The claim that relativism in ethics poses serious problems for Christians
Ethical relativism is the theory that states morality is relative to culture and circumstance, meaning the same action may be morally right in one society but be morally wrong in another. For example, most societies believe the act of sacrificing either people or animals is wrong, but there are tribal cultures that perceive it as part of normal life. If one takes this approach there are no such things as moral absolutes, and this can pose problems for Christians. For most Christians ethics are dependent on rules recorded in the Bible. Paul instructs, “Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.
In the Old Testament especially there are many empathic statements such as, “Do not kill,” which do not leave much room for ethical relativism. They reject the idea that the ends could justify the means, because sin is sin no matter what the intentions behind it were. Slick wrote on this topic, “I consider moral absolutes to be real because they come from God and not because they are determined by the whims of mankind. ” One of the main criticisms of ethical relativism from within Christian circles is how it leads to a subjective view on morality. If there are no fixed moral truths then that leaves the individual as the supreme moral agent.
Under this theory it could be argued the Holocaust was moral – after all, it was the view of that culture that Jews should be exterminated. Anti-Semitism was a societal norm. Groothuis put forward this view: “Surely any morally sane person must ethically condemn Nazi atrocities as evil … but relativism cannot permit such judgments. The morality of everything is relative — even genocide. ” Humans are tainted by sin and therefore are predisposed to make poor choices. On the other hand, relativism does not necessarily mean that anything is acceptable. This is too simplistic a way of looking at it.
For example, Peter Singer would describe himself as a believer in ethical relativity, but he wrote, “what has to be shown to put practical ethics on a sound basis is that ethical reasoning is possible. ” He rejected the idea of moral absolutes but also rejected the idea that you could not criticise the choices of others. He stated that human reason is a major factor when it comes to decision making, and that it is not simply a case of choosing what pleases you most. Many Christians have no problem reconciling the Bible with a relativistic approach to ethics.
After all, even the Bible contains things that modern day believers do not adhere to such as slavery. When the Bible addresses a topic it should not be compared against the sensibilities of the modern world, but rather against the culture of the ones to whom the Bible was addressed. The Bible was written a long time ago by fallible humans and Christian denominations such as the United Methodist Church in the USA hold a position of ethical relativism. This has led them to performing same-sex weddings and other things that set them apart from their conservative counterparts.
They see relativism not as a problem for Christians, but something that can free them from legalism and allow them to be more loving. Strict adherence to Sola Scriptura when it comes to ethics can reject the believer’s own conscience and work of the Holy Spirit, which are also a necessary part of moral decisions. This is similar to those that espouse Christian utilitarianism and believe that God wants them to be happy, even if it requires breaking Biblical law. In the words of Zack Hunt, “Don’t let dogma and doctrine get in the way of practicing Love, who is God. ”