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Is moral truth absolute or relative?

An introduction

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Introduction to whether moral truth is absolute or relative:

Some current religious/philosophical debates concern:

bullet The nature of truth:
bullet Are there answers to some questions that are absolute. That is, they are universally true for all time and in all societies? For example, it is possible to say "Thou shalt not murder" absolutely? or

bullet Are answers always relative to a particular culture, or era, or world view? (A world view is a person's basic beliefs concerning deity, humanity and the rest of the universe.)

bullet The morality of certain acts and behaviors:
bullet Does a specific act always fall into the same classification (right,  wrong, or morally neutral)? or

bullet Can an act be either right, wrong, or neutral, depending on the culture, the precise situation, and the era?

bullet Assuming that "moral truth" exists, how do we determine it?
bullet There exists a near consensus on many matters of right and wrong, truth and falsehood within conservative Christian faith groups; their morality is based on their unique interpretation of the Bible, a book which they generally believe to be inerrant and inspired by God.
bullet There is often an agreement on many issues of right and wrong/truth and falsehood within liberal Christian faith groups, based on their members' unique interpretation of the Bible and other sources of information.
bullet There may well be still a third consensus among many Agnostics, Atheists, Freethinkers and secular Humanists, on these matters, based on their core secular beliefs.
bullet On matters of behavior, religious conservatives, liberal faith groups, and secular groups agree on many items, such as the immorality of murder, theft, lying, adultery, etc, in most cases. But they often differ totally on sexual and other topics. e.g. as abortion access, homosexual rights, transgender rights, pre-marital sex, child corporal punishment, death penalty....the list goes on.
bullet Both groups of Christians believe that they are interpreting the Bible correctly and that the other side is mistaken. If absolute moral truth exists, then only one group (perhaps neither) is right. 

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The essential conflict concerns the nature of truth and values: whether they are absolute or relative.

bullet Some people, particularly those from the conservative wing of various religions argue that absolute moral truth exists. They feel that they can study their religious holy texts and derive from it moral statements that were absolutely true when the books were written and absolutely true today.

bullet Many others say that absolute moral truth does not exist; all truth is relative to the religion, society, and era in question. That is a rather silly statement. It is, in itself, an absolute statement. By definition, it is invalid!

bullet Still others argue that all "truth" that they have seen to date is relative. Absolute truth may be out there, but they have not seen any indications of it. They have evaluated true/false statements about many theological and moral truths, but have never found, to date, any that can be proven to be absolute.

A religious group might consider a moral statement to be absolute, because it is based upon their core, foundational beliefs and assumptions. A Southern Baptist might assert that the statement "Homosexual behavior is a sin" is an absolute truth, because of their interpretation of the Bible. A Christian from a mainline or liberal denomination might say that the statement "Sexual behavior, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is not a sin, if it is consensual, non-exploitive, safe, and confined to a committed relationship" is an absolute truth, because of:

bullet Their interpretation of the Bible's text;

bullet Their understanding of the nature of sexual orientation;

bullet Their personal experience; and

bullet Their study of information from medical sources, mental health professional associations, and human sexuality researchers. 

Since the two statements disagree, both cannot be absolute truths. Each group may consider their own view to be absolute. But at least one group is wrong. However, we can say that both statements are true in relation to each group's core beliefs.

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Philosophical positions that people have taken on relative moral truth:

Wikipedia notes:

"Moral relativism has been espoused, criticized, and debated for thousands of years, from ancient Greece and India to the present day, in diverse fields including philosophy, science, and religion."

and that:

"Moral relativism may be any of several philosophical positions concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures.

  • Descriptive moral relativism holds only that some people do in fact disagree about what is moral;

  • Meta-ethical moral relativism holds that in such disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and

  • Normative moral relativism holds that because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.

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Webmaster's bias:

My position is that of descriptive moral relativism: Some people do disagree about what is moral. Moral truth is thus relative to the group or to the individual within group. As Wikipedia says:

"... it is incorrect to assume that the same moral or ethical frameworks are always in play in all historical and cultural circumstances."

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Examples of disagreement over a moral truth and how to resolve differences:

To take an extreme example: During World War II, the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazis  exterminated approximately six million Jews. They regarded it to be a great positive achievement because it helped increase the racial purity of the Aryan race. Near the end of the war, rather than divert effort from the Holocaust to the war effort, they did the reverse. Needless to say, most of the rest of the world regards the Holocaust -- and any other form of genocide -- to be a horrendous tragedy.

Thus, the rightness or wrongness of an action or belief can be relative to the culture and to an individual person within the culture.

If you are looking for some method to evaluate different beliefs about morality, it would be necessary to create some sort of criterion with which one could judge whether a particular culture's belief or practice is good or bad. For example:

One could take a vote. But this would only determine which point of view had the greater/greatest number of supporters. This is called the Tyranny of the Majority and was a major concern of the U.S. founding fathers. Prior to 2011, public opinion polls in the U.S. found that most U.S. adults opposed same-sex marriage. After 2011 most supported marriage equality. This has continued to the present time, with gradually increasing support. This raises two questions:

  • Whether fundamental human rights should be decided by majority vote.

  • Whether same-sex marriage suddenly switched from being immoral to moral circa 2011.

One could decide on the basis of whether an action produces the best consequences possible -- the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is called Utilitarianism. But this method has its weaknesses. For example, one could conceivably argue that the Japanese kidnapping of Korean women and forcing them into prostitution as "comfort women"during World War II was morally good because, while each woman was miserable, she was able to bring pleasure to multiple Japanese soldiers.

One could appeal to the Bible or some other religious book. However:

  • These books were often written in a pre-scientific era when humans were relatively  ignorant on many matters. For example, it is only in recent decades that human sexuality researchers have begun to understand human sexual orientation and gender identity. Many understandings about human sexuality, as expressed in the Bible and other religious texts largely been abandoned.

  • Books like the Bible were written over a very long period during which beliefs changed. This causes ambiguous and conflicting passages which often prevent a clear decision. Believers often choose to follow certain passages while ignoring the rest.

  • Religious books are often written in ancient languages. For example, the Bible was written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. They have to be translated into English, French, and Spanish before they can be generally used throughout North America. This means that the Bible passages must be filtered through the beliefs, prejudices, and biases of the individuals doing the translation.

And so, since different people disagree about moral and ethical topics, and disagree about how to evaluate different positions, we have to stumble along without any clear direction or criteria. This is not a very satisfactory answer, but it is one with which we seem to be stuck.

The only way out of this morass is dialogue in which persons with opposing beliefs get together to discuss a matter with the goal of finding a satisfactory compromise solution even if they have to modify their original opinions to some degree. That is, they have to be prepared to give up some of their beliefs in order to develop a workable solution. Unfortunately, advocates on both or all sides of a question often refuse to dialogue and merely debate topics. They attempt to persuade the opposite side(s) to adopt their position. Or, even worse, they refuse to engage in dialogue and throw verbal rocks at each other.

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Copyright © 1999 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2015-NOV-29
Written by: B.A. Robinson

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