in enabling the fulfillment of those funtions." And the functions Dr. Wong has in mind are those that maximize interpersonal cooperation.

In any given culture, those norms and functions might be different, depending on whatever secondary matters that culture values the most - as, for example, human independency and privacy versus human interdependency and community. But in every culture, "Curbing the unrestrained pursuit of self-interest is obviously something that moral norms have to do."

But why should that be obvious? And why is "cooperation" a higher value for ethical norms than emotions? Where does the notion of cooperation come from anyway? Dr. Wong doesn't bother to explain these. He merely assumes we all agree that you can't have people running around and doing whatever they want without regard for others; therefore, you must have some norms, culturally defined, which maximize cooperation to the benefit of each and all.

The Christian worldview can explain these ideas, and it comes down, once again, to the fact that human beings are made in the image of God. We saw that Dr. Prinz was borrowing on the Biblical teaching about the centrality of affections in human life. Now Dr. Wong is borrowing on the Biblical teaching that man is made for community and mutual love as a reflection of his being made in the image of God, Who is a Trinity of Persons in one divine Godhead.

It is important for Christians to understand that, try though they may to get away from unchanging and objective norms and values, moral relativists cannot fully escape the reality and inevitability of their own humanness. They are image-bearers of God, and in order to make any sense at all - and they do offer some good things to ponder - they must borrow on the truth of God, whether or not they understand or acknowledge that this is what they're doing.

Christians will make their ethical arguments into this conversation by identifying points of intersection between their Biblical view of moral norms and the views of other contributors, and then by showing - through argument and by gracious and hope-filled lives - the reality of the Biblical and Christian understanding of how we ought to live.

Addtional related texts: Romans 1.18-21; Acts 17.22-31; Titus 1.10-13 (a particularly relevant example to today's deconstructivist culture)

A conversation starter: "Why do people who insist that all values and morals are relative keep trying to find universal and objective explanations to support their views? Do they undermine their relativist arguments by doing so?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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