By their very complexity, situational moral decisions demonstrate that there is an absolute good that we seek. Moral principles work together for the absolute good.

The Inuit would let their elders starve and freeze to death, a custom that most of us consider morally wrong. The Dobu people of New Guinea, like the Spartans of ancient Greece, believe it is moral to steal, but we believe it is wrong. Many cultures, past and present, have practised or still practice infanticide. A tribe in East Africa fed their deformed children to the hippopotamus, but our society condemns these acts. Sexual practices vary according to time and context.

Some cultures allow homosexual behaviour while others condemn it. Some cultures, including Muslim societies, practice polygamy, while Christian cultures see it as immoral. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict describes a tribe in Melanesia who consider cooperation and kindness to be vices, and anthropologist Colin Turnbull testified that the Ik population of Northern Uganda has no sense of duty towards children or parents. Some societies teach children that they have a duty to kill their elderly parents (sometimes by strangulation).[1]

Through such observations, anthropology became the source of one of the strongest arguments in favour of moral relativism. If there are such irreducible moral contradictions among the cultural traditions of the world, who is to say which culture is the right one and how can this be decided? The implicit conclusion is that moral values ​​are culturally derived, and therefore there are no universally valid moral values—objective standards that apply to all people of all times.

How strong is the strongest?

The cultural diversity of the planet is concrete, observable and objective. That is why the argument built on the basis of cultural diversity can be considered the most important argument in favour of moral relativism. However, for those who do not easily yield to appearances, the argument inevitably reveals its vulnerability.

The conclusion that cultural diversity demonstrates moral relativism lacks precisely that… demonstration. Another concrete observation suggests a different conclusion, more consistent with logic: the moral codes adopted by the world’s civilisations are more similar to each other than they are different, and the differences can be classified and grouped (an indication that they may have a common explanation), while extreme differences are exceptions.

In other words, the fact that certain cultures have adopted reprehensible moral practices does not demonstrate the absence of absolute morality, but rather the inability of a society to formulate and implement proper moral measures. That is precisely why cross-cultural moral deliberation is needed.

But how do we know they are reprehensible?

This question arises from the previous paragraph. Our moral values ​​are conditioned by the culture in which we were born and raised, and therefore we can’t look at other cultures objectively, relativists say. Furthermore, even if there were objective values, we cannot identify them because each religion considers its sacred text to be the standard and we have no direct access to the supposed absolute values.

In reality, precisely because we are influenced by the culture we belong to, we need the right and possibility to cross-culturally judge certain moral practices and decide what is the best thing to do. Moral values ​​are above individual interpretations and they ​​should not be confused with moral opinions.

But wouldn’t this mean undermining the moral values ​​of certain cultures? The counter-question is: By considering contradictory moral values ​​equal, aren’t we nullifying the possibility of any ethics, including a cross-cultural one?

Who is to judge the real abuses—violence, slavery, holocaust, genocide? Who was to judge when David Koresh created a culture where he was the only man allowed to have sex with all the women in his community, married or single, even minors? Professor of philosophy Louis Pojman answers unequivocally: “We are.”[2] We must do this based on the best reasoning we are capable of, with empathy and understanding.

Here is how we become intolerant…

This is a critical point in the debate between moral relativism and absolutism. History is full of examples where a church or ideological dogma has led to intolerance and the violation of human rights. According to relativism, when someone judges, considering only their own moral standard, it invariably leads to intolerance. Didn’t Jesus also say (in Matthew 7:1): “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”?

Still, isn’t the relativistic doctrine of tolerance itself an absolute, a benchmark? On the other hand, “tolerance is a quality of people, not of ideas. Ideas can be confused, or fuzzy, or ill-defined, but that does not make them tolerant, or intolerant”. If an idea is intransigent it does not automatically mean that its possessor is intolerant. On the contrary, professor of philosophy Peter Kreeft explains, a person who firmly believes that smoking is a bad thing may tolerate it in order to defend a greater good: “privacy or freedom.”

Ultimately, even if, in the name of some moral principles, some people are intolerant, this does not prove that the principles are not correct, but only that they were not accompanied by other principles such as tolerance, freedom (of conscience), equality, and privacy.

Jesus judged the wrong ideas not only of the Pharisees, but of an entire society, and throughout time, of the entire world. However, precisely to preserve individual freedom, He urged His disciples not to judge the heart and the hidden motivations, because only God knows these.

What about specific situations?

Finally, the discussion must also reach the dilemmas of situational morality. Would you tell the Nazis where the Jews are hiding, or would you lie? In other words, morality is not absolute because, in different situations, different applications of the same moral principle are required.

Situational morality does not relativise the moral principle, but rather shows the complexity of a moral decision. For every moral decision, several principles matter. The fact that the reason behind an action determines its nature is a moral principle. Moreover, the situation determines the moral value of an action as well. Going through a red light is wrong; running a red light to save someone is not wrong. Killing is wrong, but killing in self-defence is no longer wrong. A good moral decision is a good answer given simultaneously to all the moral questions of the given context.

By their very complexity, situational moral decisions demonstrate that there is an absolute good that we seek. Moral principles work together for the absolute good.

The last stand

Nothing seems more important than freedom. A society must provide freedom to its members. But at this point, the nuances make the difference, because freedom often has emotional connotations rather than rational ones.

That is precisely why, in general, in practice, theft, rape, or murder are absolute evils. No one has the freedom to justify them by the right to their own moral values. And no one would want to guarantee others such freedom, just as no one has the right to cancel absolute values ​​such as justice or equity. But there are many who want sexual freedom and freedom from guilt and from the religious perspective of the responsibility of life.

We are not willing to integrate into our culture the implications of the cultural relativism that demands equality between our moral principles and those of the tribe that fed their own children to the hippopotamus or the population that encourages the killing of parents by strangulation. But we easily embrace the cultural relativism that presupposes sexual freedoms or the liberation from the guilt produced by selfish actions. We fail to realise that guilt may be the vital tool that assists us in maintaining happiness, just as pain is the tool that assists us in maintaining health.


Where would we be now if history had not known people like Paul, Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale, Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and so on? These religious or social reformers judged and acted against the way of thinking of some individuals, cultures, civilizations, or religions, and today history is grateful to them. And, in the end, which way was more desirable: for them to never have spoken about good and evil, or for them to have done what they did—to invite evolution through dialogue, towards a more comprehensive and much better formulated moral system?

Jesus’s absolutism promises freedom

Throughout His entire ministry, Jesus spoke above all about truth. Although the promise of freedom seems today to be the exclusive offer of relativism, Jesus was an absolutist when He said: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). And, to Pilate, Jesus said: “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37).

Therefore, what is the truth that dominated the life of Jesus? Is it contained in certain correct moral doctrines or principles? Rather, the truth of Jesus was more than that; it encompasses all of these. It was the exemplification of a way of life of an unearthly world that Jesus had come to represent and in which He wanted to reintegrate all those who, in the name of His sacrifice, accepted to be part of it. Thus, supremely—as promoter, but also creator of the perfect world—the truth of Jesus was born from Jesus; it is Jesus Himself.

There is no degree of absolutism that surpasses this. Jesus had astonishing answers to great situational moral dilemmas. He respected the cultural differences of the Samaritans, Greeks, and Romans, but He preached the absolute truth to them equally. He was harsh with sin (morally wrong action) whenever He encountered it, but He was “gentle and humble in heart” and tolerant to the end with Judas the betrayer or with those who crucified Him. If Jesus alone were the only historical example, it would still be enough to demonstrate that moral absolutism can be lived without falling into any of the sins pointed out by moral relativism.

Norel Iacob is the editor-in-chief of Signs of the Time Romania and ST Network.

[1]„Louis P. Pojman, «Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong,» Wadsworth, 1995, p. 33.”
[2]„Louis Pojman, «Who’s to Judge,» in Christina Hoff Sommers and Fred Sommers, «Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life,» Thomson Wadsworth Press, p. 173.”

„Louis P. Pojman, «Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong,» Wadsworth, 1995, p. 33.”
„Louis Pojman, «Who’s to Judge,» in Christina Hoff Sommers and Fred Sommers, «Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life,» Thomson Wadsworth Press, p. 173.”