Friday, August 31, 2007

Back from Peru

Our son, Nate is back from his trip now. He was gone for three weeks, two of them in various villages in Peru. While there he participated in tournaments with the Southern California Seahorses, who use soccer as a vehicle for spreading the good news of new life in Jesus Christ.

Nate had a blast, enjoying the soccer, the jungle, and--as shown above--the wildlife. He also loved his teammates and the many Peruvians with whom he interacted. It was an all-around wonderful experience for him. We hope he had a part in making a difference in lives down there, and we are certain that he grew and was challenged and stretched by the whole deal. His mom and I thank all of those of you who supported him with prayers and donations--you helped make a dream become reality for Nathan.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Desert Moon

I was camped below the east flank of the Steens Mountain range in southeastern Oregon last night. When I awoke early, the alpenglow from the rising sun was bathing the mountains in orange, and the moon--just a night past the full--was perched just above them. It was a breathtaking sight.

I drove out there after nightfall, with that same big moon keeping the desert fairly well-lit. I love the desert. The only downside to driving through the desert at night is that game the jackrabbits play. I don't understand it exactly, but I think it must confer some sort of status raise on a hare who runs between your wheels and lives.

Here's another insight from Powell's book. He's discussing, remember, the revolution within geology that is now a fait accompli. And I'm drawing the parallel to the revolution in biology that is occurring now (the falsification of Darwinian evolution).
Certainly the efforts of the doubters failed to discourage the proponents [of the meteor impact theory], who were growing in number. But on the other hand, those who supported the theory were equally unable to sway its firmest opponents. In fact, only a vanishingly small number are on record as ever having changed their minds on the Alvarez theory. One need read only a fraction of the vast literature on impact to predict with near certainty which side a given author will take in all subsequent papers: the same as in previous ones... Some of the reluctance to switch sides is undoubtedly due to honest convictions firmly held, but some also results from the unwillingness of scientists, being human, to admit in public that they were wrong. And the role of tenacious skeptic, adhering faithfully to the old ways that have served so well for so long, can be a proud one. Even if eventually proved wrong, one fought the good fight and can hold one's head high. The trick is not to fight too long, or unfairly.
Today's traditionalists--Darwinian naturalists--have fought unfairly in that they have so far largely succeeded in buffaloing the public and the courts into believing that the better, competing theories are not worthy of being called scientific. (And hence the talk I advertized in yesterday's post.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Science and Naturalism

Wednesday, September 19th, I'll be giving a talk to kick off this season's Apologetics Guild luncheon series. We meet at the Red Lion on 3rd Street in Bend, with a salad bar catered by Black Bear Diner beginning at 11:45. I'll speak from 12:15 to 1:00, and will hang around to answer questions afterward.

My topic will be "Science and Naturalism." I intend to examine three questions with regard to the prevalent modern understanding of science as naturalistic. Is there historical justification for seeing science as naturalistic? Is there philosophical justification? Is there scientific justification?

If you're interested in attending, and are not on the Apologetics Guild email list, let me know (by email at Seating is limited to about 60 folks, and you'll need to reserve a spot. It would be great to have you there.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Night Comes to the Cretaceous

One of the books I'm currently reading is James Lawrence Powell's Night Comes to the Cretaceous. The subtitle is Comets, Craters, Controversy, and the Last Days of the Dinosaurs. I'm really enjoying it, as it includes some really interesting science and science history, and throws in a good deal of philosophy of science.

The book is about the theory, proposed only in 1980 by Walter Alvarez and his father, Luis, that a meteor impact caused the global extinctions (including that of the last dinosaurs) at the end of the Cretaceous. This theory was extremely controversial, and opposition to it was intense. Indeed, there are many parallels to the current controversy within biology, in which the traditionalists (that is, the Darwinian naturalists) are (to say the least) unwilling to examine the overwhelming evidence that threatens their life-long belief in macroevolution.

Despite the vociferous opposition to it as recently as the 1980's, the Alvarez theory is today almost universally accepted among geologists.

But here's an example of the parenthetic but relevant philosophy of science in Powell's book... advances not by proving theories right but by weakening them until they are falsified. Looking back at the history of science, it is clear that this is the way it works. Yet if one were randomly to select a scientist at work and ask, "What are you doing?" one would be apt to get the answer: "I am confirming such and such a theory." In their daily lives, most scientists try to confirm or extend theories, not to falsify them. In part this is because scientists are rewarded for breakthroughs, not for falsification. Rewards aside, however, human beings will not spend long hours and entire careers searching for falsity. Thus a contradiction exists between the way individual scientists behave and the way science as a whole evolves--as the cumulative result of the work of all scientists. A host of them, each trying to shore up their favorite theories, will in time lead to the falsification of the weakest, to the great disappointment of its proponents but to the advancement of science overall.
Though Powell applies this insight to how the impact extinction theory replaced geological uniformitarianism, it could well be applied to the current ongoing falsification of naturalistic evolution.

Two notable events are on tap tonight... our son Nate gets back from Peru and there's a lunar eclipse beginning about 1:00 am. I'll be there for both.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Not of This World

I've listened to great sermons the past two weeks at Antioch. Last week, Pastor Ken Wytsma spoke from James 3, and showed us that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world are diametrically opposed to one another. Today, from James 4, Brandon Groza explored a related thesis, that we can live according to the world's priorities or according to God's will, not both. If they're not there already, these sermons will soon be available on the website for you to listen to yourself.

Shortly after church this morning, I saw (and not for the first time) a trendy Christian car decal that relates to this topic. It's a decal that always makes me smile. It's an acrostic, the letters NOTW superimposed upon one another, and with the T clearly forming a cross. The message is "not of this world," and represents a personal declaration that the car's owner has grasped the two-kingdoms idea and has chosen to align himself with God's kingdom rather than the world. The great irony (and that which makes me smile) is that if you look closely, there is imbedded in the acrostic symbol a registered trademark--which definitely lends a worldly, materialistic touch that is at odds with the larger symbol's intent.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ironically Intolerant

As we have seen, those who espouse moral relativism quickly fall into contradiction. It is no surprise then, that the postmodern form of tolerance turns out to produce extreme intolerance on the part of its advocates. According to one political analyst,
Absolute tolerance is altogether impossible. The alledgedly absolute tolerance turns into ferocious hatred of those who have stated clearly and most forcefully that there are unchangeable standards founded in the nature of man and the nature of things.
This was penned decades ago (in Liberalism Ancient and Modern) by Leo Strauss. If Strauss was describing the situation in his day, he was also prophesying of ours.

In our culture, those who openly take a stand for objective morality--which we have seen is the accurate, logical understanding of reality--are vilified and persecuted by those whose only moral cry is "Tolerance!" And the irony is that the relativists cannot see that they are blatantly refuting their stated position.

When a relativist, in referring to his university, civic organization, or other group, advocates diversity and tolerance, he doesn't really mean that he desires the company of a diversity of views. If so, he would be thrilled to have a group of moral objectivists--and even fundamentalist Christians--included. But chances are, he wants nothing to do with such folk, and hopes all the others in his group feel the same. No, what he really wants is people of a diversity of nationalities, skin colors, genders, and gender orientation who share the exact same ideology as he does.

And there is nothing tolerant or diverse about such a group of bigoted idealogues.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dog-Fighting and Morality

Much of my argument against moral relativism and for moral objectivism has been based on intuition. That is, while moderns may find it easy to say that morality is a personal, subjective thing--and that no objective morality exists--we nonetheless understand intuitively that concepts like right and wrong, justice and fairness, good and evil, and moral improvement, really do have meaning. We cannot avoid using moral language in our everyday speech, and we intuitively live our lives as though moral objectivism is true.

An example of this comes from one of the top news stories of the past week (and one to which, in its earlier stages, I alluded way back when I launched this series on morality with a couple of sports comments).

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has now pled guilty to crimes associated with operating an illegal dog-fighting ring out of his home. He is expected to face prison time for these crimes, which alledgedly include some rather heinous executions (of losing or under-performing dogs) which Vick oversaw or carried out.

The public outcry against these crimes has been enormous (and rightly so). And this would seem to prove my point--that no matter how we talk about morality in guarded conversation, we all recognize when an evil act has been committed.

In the Vick case, all of the human participants were agreed that what was going on was fun and exciting (all were consenting adults, if you will). Until the story leaked, no one was being harmed by what these fun-loving gentlemen were doing in the privacy of Vick's home and grounds. (Indeed, even after the incidents became known, it could be argued that none of us was hurt by the carryings-on.)

But people across the nation are outraged by these acts, with columnists and callers to talk-shows crying for justice. The events themselves and their subsequent revelation have galvanized our collective sense that these things are wrong, that the men involved were behaving cruelly, and that they ought to be punished.

No one is saying--as would be consistent with moral relativism--that these guys were merely following the dictates of their own moral code and thus should be left alone. Moreover, it would be a reach to suggest that our outlawing of such acts is merely for society's benefit, that while such cruelty itself is morally neutral, it is society's good that is somehow affected. No, we all recognize that some things simply are wrong, that people who do those things are acting contrary to an objective standard, and that they ought to be punished and the evil activity stopped.

The outcry against the misdeeds of Michael Vick and the calls that justice be done here only make sense in a world in which there exists an objective moral standard. The incoherent position known as moral relativism has been taking a well-deserved beating as this dog-fighting scandal has unfolded.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Self-Refuting Nature of Relativism

I've spent the last couple of weeks discussing moral relativism and the redefining of tolerance. Those who have followed along will have seen for themselves just how illogical (dare I say silly?) these postmodern views are. Those who hold these views do so uncritically--had they thought very deeply about them, they would quickly have come up against the contradictory and self-refuting nature of these sorts of claims.

Lest this is not obvious, let me relate a sample dialogue, one that begins with a ubiquitous, almost-daily-heard assertion. (We'll designate the asserter "PM" for "Postmodernist" and his interlocutor "Oddball," a nickname for "Independent, Critical Thinker.")
PM: It's wrong to judge another person!

Oddball: Then why are you judging me?
Or, as a slight variant,
PM: Nobody should push their morality on any one else.

Oddball: That seems to be your morality. Why are you pushing it?
Again, there are two contrary views here. Either moral relativism is an accurate account of the world in which we live or moral objectivism is true. And because relativism has the many fatal flaws about which I've been posting, philosophers are virtually unanimous in rejecting it. That is, the people who think logically recognize the bankruptcy of the postmodern position regarding morality and tolerance. This includes not only Christians (and other theists) but philosophers of every metaphysical stance. (Christians and other theists attribute the objective moral code to a transcendent Lawgiver, while atheists ground it in evolution or human nature.)

Nonetheless, moral relativism is the spirit of the age, and is taught in public schools and universities, through television, radio, and movies, and is accepted uncritically by most of our culture, much to our shame and further ignorance.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Home again after a successful (though arduous) expedition on Mt. Adams. At 12,276 feet, we were higher than any point in our home state to the south. We parked at the Cold Springs Campground, backpacked in to the last bunch of trees (where we camped two nights) and hiked up the southern face from there. Jasper and another 13-year-old, Josue Gonzalez, made the top with me, quite a feat for those young fellows. I realized it had been about 25 years since I'd last climbed Adams (or any other Cascades peak).

The worst thing about the climb was that no matter how high we trudged, there was always a Raven higher still... and most of them were laughing at us.

We enjoyed spectacular views of God's creation, but are glad to be home.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Religious Tolerance

What we have discussed with regard to tolerance in general applies specifically to religious tolerance as well.

Again, the classical view of tolerance is that we should be egalitarian with respect to persons and elitist with respect to ideas. That is, we should treat people equally despite our disagreements. Ideas, on the other hand, are up for grabs, and there's nothing wrong with addressing the problems with bad ideas as long as we treat with respect the persons who hold those wrong views.

In our culture today, however, the misunderstanding and redefining of tolerance has led to a misunderstanding and redefining of religious pluralism. It is a fact that there are different understandings of who God is and what constitutes the true path to salvation. And the founding fathers of this nation were at pains to ensure that despite these differences, people of all faiths could get along in the democracy of these United States. But postmodernists have made it fashionable to believe that "all religions lead to [the same] God" and that "all religious ideas are equally valid." This, of course, is irrational, illogical, and, in a word, nonsense.

To gauge how much you may have been influenced by this postmodern way of thinking (specifically with regard to religious pluralism), see how you react to these two statements...
All religious views are equally valid.

Jesus is Messiah, and Jews, Muslims, and others who reject him are wrong.
Did that last statement bother you? You may disagree with it, of course, and that's fine. If you think it false, you are at least being rational, but you are also affirming the classical and denying the postmodern view. But if the statement bothered you because you deemed it somehow insensitive or intolerant, that's just evidence that you've been influenced by illogical, relativistic thinking.

The truth claims of all the major faiths are contradictory and mutually exclusive. They cannot all be right. Muslims believe that Jesus was a great prophet, that he was not the eternal Son of God, that he neither died on the cross nor was resurrected. Jews believe Jesus of Nazareth was a blasphemer who deserved the ignoble execution he suffered. Christians believe that he was the long-awaited Messiah, eternally one with God the Father, that he sacrificially died in our place, and that his deeds and claims were vindicated when God raised him bodily from the dead.

Clearly, these three views about this one person are not all correct. Nor is it just Christians who make exclusive truth claims--all the major faiths do as well. So the view of religious pluralism promoted by postmodernists is inconsistent with true worship in any one faith. It is merely a fallacious attempt to dismiss all religions by claiming that all are equal.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Just a few items of business, family news and such...

Nathan, our eldest (at 16) is currently in Pucallpa, Peru, playing soccer with the Southern California Seahorses. This is well inland--in the Amazon Basin--and was unaffected by the earthquake off the coast today (which was felt in Lima). My nephew, Ben, by the way, is in England with his soccer team (Wittenburg University, for whom he tends goal), getting in a few preseason games and seeing the sights.

Jasper and I are climbing Mt. Adams tomorrow and Friday (but I'll try to write another post before we leave).

You may have missed this last item, since it didn't receive much fanfare (for purely political reasons). Turns out, the annual temperature data upon which was based Al Gore's book and the resulting global warming hysteria has been corrected, and those years from the 1990's and from this millenium are not the record setters they were thought to be. Steve McIntyre of Toronto discovered the flaw in NASA's calculations, and they have since corrected the data. But by now, entire political platforms have been founded upon the premise that we're facing runaway warming. For more on this, go here. This is a must read if you get excited (or have friends who get excited) about global warming. (I have a suggestion for the title of Gore's next book--from Gilda Radner's old SNL character, RoseAnn Roseannadana--"Nevermind.")

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Redefining Tolerance

We've already seen that moral relativism (in all its flavors) is an untenable view, and one that no one can live out consistently. We've also seen that the existence of tolerance, the hallmark virtue of relativism, provides further evidence for moral objectivism and against relativism.

But what we need to do today is to unpack tolerance and see how it has been redefined in our postmodern culture. Again, we will see that this redefining involves some pretty shoddy thinking.

Throughout history, tolerance has meant that respect is to be accorded to persons, and specifically to persons with whose ideas we disagree. In today's muddled culture, it is common to believe that it is different--and often contradictory--ideas themselves to which tolerance is to be applied and respect extended. One doesn't have to think too hard to see that this is nonsense. Let's take an easy example; here's an idea:
All ideas are equally valid, and therefore deserve equal respect.
Here's another idea:
All ideas are not equally valid. Some are contradictory, and some are plainly wrong.
According to the first (the postmodern) idea, the second idea is perfectly valid, even though it states the exact opposite of the first. Agreeing with the first idea therefore leaves us hopelessly enmeshed in contradiction. In other words, the two ideas are irreconcilable if the first is true. The two statements are best reconciled by acknowledging that the second (the traditional) idea is correct, and that (therefore) the first is one of those that qualifies as plainly wrong.

There are all sorts of silly ideas. How about, "The Earth is flat!" Well, maybe that doesn't sound too silly. Maybe you haven't travelled much and don't trust the photographs that NASA gives us, allegedly taken from space. So how about this one: "The Earth sits on the back of a giant turtle!" I hope you can bring yourself to identify this as a silly idea. And while you may not be able to personally avow that "the Earth is more or less spherical in shape," it ought to be plain that it cannot be both flat and spherical and perched on a turtle's back and orbiting the sun without the aid of giant turtles all at the same time. One or more of these ideas is wrong, and it only requires one good counter example to refute the relativist's statement that all ideas are equally valid.

Tolerance is a good thing, a very important virtue, and one upon which our great nation was founded. But let's get back to understanding it aright. Tolerance means respecting other persons despite the fact that we do not agree with their ideas (political, religious, moral, or other). Tolerance does not mean kidding ourselves into thinking that all ideas (including mutually exclusive ones) are equal.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Relativism and Tolerance

If, after all I've shared this past week about the obvious problems with moral relativism, you still have some inclination toward that view, it's likely because you believe that tolerance is a worthy goal. It is, after all, a virtue that's riding an all-time high; indeed, for some (including, especially, moral relativists) tolerance is the 'boom shiggety,' the highest of all virtues.

I'll save it for another post to discuss how tolerance is misunderstood in today's culture. But for now, let's grant (and that willingly, since I believe it) that there exists a virtue known as tolerance and that people should exhibit this virtue in their dealings with others.

Here again we run into a huge problem for the moral relativist. Because while I--as a moral objectivist--can say that people should be tolerant--the relativist cannot. Words like 'should' and 'ought' are terms of moral obligation, and moral obligation is exactly what relativists deny. If there are no objective moral absolutes--as the relativist claims--then tolerance is not one either. Put another way, if every individual has the right to make up his own ethical principles, then there is no way of judging or blaming the individual who chooses to make intolerance the core of his morality.

You see, one cannot make a case for moral relativism on the basis of tolerance, nor can one make the case for tolerance from a position of moral relativism.

If tolerance is a virtue, then moral objectivism must be true.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Good Evening's Work

Yesterday while conducting an owl survey (which, for me, passes for work), I watched a nestling Osprey being fed (this high lakes pair nests abnormally late), saw an adult Peregrine harrassing some ducks, and caught a gorgeous Brook Trout.

Tonight, be sure to stay up late--or better yet, sleep outdoors--in order to catch the annual Perseid meteor shower. There's virtually no moon to brighten the night sky, so this year's show promises to be a good one.

Friday, August 10, 2007

What's Wrong with I.E.R. (6)

We've already discussed a number of significant problems with the view known as moral relativism. Relativists can't accuse others of wrong-doing. They can't appeal to the problem of evil as a complaint against God. They can neither place blame nor accept praise. They cannot label anything as just or fair or unjust or unfair. And they cannot improve their morality.

Another thing that is utterly inconsistent for someone espousing moral relativism is to engage in moral discussions. Meaningful discourse about ethical issues can only be undertaken by people who believe in moral objectivism. Ethical discussions (which includes most political discussions) are all about weighing moral alternatives, attempting to decide which view is more ethical. But if--as the moral relativist believes--all views are equally valid, then there's no point in speaking or listening.

Now it seems that there is a great deal of interest in discussing such things as the war in Iraq. Should we have invaded Iraq? Was there good justification for doing so, or was our President misguided, wrong, or even deceitful? Should we withdraw immediately, or is there still good to be done there? Are Iraqis capable of self-government without tyranny? Can democracy even be expected to work in that culture? Are the lives of American men and women more valuable than the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis who suffered and died under Hussein?

These seem to be important questions, questions about which almost everyone in America has some opinion. But the one group who--if consistent--disqualifies itself from the discussion is those who espouse moral relativism. As the rest of us (those who believe in moral objectivism) carry out our heated discussions, we would be right to ignore any opinion or argument offered by a relativist, and that because we understand the relativist's larger claim. To the relativist, a person's moral view is nothing more than a personal preference, like a favorite flavor of ice cream. I should listen carefully and seriously to the arguments given against my own position by someone who accepts that right and wrong are objective sorts of things. But when someone I know to be a relativist interjects that (for example) "All war is wrong" or "Bush lied about WMDs," I should give that no more consideration than if she had said "I don't like brussel sprouts."

But moral relativists tend not to be consistent. Because they live in the real world, they do have opinions about ethical issues, and they like to share those opinions as much as the next fellow. You see, the only way to be utterly consistent to a stance of moral relativism is to remain completely silent on any issue that remotely involves concepts like good and bad, right and wrong, justice and fairness. That's why nobody lives consistently as a moral relativist.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

What's Wrong with I.E.R. (5)

When we discussed cultural relativism, we acknowledged that one absurdity entailed in it is that what we call moral reformers would actually be immoral for acting against the dictates of their culture. Individual ethical relativism has a similar problem. If this view were true, no one could improve their morality. Upon reflecting deeply on an ethical issue, they could decide to change their view; but it would be incoherent to say that any change was an improvement. If there is no moral standard against which to compare one's current or past moral views, then it is meaningless to suggest that one is better than the other.

If it seems more reasonable that one can improve one's morality, then (again) moral relativism is an inadequate and inaccurate view.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

What's Wrong with I.E.R. (3 & 4)

Two more things that make moral relativism seem unreasonable...

A moral relativist cannot place blame or give or accept praise. Without a standard against which to judge any action, such things are meaningless concepts. To a consistent moral relativist, the behavior of both Hitler and Mother Theresa are equally beyond criticism or praise. And while relativists may like the idea that they themselves are above being blamed, they must likewise live with the fact that they are forever unable to receive praise. Remember, right and wrong, good and bad, are nonexistent on this view, and so nothing the moral relativist does (and nothing her children do) can be seen as praiseworthy. So, if you have a friend who espouses moral relativism but then you catch her praising her kids (for cleaning their room, helping an elderly widow, or graduating from college), you should call her on her inconsistency.

In like manner, concepts like fairness, justice, and their opposites have no meaning within moral relativism. The moral relativist cannot object when someone cuts in line and gets the last ticket. What's more, he can only view the legal system (enforcement officers, courts, and prisons) as some sort of arbitrary societal machine that ultimately limits every individual's right to live by his own moral rules.

Ridiculous, isn't it? That's why nobody lives consistently according to this view. It's also why philosophers (logicians) almost universally reject moral relativism. But I'm not finished--there are even more good reasons for rejecting relativism in favor of moral objectivism.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

What's Wrong with I.E.R. (2)

A main obstacle to faith in God (and an area of doubt for believers) is the "problem of evil." How is it possible (the question is generally posed) that there exists an all-powerful, all-loving God when we see so much pain, evil, and suffering in the world? It seems (to many) that either God is not all-powerful (cannot stop suffering), or He is not all-loving (doesn't care that there is so much suffering), or both, or that He simply doesn't exist.

This constitutes a serious and reasonable challenge to the Christian faith in particular, since the Bible does clearly characterize God as both omnipotent (all-powerful) and omni-benevolent (all-loving). I believe there are good (albeit complex) answers to this problem, and I feel it behooves every serious follower of Christ to have wrestled with the question and to be able to articulate those good answers. But my purpose here today is not to address the problem itself.

Whereas the "problem of evil" does represent a serious issue to be grappled with by believers and skeptics alike, there is one worldview whose adherents are not able to raise this question. And that worldview is moral relativism.

You see, if moral relativism is true, then the concept of 'evil' is nonsensical. To refer to something as evil is to affirm a standard of morality, and that's precisely what moral relativism denies. I believe that affirming the concept of evil is incoherent in other worldviews (like materialistic naturalism), but for the moral relativist, such incoherence entails the defining core of his worldview.

So the second thing that argues against moral relativism is this... it seems intuitively reasonable to affirm the existence of evil, and with it a moral standard against which to compare evil.

Monday, August 6, 2007

What's Wrong with I.E.R. (1)

I promised 7 things that would seem to make individual ethical relativism an inadequate view of the way things really are. Tonight I want to give you the first.

If relativism is true, then we can never say that anyone else has done wrong. We cannot object on moral grounds to what the Nazis did at Auschwitz or to years of apartheid in South Africa. It is not wrong to kill thousands by flying planes into buildings, to scuttle oil-containing tankers that are no longer seaworthy, or to rape a 10-year-old girl. The relativist can only say 'I wouldn't do that' or 'I don't happen to like it when others do that,' but she cannot say 'it is wrong.'

So, if it seems that some things (racism, sex slavery, torturing toddlers for the fun of it) are simply wrong, then individual ethical relativism must not be true.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Individual Ethical Relativism

We've already discussed both descriptive cultural relativism and cultural ethical relativism, and shown that both have serious flaws that lead philosophers to reject them. There is, however, a third--and more popular--form of moral relativism, and it is this that we will examine this week.

I'm talking about individual ethical relativism, what Beckwith and Koukl call 'I Say Relativism.' Basically, it's the view that, as regards moral issues it's 'to each his own.' In other words, a given moral norm can be (to borrow from the title of Paul Copan's excellent book largely about relativism) True For You, But Not For Me. On this view, there is no absolute morality, but each individual determines what is right and what is wrong.

Before we look at what's wrong with this view, let's make it clear that this is pervasive in our culture today. To adherents to this view, tolerance is the supreme virtue, and the most heinous sin is to 'force one's morality on someone else.' (Free hint: A fatal flaw for this view is evident in what I have just written.)

Also, if this form of moral relativism fares no better than the other two we've already refuted, then what's left is moral objectivism. That is, any evidence that counts against moral relativism (also called moral subjectivism) is evidence in favor of the more traditional view that morailty is objective--that right and wrong are the sorts of things that apply equally to all people at all times.

What I'll do in the next few posts is share seven fatal flaws of individual ethical relativism. These are not original with me, and I am most indebted to Greg Koukl, who has effectively articulated these problems in his book, in lectures, on the radio, and at his website. Anyone wanting more examples or further clarification of what I discuss this week should avail himself of these resources.

Friday, August 3, 2007


I've been encouraged to see a few more badgers (Taxidea taxus) in our area recently. These larger members of the Mustelid (weasel) family are an important part of the shrub-steppe ecosystem of the Great Basin (on the western edge of which we live). Their decline in the past several decades is likely due to the intrusion of roads and the resultant direct persecution (especially shooting) by humans.

My inability to find Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) nesting in our vicinity is probably due to the loss of badgers. Whereas Burrowing Owls can excavate their own burrows in Florida's sandy soil, the western subspecies is dependent on badgers (primarily) and ground squirrels (to a lesser degree) for the burrows in which they will breed and take refuge. Even populations of ground squirrels (which themselves are the frequent targets of shooting, trapping, and poisoning campaigns) likely suffer from a loss of badgers. Predators tend to keep prey populations healthy, while human humters and trappers do not discriminate between healthy and weak individual animals.

While Dawn was studying radio-tagged Ferruginous Hawks (Buteo regalis) south of Boise (for her Master's thesis), she observed some interesting interactions between the hawks and badgers. On several occassions, a hawk, upon seeing a badger working to dig up a ground squirrel, would fly down to land nearby. Though Dawn never saw a hawk catch prey this way, it seemed clear that the hawks were hoping that a squirrel would elude the badger by exiting through another hole, at which point the hawk could make an easy capture.

My own favorite badger encounter was also in southern Idaho (and with Dawn). We had been watching a very large badger moving between burrows, and saw it surprise a much younger badger. The ensuing chase brought the two ever closer to us, until--about 60 yards from us--the smaller one turned to fight. They went at it tooth and nail for most of a minute, but then, apparently, the wind changed and they simultaneously scented us. During the resulting pause, the smaller one made good its escape. This was the only day that season that I hadn't brought my camera with me (though what I really needed was a video camera).

I encountered and photographed the individual pictured above in the pines on the Winema National Forest in southcentral Oregon.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Prime Directive

A second form of moral relativism is known as conventionalism or normative ethical relativism (Beckwith and Koukl call it 'Society Says Relativism'). Whereas the moral relativism I discussed yesterday merely describes (makes the observation that different cultures exhibit different mores), this form prescribes morality on a cultural basis. Conventionalism goes beyond acknowledging that what is right in one culture might not be right in another; it says that one should follow the moral dictates of one's own society.

This view is familiar as Star Trek's 'Prime Directive'--the view that each culture's morality is equally valid and the resulting policy (inadvertently violated in nearly every episode) that Federation representatives were not to inflict the Federation's moral norms on any other cultures with which they came into contact.

At first glance, this understanding may seem somewhat reasonable and certainly tolerant, a sort of culture-level 'live and let live.' But, as Beckwith and Koukl argue in their book Relativism, there are at least three fatal flaws to this view.

First, if conventionalism is true, then there is no such thing as an immoral society. No matter how barbaric the practices of a particular culture, there can be no moral judgment made against it; that culture's morals simply are what they are. Conventionalism was essentially the defense put forth by the Nazis at Nuremberg when they were tried by the International Military Tribunal. They said, in effect,
We were following the just orders given by the leadership of our society, which orders accurately reflected the mores of our culture. What's more, the Tribunal, composed of members of cultures outside our own, has neither right nor jurisdiction to judge us for what we did.
Thankfully, the Tribunal did not accept this defense or its underlying cultural relativism. Rather, it appealed to a higher moral law, and rightly condemned the atrocities perpetrated on humanity by the Third Reich.

It likewise seems reasonable to suggest that the current genocide occurring in the Sudan and elsewhere is wrong, as is the trafficking in sex slaves taking place in southeast Asia. But if conventionalism is true, this is not the case. We can only observe such genocide and slave-trading with a sort of distaste associated with our own cultural norms; we can neither judge it nor justify any attempts to end it.

Second, if this view is accurate, then there are no such things as immoral laws or immoral governments. Any particular set of laws would, by definition, constitute the moral guidelines for that society. On this view, all moral discussion (and politics is almost entirely moral discussion) would be pointless, since the existing laws are equivalent to the society's morality. But this, too, seems extremely counterintuitive.

Likewise (and third), conventionalism leads to the conclusion that there is no such thing as moral reform or moral reformers. Indeed, if individuals should do exactly as their society says (with regard to moral issues), then moral reformers are actually acting immorally. William Wilberforce was wrong to spend the latter years of his life fighting to abolish England's slave trade. Martin Luther King, Jr. should be vilified, not honored, for demanding equality for blacks in a culture whose morals did not extend such equality. Those Germans who hid Jews or otherwise didn't cooperate with the Nazis? Yup, it was they who acted immorally, and not the Nazis themselves.

Seems kinda silly, looked at that way, doesn't it? It just seems to make more sense that there are such things as immoral cultures, immoral laws and governments, and the possibility for moral reform. Since conventionalism involves a denial of all these things, this form of moral relativism is clearly false.

In the next post, we'll begin to examine a third form of moral relativism, individual ethical relativism.