Modern life seems to be full of contradictions and tensions. People remember the tragedy of the wars of the twentieth century and the great horrors perpetuated by people who believed firmly in the “rightness” of their cause. People in the twenty-first century now seek to live in open, tolerant, and pluralistic societies, featuring people with differing belief systems and attitudes. Americans, in particular, have made much of personal freedom and have sanctified the individual’s ability to choose for him or herself.
Among the many casualties of these trends has been firm conviction regarding moral truths. Relativism seems to be the “non-standard standard” of our age. Some people are honest enough to confess that relativism has become their personal viewpoint: what is right and wrong to you is true for you but it does not have to be true for me. Others concede right and wrong when it comes to certain issues but tend to believe in greater variance on other issues, especially those relating to religion and sexuality. And these are true only for those who have at least put in some time thinking about morality: for many others, especially among the younger generation, have not stopped long enough to think about their conduct in terms of morality. Unsurprisingly, over three-quarters of teenagers do not believe in absolute truth!
Relativism is an understandable product of our modern age. When people are encouraged to accept multiple different viewpoints as equally valid and the individual is made out to be the ultimate standard for all things, relativism in morality will follow. Our society has relegated morality to the level of “personal choice.” Why, then, should we be surprised when the most impressionable among us–the youth of society–believe the standard of right and wrong is based on our personal feelings, and set forth the false humility of refusing to judge other people’s moral standards since they believe it is all a matter of personal taste?
As long as people continue to accept the premises of modern society–the individual is the standard, different people have differing views, and we should accept all of them–relativism will continue to flourish. Little wonder the phrase “extreme moral individualism” is often bandied about while describing our current environment. It is all up to the individual, and who is one person to judge another?
No society, however, can endure with a relative moral standard. No one really believes in relativism; it is a self-defeating proposition, since saying there is no absolute standard is itself an absolute statement. Furthermore, if someone steals from relativists, or violates their physical persons, or commits some outrage against their families, they will feel wronged and will most likely seek justice somehow. Therefore, it is clear they do not really believe “what is right for you is right for you” in every situation.
Relativism is a demonstration of the moral depravity following as a natural consequence of the rejection of our Creator as God and the attempt to replace Him with the individual as the standard (cf. Romans 1:18-31). Left by ourselves, no one has the right to declare what is right or wrong. This does not lead to some anarchist utopia; it leads to chaos and the degeneration of society. What we see in our society is the best argument against relativism: it leads to concern merely for the self without proper consideration for others, and everyone suffers.
When we come to an understanding that it is not within us to direct our own steps and the way that seems right to us leads to death (cf. Proverbs 14:12, Jeremiah 10:23), we can begin to see how we have gone terribly wrong. We should instead turn back to God our Creator who created us with an internal sense of right and wrong (cf. Romans 2:13-16). We can then learn humility and the value of living for the benefit of others, seeking their welfare, and not to please ourselves, as God has exemplified in Christ (Romans 15:1-3). Moral truths are too important for us to decide; we must instead accept God’s moral standards of right and wrong and seek to live according to them!
Ethan R. Longhenry