Monday, 03 November 2014 17:25

Moral Truth & Good Philosophy

Written by  Matthew Jordan
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When I was an undergraduate, I became convinced that there are two fundamental questions that matter more than any others: is there a God? and what should we do? That conviction is what motivated me to pursue a career as a philosophy professor, and it remains at the heart of why I love my job. Virtually every time I am in a classroom, I have the opportunity to talk with college students about these questions or related ones. It’s a pretty interesting way to make a living.

One particular topic that comes up in a majority of my classes is the debate over moral realism and moral relativism. Moral realism, roughly, is the idea that our beliefs about morality—our answers to those “what should we do?” questions—can be true or false. From the point of view of a moral realist, the domain of ethics is similar to the hard sciences. Just as there are scientific questions which are not easy to answer, some particular moral problems may be pretty vexing. But in both kinds of cases, there’s a fact of the matter, a reality which is there whether we acknowledge it or not. Moral relativists reject this picture. They maintain that morality is utterly unlike science. According to the moral relativist, beliefs about how we should live are “true” only if they are endorsed by the culture in which we happen to find ourselves or by the individual who is asking the question.


As a philosopher, I think there are very good reasons for embracing moral realism and rejecting moral relativism. One simple reason is this: moral relativism implies that anything at all could be morally good. If the Nazis genuinely thought that murdering millions of innocent people was admirable, then, according to moral relativism, it really was admirable for them to do so. The moral relativist, it seems, should not condemn the Holocaust, but should instead maintain that the Nazis just had a different morality from ours. Not worse, mind you, nor evil, but different. And that seems crazy. If you have a view of morality according to which it turns out that the Nazis are pretty okay, then you need a new view of morality!


In spite of its philosophical shortcomings, moral relativism is the dominant view in our culture. Most of my students simply take it for granted; it strikes them as an utterly obvious, uncontroversial truth. This is not surprising. What is surprising is that the same thing holds true for my Christian students. This is shocking—or at least, it should be. Moral realism is near the heart of the Christian worldview. The gospel message takes for granted the twin realities of sin and redemption, of evil and good. The invitation to life in Christ’s kingdom presupposes that Jesus genuinely knows what he is talking about, that his offer of new life is not merely one among many equally good alternatives, but a better path than any of its rivals.


 This is a perspective that the twenty-first century Church needs to articulate and defend. If we intend to thoughtfully and winsomely engage with the broader culture, we need to think clearly about what the assumptions of that culture are, and we need to learn to recognize when those assumptions are inimical to the gospel. “Good philosophy must exist,” C. S. Lewis once wrote, “if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” Moral relativism is bad philosophy. If my Christian students are any indication, the Church is not doing what she should to teach good philosophy. We can and must do better.




Last modified on Tuesday, 11 November 2014 17:28
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