Morality & Ethics
Not That Simple

Is morality relative, or is it absolute?

It seems like such a simple question. And many think it is, and place themselves firmly on one side or the other. But is it so easy?

Let's examine what relative claims and absolute claims actually are:

  • A claim is relative if it makes an appeal to something else to receive meaningful definition.
  • A claim is absolute if it is meaningfully defined without making a foreign appeal.

Take this truth claim: "A red car is currently in first place." Is this statement true or false? There's no way to know, since the statement makes an implicit appeal to a race in progress. The truth value of the statement is relative to which race you're talking about. It turns out that this truth claim is true relative to Race Alpha, but it is false relative to Race Gamma. In Race Gamma, it turns out, a blue car is in first place.

Is there a way to make the truth claim absolute? Yes -- by explication! Instead of saying "A red car is currently in first place," I might say "In Race Alpha, the red car is currently in first place." This might be called "flattening the references." Instead of "reaching into the sky" hoping that the variables are filled in by implication, I'm pulling any needed definitions into the claim itself.

Here's an even clearer example: The truth claim, "20 plus X equals 24." Is this statement true or false? There's no way to know, because the truth value of the statement is relative to what X is! If X is 4, then the claim is true. If X is any other number, then the claim is false.

As should be now obvious, whether a claim is relatively true or absolutely true is not a product of one's worldview. It's a product of the robustness of the claim. If a claim is overflowingly robust, covering every relevant nuance, then its truth value is absolute. If there's ambiguity in some relevant detail, the truth value is relative to how that detail is filled in.

Getting Back to Purpose

Morality is relative in this "meta-ethical" sense. Here's what meta-ethical relativism says:

"Any claim about what we should do is relative,
both to how the world works and to what we're striving for."

We can illustrate this relative dependency using three spheres: the ethical definition sphere, the mechanical determination sphere, and the ethical determination sphere.

In Tour 11, Del Tackett asked why God established the Sabbath. He insisted, however, that God did not do it for a pragmatic ("goal-oriented") reason. Instead, he claimed that God established the Sabbath purely because God himself rested on the 7th day. Instead of giving a practical reason for the Sabbath, Dr. Tackett claimed that there was no reason other than alignment with God's nature.

This happens dozens of times throughout The Truth Project. Dr. Tackett will ask why something is commanded, and instead of giving a practical, goal-oriented reason, he simply invokes God's nature.

There are two problems with this.

First is the issue of God resting. God is omnipotent. He doesn't actually need to rest. He "rested" as a symbol, to establish a symbol or pattern that would encourage Sabbath-keeping. He "rested" to reinforce the Sabbath concept he'd later mandate; the Sabbath concept did not proceed from it. In no way is God having rested on the 7th day part of his essential nature.

Second, defining goodness using God's nature leaves us unable to meaningfully understand what it means to say "God is good." We can't speak of goodness in terms other than God's nature, and we can't speak of God's nature in terms other than goodness. Stuck in this closed referential loop, where "God is good" and "good is God," "goodness" could mean literally anything.

Deriding pragmatic views of ethics is not the solution. God's nature is not a shortcut around the ethical definition sphere.

So what is "good?" How do we fill up the ethical definition sphere? God's definition of "good" might look like this:

"The goal is to maximize, as much as possible,
both the freedom and satisfaction of humankind."

Now that's more like it. Now we can say "God is good," and it actually means something. When we say "God is good," we're saying "God works toward the maximization both of freedom and of satisfaction for humankind." When God created plants and critters, they were good for that purpose. Adam's state of loneliness was bad for that purpose -- so God gave Adam a wife, which was good for that purpose.

Different Ethical Definitions

Now, can a person subscribe to a different ethical definition? It's definitely possible. Someone might say that only satisfaction is valuable, and satisfaction even under gross oppression is good. Another might say that only freedom is valuable, and freedom even under gross suffering is good.

The first man might be a totalitarian, and the second might be an anarchist. I'm somewhere in-between, and probably likewise are most Christians. Three very different people, with very different values -- doesn't it stand to reason that a question like "What should the government look like?" would be answered differently by each? The responses will, undoubtably, be relative to the goal the person is aiming toward.

But we can flatten our references in order to make the question more absolute. We can ask, "What should the government look like, if our goal is the maximization only of freedom without regard to satisfaction?" Now it shouldn't matter who we ask -- the Christian, totalitarian, and anarchist should all be capable of tackling this question in unity.


The problem is that The Truth Project promotes absolutism without flattening the references, and tries to create strict dichotomies between relativism and absolutism when there are none, as we've seen. A truth claim is absolute when it is sufficiently robust, and relative when it's ambiguous (for instance, when "good" isn't well-defined). And the degree to which a truth claim is absolute or relative is, as it so happens, a matter of degree.

(c) 2009 The Truth Problem.


Site Updates


The Problems

Philosophy Fact Check

Science Fact Check


Other Christian Viewpoints

Freedom & Sovereignty

Morality & Ethics

Creation & Evolution
The Hidden Consensus


Christians React

Your Feedback

Your Fact Checks

Off-Site Resources