Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air

More and more it seems that society and culture are attempting to jettison objective morality in favor of their own moral autonomy. It is a challenge that takes place at both an individual level and a political level. The Christian worldview holds that certain actions and behaviors are right or wrong regardless of who believes or does not believe that they are. Christians need to be able to defend this position in their everyday discussions with friends, family, and coworkers; otherwise, they may cave to the "wisdom of the world." Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith wrote Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air precisely with these everyday Christians in mind.

The book is divided into five parts (sixteen chapters) and 170 pages. This review will be a part-by-part review (rather than my usual chapter-by-chapter, due to the short length of some chapters) to provide the reader with a quick summary of what they can expect from the book. My thoughts will conclude the review. While both Koukl and Beckwith are in agreement with all the content in the book, they each were the primary authors of certain parts, so I will refer to them by name (even though both authors are represented). 

Part 1: Understanding Relativism (Koukl)
Greg Koukl begins the investigation into moral relativism by identifying it. He provides several examples in society that point to the fact that the idea of objective moral truth is becoming less and less prevalent. He explains that the pursuit of pleasure tends to be the new measure of ethics and that the charge of "intolerance" is the weapon of choice against those who disagree.

To clarify exactly what is being identified he distinguishes between moral "oughts" and rational "oughts." He explains that both are truths, but only the former warrants correction of the person, while the latter warrants merely correction of the error. He explains the difference between objective truth and subjective truth. Objective truths are grounded outside the individual, while subjective find their foundation in the individual. Objective truths are the same for all people, at all times, in all places, while subjective truths are subject to the ever-changing whim of the individual.

Koukl makes the point that there is no real difference between a moral relativist and one to denies the existence of morality. He also exposes the claim of moral "neutrality" for the myth that it is: that no one is actually neutral if they express an opinion or make a claim about morality. Koukl describes three different types of relativism that pervade our culture:

1. Society Does Relativism- Description of anthropological observations of societies
2. Society Says Relativism- Prescriptions that are determined by a society
3. I Say Relativism- Prescriptions determined by the individual

Part 2: Critiquing Relativism (Koukl)
In the second part Koukl critiques each type of relativism individually then presents challenges against all forms. The idea of "Society Does Relativism" comes from observations of anthropologists. They observe specific behaviors and attempt to conclude a certain moral code from them. However the only thing that can be concluded from these observations is what is, not what should be, so technically it does not even qualify as a moral system.

In contrast, "Society Says Relativism" derives its obligations from the culture, usually the majority or the most powerful party/individual. However, this breaks down in multiple ways. One challenge is the fact that no society can ever stand in judgment of another. If a society decided it was morally obligated to commit genocide against a people-group, no other society could justify defending that people-group on moral grounds- the only defense would be based on that other culture's accepted obligations. Neither could there ever be moral progress. If no standard exists to aspire to reach, then one cannot determine if a society is progressing, regressing, or stagnating. Without an objective moral standard outside a society, that society's morality can only change can never be "better" or "worse" than before the change. "I Say Relativism" falls by many of the same critiques, but is made worse because many more individuals must coexist together than societies, thus more opportunities for conflicts are revealed.

Even though he presents a powerful philosophical case against relativism Koukl also argues that morality can be known to be objective by personal intuition. He explains that if one is to necessarily require an evidential case for objective morality that an infinite regress of explanations will result, so one must have some starting point, which can only be known by intuition. Koukl concludes this part of the book, though, with an comparison of societal and individual behaviors that are incompatible with any form of relativism. He demonstrates how moral judgment, the problem of evil, blame, praise, moral progress, and even tolerance are all meaningless if moral relativism is true. He uses the fact that individuals believe these are meaningful as evidence to support the idea that people intuitively know that morality is objective.

Part 3: Relativism and Education (Koukl and Beckwith)
The spread of moral relativism seems to find its roots in epistemological relativism. According to this view, no one can know the correct answers to any of life's questions, and morality is one of these questions. This view has led to the "political correctness" movement within the school system. It teaches that all viewpoints are equally valid and must be entertained, but ultimately they cannot be tested for their truth-value. Since no view can be tested in such a way, no person can claim superiority over another based on their view being true and all others false.

Francis Beckwith explains that both epistemological and moral relativism are self-refuting views on several counts. Epistemological relativism, though it claims that no view can accurately reflect reality, is making a claim about reality (that it cannot be known). Moral relativism extols the virtue of "tolerance" as objectively morally, and any violation of that virtue as objectively morally wrong. Both of these views require affirming that a particular view of reality, not only is true, but it can be known. Since they simultaneously deny that any view of reality is true or can be known, they remove themselves from accurately explaining reality or being known. Beckwith argues that if either one is true, then there is no reason to follow them necessarily and that all opposing views are equally valid.

Beckwith also takes some time to explain the implications of such a view. He notes that even though relativism holds "tolerance" in the highest esteem in word, it does not in action. He goes over several instances in which the proponents of relativism have (against their own philosophy) attempted and succeeded in silencing those who oppose their view. This is often accomplished via force of power or by force of the majority. This shuts down all intellectual discourse about any and every controversial topic, including relativism. Beckwith argues that this ultimately demonstrates that relativism is actually oppression by the powerful majority against any and all dissenting views. There is no tolerance for the Martin Luther Kings or Dietrich Bonhoeffers who will rise against tyranny, injustice, and racism. These dissidents must be stopped because they preach an objective morality that can be known.

Part 4: Relativism and Public Policy (Beckwith)
Despite the fact that moral relativism has many philosophical problems it has remained popular and has found its way into government in the name of tolerance. However, as Beckwith explains, true tolerance is not the basis for the policies, rather it is personal autonomy. While relativists do not hold personal autonomy as objectively valuable, they use it instrumentally as a smoke screen for their own agendas. Relativists claim that the government must remain neutral on metaphysical issues, thus it must legislate "tolerance" and subjectivity. However, Beckwith explains that such a view actually IS a metaphysical view, and one that cannot even accommodate personal autonomy because of its denial of free will. Yet, legislation is taking place.

Beckwith goes into detail about several debates that have seen much political activity from relativists: gay marriage, abortion, and doctor-assisted suicide. He describes the (then) current state of the different issues and demonstrates how each one actually undermines personal autonomy, tolerance, and any promises that proponents of the views offer. As he is critiquing the views, he also shows how only the more traditional views on these subjects, that are grounded in intrinsic human value, can remain logically consistent.

Part 5: Responding to Relativism (Koukl)
Having setup the intellectual critiques of relativism, in this final part Koukl offers several tactics to deliver the critiques in a winsome manner. These would include demonstrating the contradictions discussed in the book and forcing the issue of tolerance. In discussion about morality it is becoming more common that naturalists will grant the existence of objective morality, but they attempt to provide a Darwinian explanation of it. Koukl preempts this move by taking the reader through what this such "concession" actual is- not an affirmation of objective morality but an attempt to account for different behaviors being seen as "good" or "bad" based on whether or not it leads to greater survivability or not. Koukl concludes the book with observations about morality that can only be accounted for by its objective existence and grounding in the nature of God.

Reviewer's Thoughts
Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air has been in circulation since 1998. However, it reads as if it was written just a couple months ago about today's society. Koukl and Beckwith present an often muddled topic in a very clear fashion that every person will be able to follow. They address challenges to objective morality that are common in everyday discussions and apply their critiques to the popular moral issues of the day. This is a powerful read for any person who has discussions of moral issues with friends, family, coworkers, and acquaintances, and even more so for the person who is in a more public position, standing against abortion, homosexuality, and doctor-assisted suicide. I recommend this book as a great introduction to the philosophical topic of morality and ethics, particularly for junior-high and high school students. It will help equip them to stand strong on the moral challenges that will come their way every day. Every Christian and especially parents should have a copy on their bookshelf. I would also highly recommend that Christian schools have a few copies of this book in their library and encourage their students to read it.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Luke Nix is a Computer Systems Administrator in Oklahoma, USA. He has a beautiful and supportive wife, but no kids yet. In his spare time he enjoys studying theology, philosophy, biology, astronomy, psychology and apologetics. If you liked this review, more of his writing can be enjoyed at


Unknown said...

Previous comment vanished. I've used the acronym GRIPES elsewhere to remember some of Koukl's points. When Moral Relativism takes over, one has some GRIPES about what is lost. And what is lost, when it takes over?
[G]od's responsibility and the [R]esponsibility of others; [I]mprovements (on moral grounds); [P]raise and blame; [E]vil's existence; and [S]erious conversation about ethics. Re. the last one, you can't even have a "serious" conversation about the moral mandate to be tolerant if morality is just a matter of one's own opinion.

Chris said...

Hi there,

Clarifying a confusion (either in the book or the reviewer)... In the Part 3 text:

The fact that "no one can know the correct answers" to something does not imply that "no view can accurately reflect reality." The first is about my knowing, the second is about reality.

I have lots of beliefs that I think are right but I can't be sure (I don't 'know') but that doesn't mean my beliefs don't reflect reality.

Epistemic humility does not lead to the postmodern tantrum that says "if I can't know the truth then there is no truth."


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this book myself!

Chad said...

The best book on relativism that I am aware of.

Martin said...

I am a bit confused as to what this has to do with Christianity? Most religious seek moral truth. I have not seen an argument made that presents Christianity as vastly better at achieving this. I would argue just because of the Old Testament Christianity is based on very strange morals. i.e. killing and destroying nations that are against Isreal.

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