In his book From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun writes a defense of moral relativism. He states that because each individual scenario is different, commandments or moral rules cannot apply in the same way every time to every scenario, making morality relative. This essay partly agrees with Barzun, but also partly shows where he has stopped short of the truth. Human nature shows many reasons to believe in moral objectivity. Yes, an individual must judge each situation uniquely to decide what course of action to take, but contrary to what some may believe, judging with a case-by-case basis does not mean that morality is relative. This essay will attempt to show that even though situations change, the moral truth never changes.
A glance at human action and human nature provides many reasons to believe in moral objectivity, including but not limited to the following:
- Even young children understand that there is such thing as good and bad. They can point out the good and bad characters in books and movies. The ability to distinguish between good and bad is ingrained in every human soul. This ability can be numbed over time, but it has always been there at one point.
- A person may say that he doesn’t believe in moral objectivity, but the moment he is mistreated, he will react by saying “that’s not fair!” or similar. Though he may have convinced himself that he believes in moral relativity, his actions show what he truly believes deep down.
- No one would reason over moral issues if there wasn’t an objective standard of what is right and what is wrong. If morality is just a matter of preference, people couldn’t have meaningful debates about ethical issues.
- People make excuses when they feel they haven’t behaved appropriately. But why would they feel the need to make excuses unless there was a standard that they could fall short of? C. S. Lewis said: “The truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility.” 1
The reasons stated above will act as proof for the following rebuttal of Barzun.
Barzun, in his defense of moral relativism, gives an example of the moral law “Do not lie”. He says that there are times when lying might be a good thing: “to head off a criminal, to spare anxiety, or any other good reason”. Barzun implies that because each scenario must be judged differently, morality is relative. 2
However, Barzun skips a step. In reality, God gives His people commandments as a guide to help them follow morality. These commandments are not morality themselves. These commandments give a general outline of how to follow morality. Morality transcends even God because God did not create morals. He understands the laws of the universe; He understands that only morality can bring eternal happiness, so He gives His people commandments that help them to get on that path of morality, which brings happiness.
These commandments, these general guidelines, must be seen on a case-by-case basis. “Do not lie” is the general guideline, but lying to save another person’s life is surely not immoral (this again depends on the circumstances specific to that scenario). But just because these commandments must be taken case-by-case does not mean morality is relative. Remember, God did not create morality. Even He must follow moral laws (if not, He would not be God). His commandments are only guidelines for following morality, which guidelines individuals must use and feel within themselves what is right to do in a given scenario. Morality itself does not change.
Morality would have individuals do good in every situation. God’s commandments give a guideline of what is mainly good or bad, but morality tells people to use those guidelines and to use their innate, inalienable ability to feel what is right, to always choose the good in every scenario. God gives guidelines, but He does not tell us what to do in every scenario because that would be beside the point of coming to Earth and choosing to follow Him. He wants us to discover morality for ourselves instead of being told exactly what it is in every circumstance.
Always strictly following the ‘letter of the law’ may not result in good every time. In the New Testament, the Pharisees followed the letter of the law so strictly that they actually ended up doing injustice to others in their community. Again, this is because the letter of the law is not morality. Morality is why the law was created, but morality transcends the law, which is just a guideline of how to follow morality. So when moral actions differ at times from what laws like this say strictly to do, this does not mean that morality is relative. Morality means doing good in every scenario – it is natural law, the law above all other laws -, and God’s commandments are just guidelines on how to get there. Individuals must judge what is moral case-by-case, based on natural law, because that is part of their innate ability to distinguish good from evil.
We see that though Barzun had a good argument, he skipped a step by calling moral rules and actual morality the same, which they are not. It appears that judging each scenario case-by-case does not mean morality is relative. Morality means always doing good in every scenario, and that cannot change. There is absolute truth that transcends all human laws and maxims. We know it in our hearts, and that is what we must follow. Knowing this, search for the truth. There is no “my truth” and “your truth”, only the truth. You can ignore it, but it’s still there, and you can only beat yourself upon it. So don’t ignore it – search for it and love it with all your heart. The lovers of truth are those who build the pillars of a nation deep.
1: Lewis, Mere Christianity, 8
2: Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 761