What’s Wrong with Relativism?

*Last updated 5 April 2016

Ethical/moral relativism has a lot of problems which, I suggest, disqualify it as a complete ethical system.

But, before defending this claim, let us remember what we’re dealing with. Ethics is a strange field of study. It rarely admits much certainty. Everyone has their opinions about it yet it’s very different from the natural sciences, math or logic. So we’re left without a scientific method, or a rigid calculus to help us decide between who’s right and wrong. It’s wildly contentious. And people use their terms in vastly different ways often thinking they’re saying the same things. Indeed, equivocation–using a word/term in different way, talking past each other–is one of the most common problems in ethics, especially as you span popular level and scholarly discussions.

I’ll try to avoid equivocation, and see if I can add some clarity to an otherwise murky pool of terms and concepts.

Relativism and Religion

What is Relativism?

Relativism, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is:

[1] [Simple Definition]:  the belief that different things are true, right, etc., for different people or at different times

[2] a:  a theory that knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing

[3] b:  a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them.

More philosophical sources, like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(SEP) largely agree:

Relativism, roughly put, is the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning, and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that their authority is confined to the context giving rise to them.

Now I don’t want to get bogged down in a word study, so I’ll try to be brief. The key features in these example definitions is that relativism has only changing things, like human minds and cultures, to serve as the reference points for knowing and grounding truth or goodness. All truth claims are relative, in a sense. They are relative to their respective reference. “I love Hillary” is true, relative to my wife Hillary Ferrer, but it’s false relative to Hillary Clinton. If love is a morally weighted virtue, then it’s “good” that I love Hillary and it’s not good or it’s bad/evil that I don’t have any love for a fellow human being named Hillary Clinton. This is a real sense of relativity, and while it’s useful for Einsteinian physics or worldview analysis, that sense of the word “relativity/relativism” breaks down, in ethics, if the reference point is absolute, objective, or otherwise unchanging. When we apply this insight to ethics we get a working definition for this post:

Moral relativism [My Definition]: a.k.a., ethical relativism, is the position that only changing things–specifically human minds, individually or in groups–serve as the reference points for moral truth claims, and for knowing and discerning morality. Any moral facts/truths, if they exist at all, exist only as relative truths. Ex., “Cannibalism is evil according to this tribe, but it might be good according to that tribe.” or “Human rights didn’t really exist before the Magna Carta.”

The core defining feature of relativism is that the reference points (for moral truth, moral knowledge, moral authority) are all changing/changeable. If rape is evil, according to relativism, that means that it’s evil only for some person or group of people. Their desires, instincts, opinions, or any other moral faculties are the relevant causes imposing moral value on rape, in this case a proscription against rape. Yet all of those things are subject to change. Rape could have been “good” in the past, or in another society; or it may become good in the future.

Can Religious Ethics Escape Moral Relativism?
Religious ethics often tries to avoid the category of “moral relativism” by appealing to a supernatural being, God, as the arbiter of moral laws or as the personal basis for moral goodness. In one sense that move fails to avoid relativism, it just locates the reference point in a different person–God. Merriam-Webster leaves this sense open, but SEP does not. In this tenuous sense, Christian ethics is a vast relativistic system anchored in the person and work of God. Christian ethics is relative to God.

But that’s not a helpful sense because Christian ethics also asserts that God is unchanging, irreducibly good, morally perfect, etcetera. Classical Theists, Divine Personalists, and even Open Theists agree that God’s character, and moral knowledge are unchanging and morally perfect. The notion of “relativism” breaks down when our ethics transcend the shifting and fickle failings of human society and anchor instead in God. My definition of moral relativism helps curb that theological problem.

If God is the only ultimate anchor for ethics, and he’s not changing in his moral goodness, then relativism and objectivism have converged, and those terms don’t help us much anymore when He’s the reference point. We don’t have “moral relativism” any more because God isn’t relative, he’s absolute. He transcends human culture. He’s a perfect knower able to inerrantly discern any and all moral facts. Anchoring ethics in God avoids the various avenues into moral relativism–imperfect knowledge, cross-cultural disputes, human subjectivity, etc.

There does exist one more avenue into relativism, mentioned above, and religious ethics is guilty here but it’s only a petty offense. Religious ethical systems like Christianity, locate the core moral reference point in a person, and that’s a sort of a relativim, but that’s only relativistic in a tenuous sense because that person is also the unchanging anchor of all existence (i.e., God).

Simply put, yes, religious ethics can escape moral relativism.

Can it be both–relativism and objectivism?
Often these categories are treated like a strict dichotomy: Either relativism is true or objectivism is true, no exceptions. Indeed in my definition above, that’s the case. This dichotomy is correct when we are using relativism in a universal or comprehensive sense, as the term “relativism” is normally used. In common usage, the term “relativism” excludes moral objectivism. It cannot be the case that all morality (all of it’s parts and wholes) is relativistic and yet some morality is objective in the same sense at the same time. According to the square of opposition, those would be contradictories.

But it could be the case that some morally weighted features are culture bound, individualistic, or otherwise adaptable while other moral features are not. In reality, this seems to be the case. There are relative aspects to morality even for those of us who affirm traditional biblical Christian ethical systems like divine command theory, divine essentialism, graded absolutism, Augustinian ethics, or Thomistic Ethics.

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that it’s always and everywhere evil to force someone to have sex with you, that is, rape. This seems like a safe enough assumption. This notion would be a moral absolute, in that it’s just plain true and it’s not changing. This notion would also be objective, in that it’s true regardless of what society or an individual may say. If there is even one objective moral value, then moral objectivism is true.

How then might we generate laws around this moral value? We could make it a capital crime, issuing the death penalty. Or we could give it a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. We could allow for mitigating circumstances to determine the degree of offense: was the woman blackmailing him into an adulterous affair and then she changed her mind halfway through the act? Did he warn her several times and try to avoid that situation where his criminal impulse might get the best of him? What about dilemma scenarios? In the Nanking Massacre (a.k.a., the “Rape of Nanking”), Japanese soldiers forced fathers to have sex with their daughters on threat of death.

Obviously these sorts of questions reveal some of the messiness and complexity of ethics. Extracting moral principles, conventions, and societal laws can be very relative. I’m not saying that these complicating layers of ethical theory are sufficient, in themselves, to account for all moral facts reduce the who spaghetti plate of ethics to a relativistic mess. That would be conceding too much to ethical relativism, and that doesn’t seem warranted or wise. But these complicating features are still ethical in that they are changing, subjective or conventional aspects closely tied to ethics.

So, I grant that legal code, cultural norms, and moral principles are relativistic features informing ethics, at least at the normative and practical level. But, just because some aspects of morality are relative doesn’t mean that all of morality is relative. We can still have an abiding objective or absolute moral value like “rape is evil” and be widely divided on how to implement that moral value in society. We could even have objective moral knowledge, but resist it for various reasons and lean entirely on those relativistic features as if those are enough to produce all of morality. In these ways, relativism can truthfully describe some of ethics while objectivism truthfully describes something else about ethics. It cannot be the case, however, that all of ethics is relativistic yet some of it is not relative but objective.

Could God have “willed” rape to be good?
Another accusation often arising in ethics is that even in religious ethics, relativism is unavoidable. God’s laws are arbitrary like that, and God could have made rape “good.” On some brands of religious ethics this might be the case. Some forms of Divine Command Theory allow that God might have the kind of ‘freedom’ to where he could make moral laws arbitrarily, like “Wearing the color purple is evil, punishable by death” and “Rape is a good thing so long as it generates lots of pleasure for the rapist.” This arbitrary sense of divine law is sometimes called “volunteerism,” referring to an extreme form of free-agency/free-will. I don’t hold to that view, and don’t have any intentions to defend it here. I’m not a divine command theorist, nor a volunterist in my theology proper.

I suggest, instead, God can’t make “rape” good any more than he could make a square circle or a married bachelor. Rape goes against God’s nature, so God’s laws reflect that fact in the various divine, natural, and civil laws surrounding rape. It is not the law that makes rape evil, it’s God’s perfect unchanging nature that makes rape evil and that justifies laws against rape. “Good rape,” is an absurdity, referring to logically and metaphysically impossible descriptors. It’s referentially incoherent for to be “good” is to be a member of a class that excludes rape. Even an all powerful God cannot accomplish incoherencies like that. Those aren’t powers, per se, they are more like anti-powers contradicting metaphysical basics. Those are illusions masquerading as possibilities.

Put another way, logical absurdities don’t refer to anything–they can’t–they are referentially incoherent. But without referring to anything, they are referring to nothing. If God is bound by absurdities, he’s bound by nothing. To be bound by nothing is omnipotence. Hence God is omnipotent. Rape is one of those absurdities, not because it’s impossible to even imagine a world where rape is morally permissible–unfortunately, our modern fictions often attest to such deviant imaginings. Rape is an absurdity because God is love and rape defies that loving nature. God can’t affirm rape as morally good and as morally evil, that would violate the (logical) laws of non-contradiction, of identity, and of excluded middle.

Critique of Relativism

With those prior-matters out of the way, we can proceed to the heart of this article. Many people aren’t persuaded at all by religious ethics, and so they don’t grant that morality has an objective basis in God’s nature (or laws). Most philosophical ethicists, to my knowledge, reject moral relativism whether or not they are theists or atheists, or other. Usually some brand of  objectivism wins out among the studied professionals in the field ethics. That’s not always the case, see for example, J.L. Mackie (moral scepticism) and David Hume (emotivism). But most of the time it’s the case, see for example, David Brink (moral realism), and new-atheists Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

Why bother with objectivism when relativism seems to accommodate the vast cultural disagreements, the arbitrariness of evolutionary outcomes, the mindless valueless operations of natural forces, and so on? Well, in short, relativism seems too morally repugnant and too unsuited to what we know/believe about reality. In the following list, I’m going to intermingle conventionalism (group relativism) and subjectivism (individual relativism).

  1. Naturalistic Relativism fails to account for moral revolutionaries.
    Occasionally there arises a moral revolutionary who defies the majority or concensus ethic and asserts a different ethic. According to conventionalism, that minority view is inherently wrong. No matter what they are talking about, if the societal or cultural convention has established that slavery is morally persmissable than abolitionists are advocating evil. Obviously some minority views are right, and the majority view (in ethics) can be wrong. Hence conventionalism is wrong.
  2. Might doesn’t make right.
    The reason moral revolutionaries pose a problem for relativism is that, ultimately, conventionalism (group relativism) mistakenly treats the collective self-interests of people as somehow “good, ” as if the might of the masses inherently santifies their efforts at ethics. People people can be collectively bad or good. Likewise for subjectivism (individual relativism), a person could try to assert his own ethical standards for himself on a group. Authority figures and bullies do this all the time. But there’s nothing intrinsically correct about that exercise of strength. His or her ethics could be wildly off target. The might doesn’t make it right.
  3. People Can be Wrong
    Related to the past two poiints,  individuals can be wrong, and so can groups. Even whole nations can approve of and institute moral evils, as if they weren’t evil at all. In logic, we would call this conventionalist problem: “ad populum” (fallacious appeal to popularity) or “consensus gentium” (fallacious appeal to the consensus of the people)
  4. Legality isn’t Morality
    Similar to the last point, we know from experience across our tumultuous history that laws aren’t always ethical. Whether it’s slavery laws in the antebellum southern states, or apartheid in South Africa, or human rights abuses from Sharia law in Islamic states–legality is clearly not the same as morality even though conventionalism would demand that ethics are the same as a groups legal standards, at least in so far as the law still represent the standing conventions of the masses.
  5. Individual and group relativism fail in terms of moral mediators.
    When one group (or individual) disagrees with another, there’s no objective and higher ground for mediating between those feuding parties. Yet that seems counterintuitive and wrong, for example, when it comes to the moral feuds between between WWII Germany and Poland, between the Husseini regime in Iraq and its Kurdish citizens, between the Tutsis and the Hutus in Rwanda, or between Japan and China in the early years of WWII.
  6. Relativism amounts to an unduly bold Universal negative Claim
    Objectivism needs only one objective moral value; then objectivism can be true. But relativism needs all moral values to be relative. This is a universal negative claim: “No moral values are objective.” Such claims are bold, perhaps too bold, because one would need to either know all moral values, or have justified reason for generalizing over all moral values and concluding that no objective moral values exist.
  7. Naturalistic relativism fail by trivializing morality.
    It’s been said that relativists becomes objectivists when you steal their radio. Relativism treats all the vast world of morality like truthless opinions and shifting conventions, and that just doesn’t jive with us when we are wronged. Sure we can feel bad about some crime, but that’s not what makes it evil. We might not even know a particular evil has been done to us, it’s effects are still submerged or latent (like undisclosed HIV), so there may be no relevant emotional or experiential quality to a morally weighted event, yet evil has still been committed. It’s easy to talk about moral laws and values, abstractly, as relative opinions, desires, and feelings when we are in the safety of sterile classrooms or in the luxury of our skeptics meetup and coffeehouse convos. But it’s profoundly insulting to describe our ethical indignation that way when someone just had you or I have our house burned down by arsonists, or our daughter was raped and killed. We don’t correct those sorts of wrongs by changing our desires, or instilling a different instinct, or developing different feelings. Injustice like that is not an emotional chimera, it’s a metaphysical reality. We “correct” those wrongs with justice by punishing the guilty party, or perhaps even forgiveness. And even then, there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever be the same existentially. Relativism comes off as trivial and simplistic when faced with profound harms, mass crimes, and otherwise “clear examples” of evil.
  8. Some values are too agreeable to merit the skepticism of relativistics (courage, love, etc.) 
    This point is a softer one, it bears mentioning. Even amidst the wildly divergent laws and norms across different cultures, there abide a number of apparently universal virtues such as courage, love, truthfulness, and benevolence. No society has ever been found which exalts cowardice as a virtue, or which has no moral value for love. These sorts of universal moral values are consistent with ethical universalism and absolutism, and as such, are promising candidates for objective moral values.
  9. Can justify ANYTHING
    Perhaps the scariest result of relativism is that it has no principled objections to any moral fixture. Rape, torture, sport-killings, warfare, all of these can be readily accomodated by moral relativism. A little imagination and an unprincipled ethical outlook can go a long way, . . . towards disaster.
  10. We know better—some stuff is just wrong.Lastly, it bears mentioning that we tend to know better than this. I’m not saying that relativism is devoid of intellectual justifications, as if it has no evidence or argument on its side. There are at least some evidences for relativism, but when it comes to our own moral knowledge, we seem to have an operating leverage of moral facts to push against, for example, an apparently evil God (the problem of evil), or apparent evils in the Bible (“total war,” slavery, etc.), or church abuses (pedophile priests). I doubt the naturalistic atheist is comfortable surrendering all that moral indignation to the status of mere “opinion” or “feelings.” Since opinions can be epistemicallly baseless and feeligns can be devoid of truth-status, that option surrenders too much. Essentially, some of the toughtest objections to conventional conservative forms of theism require objective moral facts. Moreover, setting that theological dispute aside, I think we all just know better on a personal level. A youth group member might get all relativistic about sexual ethics when he wants to sleep with his girlfriend, but he would appeal to the highest court in the land (even to God  himself) if his parents took away his car after having promised him one. We have a sense of justice which is very much unlike mechanical laws, but doesn’t seem as shifty social conventions like dress code and etiquette. While it might be difficult to give a full metaphysical account of “justice” it seems like a good, realistic, starting ground for ethics to grant that “justice” is an objective moral fact and we need a worldview that allows for “justice” that way.

Critiques of Naturalistic Objectivism

Now that we’ve critiqued relativism, we can turn to a critique of naturalistic objectivism. Naturalists might agree with enough of the previous critiques so that they seek an escape into objectivism. But for several reasons, that door might be closed too.

  1. Naturalistic Objectivism fails to ground ethics in a mind.
    Morality, as we have so far encountered it, is mental stuff. It’s hypothetical states theorizing about what “ought” to be and what “ought not” be, and involves moral desires, motivations, goals and so on. All of that is profoundly mental. Yet nature is fundamentally non-mental, and even human minds tend to be explained away as deterministic programming, leaving morality so radically revised it’s not even recognizable. Naturalism is having a beast of a time demonstrating that it’s even possible for human minds to emerge from brute material processes.
  2. Naturalistic Objectivism fails to provide an objective transcultural law-giver that could issue objectively binding laws.
    so far I’ve focused the truth-makers for moral facts. What makes a claimed moral value “true”? If that truthmaker is merely human minds, culture, and society then it’s relativistic and fails to live up the the fuller, more robust aspects of morality we sometimes encounter. But there’s also a question about moral authority. We lack moral authority to create laws that are binding for all cultures and all times. We may have authority to make laws, but we can’t make those laws “good” because we aren’t transculture law-givers establishing the moral foundations of human existence. The best we can do is create laws in our time, which may or may not be “good”, and have those laws serve as binding features relative to our group.
  3. Naturalistic Objectivism lacks transcultural grounding.
    As I discuss, at length, in the article “Nature is a Jerk,” descriptive facts of nature are not prescriptive. They have no innate oughtness. So the ethical laws and rules emerging from one’s naturalism aren’t binding apart from that groups who thought up those rules and laws.
  4. Naturalistic Objectivism has no natural truthmaker to make any value claim “true.”
    At the heart of the naturalist’s problems is the wholesale inability of naturalism to produce even one single “ought” which has arisen indisputably from natural causes. that ought is critically important because if any of our moral claims (our “moral oughts”) are going to be “true” they need to correctly correspond to a real-world reference point. Our moral claims are ought statements, so if nature is going to make any of them whatsoever “true” nature needs to show us some “oughts.” Nature hasn’t given us any moral oughts, therefore our moral claims are either truthless, false, and thereby non-objective or they have their grounding outside of nature, in supernature (i.e., God).
  5. Nature has no transcendence to enable meaningful language hence moral language/ideas are all meaningless.
    An even deeper problem of naturalistic ethics is that the very use of language requires teleology, for example, the goal-directedness and referential operations of language (language ‘points’ to things besides itself). Moral language is an instance of language. Naturalism is openly hostile if not prohibitive towards teleology. Therefore, moral language is potentially banned from or foreign to naturalism.
  6. Naturalism’s chief bodyguard, evolution is value neutral, yet natural reason can only discover (not create) moral values, and objective intuitions (Moore, Ross) are non-natural if they are “good” at all (see, G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica).

Summarizing this case against naturalistic objectivism, it seems that naturalism is frought with problems when the naturalist tries to erect an objective moral framework. Perhaps one can appeal to pan-psychism or pantheism, but these are only tenuously “naturalistic,” and they are liable to introduce more problems than they solve.

Closing Thoughts

Relativism, we have seen, is bogged down irredeemably with a strong of objections. It trivializes morality, it prohibits cross-cultural judgments, it prohibits moral mediators, it rules against all moral revolutionaries, it’s an overzealous universal negative claim, and in many ways it’s morally repugnant. Now, it could be that objectivism fails too, torn apart on the same rocky shores of critical inquiry. In that case nihilism, absurdism, or amoralism might prevail. But I’ll have to save that critique for another day.

In the mean time, naturalistic objectivism is frought with problems too including it’s “mental handicap,” lacking a divine mind or even a strong account of human minds whereby the imminently mental stuff of morality can inhere. Naturalism fails to demonstrate even one single moral “ought” to serve as an objective truthmaker for moral claims. And it struggles with moral authority, teleology, and the various embarassments of it’s horrifically violent brother, Evolution.

8 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Relativism?

  1. Relativism and objectivism are not two sides of the same coin. Subjectivism is the counterpart to objectivism. While it is true that some relativistic views can also subjectivistic, these views aren’t widely held. A Christian who believes the mind of God is the source of moral truth is not a moral relativist. He or she is a moral subjectivist. “God is the source of moral truth” is textbook subjectivism. It is subjective rather than objective because the source of the truth is “in the mind” rather than “out in the world.”

    I always find it interesting how often Christians reference relativism, as though it is a particularly popular ethical belief system. It isn’t. Most people just don’t understand the view, and they use it as a catch-all for anything that isn’t objectivism. The irony, of course, is that Christians are not moral objectivists.

  2. Zack, I grant that subjectivism is not the entirety of relativism. I think we disagree on terminology and that’s where the confusion is entering in. I don’t think you are using objectivism or relativism in the senses that I learned, or studied, in my educational background. Admittedly, however, there is a lot of equivocation on moral categories such that it’s hard to tell what people mean these days unless you start every ethics conversation by saying, “What do you mean by ‘x’?”

    when I say moral “objectivism” I’m talking about an ethical system where, for at least some moral facts, the truth-makers/reference points are found in some sort of common object that’s not private to an individual or group of people. Moral relativism, by that same measure, asserts that there are no moral facts except those where the truthmakers are private to individuals or groups of people. Subjectivism refers (largely, representatively) to an individualistic form of relativism. And Conventionalism refers (largely, representatively) to a group form of relativism.

    I hope that clears things up. You may be able to see, in this explanation, why I disagree with your theory that Christians are relativists. Moral relativism is not merely the claim that morality is relative to someone or something. It is instead the claim that morality is relative to someone or something that is not a publicly or commonly accessible object. It would be a monumental confusion of categories (and you’d be pretty handicapped in trying to study much of historical philosophical ethics) if you were to interpret, for example, natural law theory (one of the leading Christian ethics theories), divine essentialism, or divine command theory, as relativism. You would have to assume, contrary to the normal Church teaching, that God’s will is arbitrary, or that God’s nature is arbitrary, or God’s character is changeable. It may be that you are imagining God to be roughly equivalent to a big strong human being – contingent, fickle, arbitrary, etc. In that’s the reference point you have in mind, then you aren’t so much speaking of “christian ethics” but instead an atheist straw men of Christian ethics. That model would lend itself to Christian relativism.

    1. I agree that terminology can be tricky here, so perhaps we are simply talking past each other. Let me clarify my comments. I am not arguing that Christians are moral relativists. My view is that Christians are moral subjectivists. In fact, Christian ethics is virtually the textbook example of moral subjectivism. Moral subjectivism (which is synonymous with moral non-objectivism) is the view that moral facts are real (Moral proposition P really is genuinely true or false) but are mind-dependent. Christians believe that morality comes from the mind of God. If God were to believe moral proposition P, P would be true. This is a subjectivist view. Whether it falls under the category of Ideal Observer Theory or Divine Comman Theory probably depends on one’s theology, but there’s no getting around the idea that believing morality originates with God makes one a moral subjectivist. To be clear, that doesn’t imply that morality has no “absolute truth.” Moral subjectivism (or non-objectivism) implies the existence of moral facts.

      1. It sounds like your ethical system treats the Divine mind as just another mind, not relevantly different from human minds. But that’s like saying the characters in a story, and the author who wrote the story, are all just “minds.” Speaking from a classical Christian perspective, the authorial mind, in the case of God, does not just “write our story” like dictating programming code to robots/deterministically. However, he still has the kind of transcendent mind capable of creating the whole universe (nothing short of a transcendent intelligence could have, realistically, created time, space, and energy, in such a way as to generate complex life as we know it). And being unbound by time and space, he is not subject to the linearity of time, or location in space, as we are limited. He really is like an author over our whole world, except he creates free beings for His characters. Nevertheless, he still can/has determined at least some moral laws which are grounded in His mind, but are publically accessible objects for any human being who is mature enough and possessing properly functioning mental faculties. These moral facts aren’t empirical facts, and so they aren’t sensed the same way as color, taste, texture, and aromas. Nevertheless, there is remarkable similarity across all world cultures such that, for example, no culture celebrates cowardice as such. Nor does any culture historically and collectively, consider human life to be totally inconsequential.

        However, that rubric has changed a great deal in the age of consequentialism; the 20th century was perhaps the most in-depth and extensive experiment in secular humanism, including thoroughly consequentialist logic saturating the marxist revolutions in China, Russia, Italy, North Korea, and Germany. If you’ve read through the Gulag Archapellago, Eichmann on Trial, Ordinary Men, or books on the Armenean Genocide, or on the Rawandan Genocide, then you can see what thoroughly consequentialist logic has actually looked like in world history. The 20th century was bloodier than the previous 19 centuries combined. And if you combine that with the utilitarian logic involved in eugenic abortion, elective abortion, and forced abortion, those numbers get even worse. I’m not saying consequentialism is explicitly guilty for all of that; but I am saying it was a bad idea which was a major accellerant in the violence of the 20th century. Consequentialism looks prettier in the classroom, and on small scale. I’m not saying you are guilty of any of these things, or that any particular consequentialist is guilty who wasn’t explicitly involved those atrocities. But I am suggesting that ideas have consequences, and even if we nuance and polish the notion of consequentialism, we haven’t really redeemed it from it’s potential for abuse. Pretty much anything can be justified with a creative enough version of consequentialism. And that’s not just a abstract possibility; that’s what history has taught us.

  3. I’m certainly not treating the mind of God like any other mind. But it doesn’t need to be like any other mind in order for a moral system that is based on God’s thought of morality to be a subjectivist (non-objectivist) system. Divine command and ideal observer explanations are both non-objectivist explanations, and they both specifically stipulate unique properties about God (or an imaginary omniscient observer). The point in all of this is that objectivist theories about morality place moral truth as something that is “out in” the world. They originate outside of anyone’s or anything’s mind. Most people are objectivists about math because they believe that 2+2 equaling 4 doesn’t depend on anyone’s thoughts about 2+2. Conversely, most Christians believe that morality does depend on God’s thoughts. As such, it is unambiguously a subjectivist (non-objective) moral system.

    Critiquing consequentialism by pointing to 20th century history seems a bit like critiquing Christianity by pointing to the Spanish inquisition. The 20th century atrocities happened due to complex reasons, and it seems presumptuous to boil it down to consequentialist beliefs about ethics. Theists regularly also allege these atrocities happened due to atheism. Well, which is it? My point is that there were a lot of contributing factors.

    In any case, consequentialism would obviously refute the acts of 20th century evildoers such as Hitler and Stalin because the consequences of their actions were terrible. The fact that Hitler and company supposedly considered themselves to be consquentialists (which I do not independently have knowledge of) isn’t any more an indictment of consequentialism than Robert Dear’s (the Planned Parenthood shooter in Colorado) shooting is an indictment of pro-life views.

  4. do you grant that the subjective-objective distinction breaks down when the subject in question is also the grounding author of all objective reality?

    also, you seem to be targeting Divine Command theory. I don’t hold to that view. But even if I did, I don’t think you’re describing “subjectivism” is a precise enough way to handle the the critical distinction between a divine mind and human minds. Yes, moral laws are grounded (made factual) by God’s mind, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as him “thinking” them into existence arbitrarily, freely, or in a contingent way. You seem to be suggesting that theistic ethics asserts that good is merely what God’s thinking, when theistic ethics (of the sort I hold to) asserts that good is what God is. God’s existence is coextensive with moral goodness. And since God is a necessary being, that fact is a necessary, non-contingent fact. Since God is intelligent (a personal being with mind) he is capable of the “ought” relation at the heart of ethics. In that way, Christian ethics traces moral goodness to an objective fact (God is good), instead of tracing it to some set of thoughts.

    So I guess I don’t see why that scenario (i.e., the God of Classical Theism) should lead to the conclusion that theistic ethics is subjectivism.

    As for Critiquing consequentialism, if you don’t find the 20th century examples (which was not even a full generation ago), to be too outdated and unrepresentative, then I could point to the logic of abortion (which often appeals to consequentialism) which is still vigorously argued in the 21st century, or I could point out some of the defenses for universal healthcare which are often consequentialist in nature; or I could point to some of the arguments for population control, euthanasia, which are also commonly consequentialism. Or I could appeal to the works of Peter Singer. I just focused on the most distinctly consequentialist examples that I’m aware of, which take that sort of logic to its fullest end. If you refer to variations on intentionalist ethicsm as “consequentialism” then I’d suggest the greatest strength of that form of consequentialism is that it’s not very consequentialist.

    That said, I admit that consequentialism can evolve into a number of different things, and these can differ in their coherence and which critiques work for them. But the fundamental problem still seems to be that either: (1) it is too ambiguously mingled with every other system where non-ends are admitted to have moral weight, or (2) it wrongly identifies the “ends” as the ONLY truthmakers for moral facts. We know other good states of affairs that are not strictly ends (such as character, intentions, virtues, etc.). Hence, #2 is not a viable option. And #1 really just admits that consequentialism cannot survive as a distinct system, it must be absorbed into other other systems to work – such as virtue ethics, divine essentialism, divine command theory, graded absolutism, natural law ethics, and so on.

    Also, I don’t think consequentialism does a very good job tuning people’s moral compasses so they can identify “terrible” acts as such. The many and sordid arguments used to justify abortion-choice policy (that is, deliberate, institutional, torturous, exploitational, discriminatory, death profiteering) leads me to believe that many of the secular humanistic forms of consequentialism have generated moral confusion rather than moral clarity. We have the luxury of distancing ourselves from the atrocities of Lenin and Stalin, but secular marxist ideologies, often swollen with the ideals of social evolution, where all the fashion in that ear among the progressive elites. Eugenics was quite popular among liberal scholars in that day and age, and they typically espoused the same kinds of consequentialist arguments then as they do now (dehumanization, “great good” logic, improved genetic pool, reducing poverty, etc.).

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