Israel (Beaner) has just finished this essay on Normative Ethical Relativism or Conventional Ethics. In her philosophy class, before getting into the history of philosophy, I had her to do a fairly extensive survey of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. This task was broken into two separate sections: first examining these foundational categories from within the Christian worldview, then, secondly, a brief overview of the dominate views that secular philosophy has devised. Secular ethics was her final section in this part of the class, and she chose for her essay Conventional Ethics. Enjoy.
Normative Ethical Relativism, also known as Conventionalism, is the system of belief that morals “ought” to be designated by individual societies. It teaches that whatever a certain society says to do, their citizens are morally obligated to follow these ethical constructs. Francis Beckwith, in his book with Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-air, defines it in this way. “[N]ormative ethical relativism teaches that each society survives because of consensual moral arrangements that all individuals are obligated to honor...Morality, then, is relative to culture, determined by popular consensus, and expressed through laws, customs and mores” (p. 49).
There are some obvious flaws facing this perspective on human attitudes and behavior.
First, no one society can accuse any other society of do that which is morally wrong. Assuming this axiological idea, we in America were wrong in telling Nazi Germany, during World War II, that is was morally wrong to kill Jews and others on a whim. So also, during the War of Southern Independence (the so-called Civil War), the North could not have told those in the South that it was immoral to keep slaves, as the North and the South represented two very distinct societies or cultures.
A second flaw is that no law or behavioral code is wrong if appointed by the society’s majority. In this way, it confuses morals with mores. Beckwith has a good example illustrating this point. Again from Relativism:
“An attorney once called a radio talk show with a challenge. ‘When are you going to accept the fact that abortion on demand is the law of the land?’ She asked. ‘You may not like it, but it’s the law.’ Her point was simple. The Supreme Court has spoken, so there is nothing left to discuss. Since there is no higher law, there are no further grounds for rebuttal. This lawyer’s tacit acceptance of conventionalism suffers because it confuses what is right with what is legal” (pp. 51—52).
Third, and finally, if a particular society legalizes or allows something that an individual citizen sees as morally wrong, they themselves become immoral outcasts for transgressing the status quo. This is known as the Reformer’s Dilemma.
If conventionalism is correct, no moral reformation would be possible without the reformer(s) becoming an iconoclast of sorts. Martin Luther’s struggle against the abuses and oppression of the Roman Catholic organization; Corrie Ten Boom and her family’s efforts to hide Jews during the Holocaust; William Wilberforce, with the ending of the slave trade in England and Europe, and many other men and women who spent themselves seeking to liberate souls and setting free the truth would have to be deemed as immoral persons, and their causes as wrong. However, today, we hold these people in high esteem for what they stood for and did.
For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that Normative Ethical Relativism is correct. If so, we can do nothing but rebuke the above men and women for their choices, because they are by definition immoral for going against what their societies said was morally right. So, was it all in vain? Was that they did pointless, because it was not what their societies would have had them to do?Conventionalism does nothing but give to us a number of counterintuitive results. With this theory of morality, virtue becomes vice and heroes become hellions.
Men and women may say that they believe that ethical truth is relative to society, but in their heart of hearts they know there is an ultimate, universal standard of moral truth that is to govern their lives, to which they must give an account (Rom 1:32). This ultimate standard of moral truth is revealed to us by God in three ways: 1) the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, 2) in nature, and most explicitly 3) in his Son, Christ Jesus our Lord. He has written his moral law on our hearts (Rom 2:15) and stated in clearly in the Ten Commandments. Even so, the conventionalist seeks to suppress God’s truth and ultimately trades it for a lie (Rom 1:18, 25).
Christians must resist conventionalism wherever it is found. Conventionalism renders the gospel of Jesus Christ meaningless. For biblical salvation presupposes repentance, and repentance an absolute moral law. Conventionalism seeks to do away with any absolute moral law, trivializing repentance, undermining biblical salvation, thus making nonsensical the cross of Christ. But, since it contradicts the God of the Scriptures, it is impossible to live according to conventionalism consistently. Therefore , it cannot in anyway possible be morally right. Conventionalism is just one of many ways humanity has tried to throw off God’s rule over us.
One reason people reject God’s standard and accept others, such as conventionalism, is because God’s law is perfect (Ps 19:7) and demands perfection from us. But no one can live up to this standard. Only in Jesus Christ, who was sent by the Father, and came to earth in the form of a man (Phil 2:6f) is there hope. He lived in perfect obedience under the law of God; he died the death that no other man past, present or future could ever endure; he bore the sins of all those who would believe. The third day he arose again from the dead, and showed himself to his disciples. He ascended into heaven and is sitting on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Trusting Jesus Christ is the only hope for humanity’s moral problem. God alone is our ultimate standard for morality; not society, not ourselves, only him.
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4