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Apples and Apples

Relativism by any other name is still relativism.

In the February 26, 2011, issue of Philosophy Now, Dr. Mitchell Silver responds to the symposium on moral relativism in the January 9 issue by insisting that what he calls "moral objectivism" is not only possible, it is in fact inescapable.

Dr. Silver explains that moral objectivism, as he propounds it, is grounded in rules - of permissibility and impermissibility - and these rules, taken together, exist apart from fleeting emotions, changing times, or any other of the criteria relativists appeal to in order to justify their own ethical practices. He insists that "moral objectivism is at least as rational, as well-grounded, and as consistent with reality, as any alternative metaethic." He hopes to assert the superiority of "moral objectivism" over moral relativism.

What he actually accomplishes, however, is something very different.

To make his point, Dr. Silber demonstrates that all people live by rules. We can't get away from them. We abide by the rules of the road, for example, as we drive to work. We accept certain rules with respect to doing our jobs, having meaningful conversations, managing a checking account, and so forth. These rules tell us what is permissible for us to do, and they mark out as well the boundaries of impermissibility. The rules by which we live "motivate actions and determine judgments" - they serve, that is, as ethical guidelines.

Everyone has rules like this, even though a person may claim to be a moral relativist. However, whenever rules are involved, morality is constrained by boundaries external to the doer, and this, Dr. Silver explains, is a form of objectivism.

Without explicitly saying so, Dr. Silver demonstrates that even the most adamantly relativist thinker is to some extent a moral objectivist, even though he may not be aware of it: "Moral objectivism requires only the acceptance of a set of permissibility rules. This involves no metaphysical delusions. Your permissibility rules may be tolerant, liberal, modest, tentative and undogmatic, or the opposite. So long as they are truly yours, you are a moral objectivist."

Thus Dr. Silver makes a point similar to the one we have made on this subject before: Even the most free-wheeling and unfettered relativism implies a fixed assumption that such is the right of every person. This is an objective assertion, and the inevitable tendency of all human beings to seize on one or another such fixed assumptions derives from something inherently human, something that cannot escape the need for an objective tether. This need is explained in Scripture by the fact that all people are made in the image of God and thus, in the very depths of their being, reflect the objective reality, and at least some awareness, of the Deity.

But Dr. Silver explains that there can be many forms of moral objectivism: "The only requirement for your moral objectivist status is that the rules you accept classify some actions as morally out-of-bounds. And objectivism is not totalitarianism: even if you believe there are some things that no one ought to do, you can believe that there are many ways to lead an overall good life, and many situations that permit different courses of action. Hence a moral objectivist can be an ethical pluralist."

So "moral objectivism" merely describes a universe of like-minded individuals - a universe as small as even one - who abide by similar rules of engagement, but whose rules of engagement may be dramatically different from those of other individuals and groups, and all still be perfectly valid.

This is relativism. Dr. Silver is not, in the end, comparing apples with oranges, but apples with apples. So not only does Dr. Silver succeed in demonstrating that all relativists have an undeniable need for objective truth, he also shows that all "objectivism" which is not anchored in God and revelation - as his view is not - is but another form, albeit somewhat circumscribed, of relativism.

A consistent system of ethics apart from God is impossible. In order to make any ethical progress whatsoever, unbelieving ethicists must disguise the fact that they borrow against divinely-revealed truth in order to achieve any semblance of coherence and congruency for their own views.

All unbelieving ethical systems therefore point to the ethics of Scripture, even as they deny that such an ethics should be embraced. The only way to overcome the strong allure of the path of mere self-interest marked out by moral relativism is to teach and practice consistent Biblical ethics, grounded in the Law of God, the teaching of the Prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles, and the grand tradition of the Christian Church.

But where - as today - such vigorous ethical instruction is lacking, moral relativism, in one guise or another, will hold the field.

Additional related texts: 2 Corinthians 10.3-5; Romans 3.1-4; 2 Peter 3.1-7

A conversation starter: "Apart from belief in God, all ethics is merely subjective, and therefore inherently dangerous. What do you think?"

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.
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