Absolute vs. Relative Morality

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Recently I’ve had conversations with a few people on morality and relativism. Interestingly they have come from very different worldviews and the thoughts held by the individuals were quite the opposite of what one might expect from their particular worldview. These conversations and my desire to see people critically examine their worldview, whether Christian or other, were the inspiration for this post. 

The topic of morality is always a tricky topic to traverse because everyone thinks they are good and everyone thinks they know what is right/wrong. The problem with that is that since everyone thinks they are good, their definition of right and wrong typically surrounds what they personally would be willing to do or tolerate from others, verses what they personally would not do and would not tolerate from others. This can result in a variety of standards of morality. Instead of diving into the particulars of what is right and wrong we’re going to step back and get into the overarching idea of morality as a concept. Don’t worry I’m going to make this sound as little like a philosophy lesson as possible! :)

So what is morality? Morality is the definer of right and wrong. It is the barometer we use as individuals or a culture to say with confidence that someone should have done X or should have refrained from doing Y. It is meant to guide people and culture, not be guided by them. For someone to be able to say that X is wrong, absolutely, requires that morality be outside of humanity rather than defined by humanity. This is called absolute morality. Absolute morality means that there are things that are always right, no matter what popular opinion thinks about them, and there are things that are always wrong, no matter what popular opinion thinks about them. 

On the other hand there is relative morality, which means that based upon the culture and point in time in which I live there are things that are right and there are things that are wrong. This allows for the definition of morality to change as culture changes. Sometimes for the better and sometimes not. For example in the early 1900’s eugenics (here’s a second article) was considered moral. For the sake of the culture, it was thought best to involuntarily prevent those that would not positively contribute to the cultural ideal from reproducing. Yet nearly a century later, we now as a culture find that idea immoral. In the early 1900’s American culture found abortion immoral but with the land mark case, Roe vs. Wade, the American culture began its shift towards the modern view that abortion is not immoral. 

So which is right and which is wrong? How can one definitively say that either of these is always immoral absolutely or not? In a system of relative morality one cannot. Relative morality coincides with popular opinion and as a result popular opinion (humanity, culture, human nature) is the definer of right and wrong, resulting in anyone that speaks out against popular opinion being considered immoral. 

For there to be a definitive right and wrong that is absolute, requires that the definition of morality come from an authority outside of humanity. This is the only way that morality can speak out against culture and popular opinion. This is the only way that one culture can look at another or an individual look at their own culture and say “that is wrong.” 

So how does this play into worldviews? I’m glad you asked! For those not overly familiar with a worldview, here’s a crash course. A worldview is essentially the lens through which you view the world. It is your set of beliefs about (1) how everything came to exist, (2) whether or not there is a god(s) and what the nature of the god(s) is, if they exist, (3) what essentially humanity is, (4) what is the cause of pain and suffering in the world, (5) what is the solution to #4, and (6) what happens at death. The way you answer these questions determines which worldview you ascribe to. But the important thing to know about a worldview is that how you answer these questions also defines how you walk out your life and engage in everyday situations. For example, if there is nothing after death, then today and this life are all there is, so one must make the best out of the time they have in whatever way they see fit. However if there is something after death then there are ramifications for the way you live your life and those ramifications are dependent, upon how you answer questions 2, 4, and 5. 

So what does this have to do with morality? Most people would argue that morality is absolute, that what they believe to be right/wrong is always right/wrong no matter the culture, situation or point in time. This is the reason they are able to sit in judgment on their own culture, other cultures and other points in time even within their own culture and claim “that is/was wrong! I’m going to do something about it!” But not every worldview allows for absolutely morality. As we discussed earlier, absolute morality only exists if it is not subject to humanity and popular opinion. Absolute morality only exists if it is the definer of culture rather than being defined by culture. 

One person I spoke with ascribes to the atheist worldview yet vehemently believes in absolute morality, but does the atheist worldview allow for this? The atheist worldview answers the worldview questions as follows: 

  1. The world came to exist out of natural causes.
  2. There is no supernatural. The only thing that exists is the natural.
  3. Humanity is the pinnacle of evolution thus far and therefore the ultimate authority on all things. 
  4. Pain and suffering are just part of the evolutionary package. 
  5. There is no ultimate solution to pain and suffering, however if it is in the best interest of the culture we should minimize it as much as possible through humanitarian efforts and medical advancement.
  6. Nothing happens at death. 

In this worldview there is no room for absolute morality, because based upon this worldview there is no authority greater than humanity. Humanity is the ultimate authority, which means that morality can be nothing other than the product of human invention. This makes morality subject to the whims of humanity and can change as a culture and popular opinion changes. The examples I gave earlier are examples of humanity’s changing its mind about what is moral, examples of relative morality. Relative morality is completely in line with the atheist worldview, absolute morality is not because in atheism there is nothing greater than humanity to define it. 

Another person I spoke with was a Christian that doubted absolute morality and believed that morality is relative to the time or culture or potentially even the individual. But does the Christian worldview allow for relative morality? The Christian worldview answers the worldview questions as follows: 

  1. Everything came to exist through God’s creative powers. 
  2. There is one supreme, unchanging, all-powerful, all-knowing God that is holy, just, personal, and loving. 
  3. Humanity is God’s special creation, though sinful and fallen, humanity is still loved by and cared for by God. 
  4. Pain and suffering, both natural and moral, are the result of mankind’s original (the fall) and continued defiance against God. 
  5. The solution to the problem is that God sent Christ to pay the price for our defiance in order that we might be able to be reconciled to God in this life and in the life to come. 
  6. For those that accept Christ’s gift of grace an eternity with God awaits them after death, and for those that reject that offer an eternity of separation from God awaits them. 

The Christian worldview not only allows for absolute morality, as there is an authority greater than humanity, God, but it also requires absolute morality as the Christian God’s nature is holy. Holiness is greater than the best person you’ve ever encounter, as holiness is complete and utter perfection at all times. It is the complete lack of blemish or sin of any kind at any point in time. It precludes or prevents God from being capable of sin or immorality. Because God is holy He is the very definition of morality. To understand holiness one must only think of a bucket of pure white paint, that is like holiness, but with just a single drop of coloring, the paint is no longer pure white. It can be off white but it can never be pure white again. The same is of holiness, the presence of one sin eliminates holiness. God’s holiness means that He cannot be in the presence of sin. Therefore in order to define what can and cannot be in the presence of God, moral law or morality is the natural result and because God cannot change, that morality is absolute.  

So what does this mean for me? Well if you’re an atheist that is not willing to give up absolute morality, it may be time to start examining other worldviews to find one that is more capable of allowing for absolute morality. Only a theistic worldview can account for absolute morality as only an outside source of authority can account for absolute morality. I’d recommend Christianity as I’ve examined it and found it to be the most logically cohesive and consistent worldview, but don’t take my word for it, examine it yourself. There are many useful resources and links on our site that can get you started. If you’re a Christian that believes in relative morality than it might be time to dive into some more Bible study to learn more about the attributes of God. 

The one thing that both of these views have in common, the atheist that is unwilling to give up absolute morality and the Christian that is hanging on to relative morality, is that they are both not comfortable with the idea of someone other than themselves being able to define what is right and wrong. Both of these positions want to be able to define right and wrong on their own terms. They do not want to be held accountable by someone greater than themself, either out of fear that they will not measure up or a defiant nature that drives them to be the ultimate authority in their life. The thing is that NONE of us measure up. Not one of us has gotten it right. We are all sinful and broken and in need of a Savior. But the good news of Jesus Christ is that He did not leave us that way. He saw us in our sinful broken state and loved us so much that He decided to do something about it. He took our punishment upon Himself in order that we could have His righteousness. His death on the cross made it possible for us to enter the holy presence of God because we are no longer those tainted buckets of paint, if we have accepted Jesus Christ’s gift of grace by acknowledging Him as Lord, then we get a new, pure, perfectly white bucket of paint, we get to have a right relationship with God our Father and creator, we get to be adopted into the family of God! So if you’ve been running from an ultimate authority in your life I hope this will be encouraging because there is a God, a real God that loves you so much that He sent His own son just for YOU, exactly as you are, because He wants a relationship with YOU!

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