Over at rob’s rants the pastor has written a meandering and difficult to follow entry in which apparently he believes atheists say “truth is relative.” I will leave it to the reader to make heads-or-tails of what he is claiming.
At the end he asked a few questions. I’m a little surprised this individual would reach the level of a senior pastorate in a church and never encounter these very basic questions, or contemplate them from an alternative perspective. Giving him the benefit of the doubt—that this is a genuine inquiry, I will go ahead and answer them:
Does it exist (moral absolutes)?
The short answer: no.
Is it the same for everyone? Absolute?
Here is where I develop some confusion. What does he mean by “it”? Presuming he means “absolute morality,” then, by definition it would have to be the same for everyone. (And that would include any gods, too!)
The problem within the absolute vs. relative morality is that two people very often talk past each other, because (and I cannot emphasize this enough)--they define “moral” differently. We often see the conversation:
Skeptic: What God did in the Tanakh was immoral.
Christian: Do you believe in Absolute morality?
Christian: Then you can’t say what God did was immoral, because that is just your opinion.
The misunderstanding which is occurring here is in the definition. The Christian defines “morals” as something which is absolute. Therefore, if the skeptic applies something (whatever that “something” may be) to god, if that “something” is not absolute, in the Christian’s mind, the skeptic cannot be talking about “moral” because contained within the definition of moral is absolute.
Imagine I defined swans as “white birds.” By definition—it is impossible to have a black (or red or blue) swan. Why? Because once it is no longer white—it is no longer a swan. In the same way, we understand an Absolute Moralist mandates morals to be absolute. We understand if we apply a non-absolute standard, they think it can’t be a system of morality. Because our system of morality is different.
A relativist considers morals to be a breach of an accepted code of behavior. We do NOT require the word “absolute” to be contained within the definition of immorality. The question we ask to determine “is it moral?” is the search for the accepted code. NOT whether there is some absolute contained within the system.
More and more I see Christians who just don’t get it. Ask us both to define morality—you will see the difference. Now, there may be an argument as to which is the more accurate definition—THAT is an interesting discussion. But until the difference is seen, the conversation will not get off the ground.
Is it different for everyone? Relative?
Here I assume “it” means “system of morality? In the end—yes. It is different for everyone. As humans we reach consensus through interaction. We may even have vast groups who all agree on a moral code. But we recognize this is a consensus which can change. Think of the stigma of divorce in our moral system. That has changed within our lifetimes.
The danger here is that the person holding to absolutes often believes this renders morals to be simply a matter of individual taste. Everyone can do what they want. Nonsense—we all mutually succumb to authorities in which we voluntarily inhibit our desires for the good of the society, other individuals and ourselves.
Think of it as a four-way stop sign. We don’t “do what we want” at the intersection, because we recognize by doing so—others will as well. We voluntarily give up a few seconds of time in order to better society, others and ourselves.
If moral absolutes do exist, what are they?
Good question. Ask someone who holds to absolutes. Start with polygamy. Move to slavery. Then ask when is it acceptable to kill a baby for the father’s sin which was absolved. That one is a tricky absolute, let me tell ya!
If they [moral absolutes] do not exist, what are the standards we live by?
I think the author meant a different question. I think the question was supposed to be “What are the standards we should live by?”
I would argue we should live by the Platinum rule: treat others as they would like to be treated. Clearly as a society we see that will raise conflicts and we have passed laws to balance the desires as compared to the greater benefit of the society. But in an individual capacity, living with other individuals—this is a good basic rule.
The reason why would be based upon aversion and social contract theory.
If they [moral absolutes] do not exist, but there are undeniable standards by which we all live, why listen to them?
I don’t think there are undeniable standards by which we all live. A glance through any newspaper of a foreign country should dispel that idea.