Can Society Determine Right and Wrong?

A person with whom I was corresponding recently asserted that skeptics are free to hold that objective morality is derived from the society in which we live. In this view, he claimed, moral principles exist beyond the individual and thus are objective.

This correspondent is in good company with Richard Dawkins. To the question “How do we decide what is right and what is wrong?”, Professor Dawkins answers, “There is a consensus about what we do as a matter of fact consider right and wrong: a consensus that prevails surprisingly widely” (The God Delusion, 298).

But such morality is not objective in the true sense, because the moral principles are relative to cultural acceptance. As the late American philosopher Louis Pojman describes it, “There are no objective moral principles, but rather all valid moral principles are justified by virtue of their cultural acceptance” (Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 23).

Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, in their book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, call this view “Society Says Relativism.”

Is such a method of determining morality reasonable? Can we ground morality in what society says? Beckwith and Koukl give five reasons why the answer is no.

1. Impossible to criticize another society’s practices. 

If society determines what is right and wrong, then it would be impossible to criticize another society’s moral norms, no matter how bizarre. There would be no moral standard outside society’s decrees against which we could measure a society’s practices. Consequently, no judgment could be made on society. According to this view, we could not judge Nazis Germany’s behaviors as wrong. But this is absurd. We must be able to judge certain societal practices as wrong. Therefore, society cannot be the final arbiter for right and wrong.

2. Impossible to have immoral law. 

If “Society Says Relativism” were true, then the talk of immoral laws would be nonsense. Under such a view, society is the measure of morality, and thus every law is moral simply because it’s a law. Since there is no measure of morality beyond society, there is no way to judge its laws as moral or immoral. But we know societies have instituted immoral laws. All we need do is think back to our own country’s segregation laws. Therefore, we must conclude there exists a standard beyond society that determines right and wrong.

3. Moral reformers would be criminals. 

If it were true society is the measure of morality, then anyone who attempts to change the societal codes would be deemed immoral. How could a social reformer be moral if he or she is going against what society views as moral? The answer is he or she couldn’t! According to this view, Martin Luther King Jr. would have to be considered a criminal, since he fought against what society deemed a moral norm. But no reasonable person would come to that conclusion. Therefore, a moral standard outside society must exist.

4. The concept of moral progress as a society is incoherent. 

If right and wrong are determined by what society says, then it’s impossible for society to ever improve in the moral sphere. In order to achieve moral progress, a society would first have to be wrong and then change for the better. But in Society Says Relativism, a society cannot be wrong, since it is the measure of morality. Whatever it says is moral. Therefore, social moral progress is impossible. But we know social moral progress is possible. Anyone in his right mind acknowledges that our society has progressed morally by banning racial segregation laws. Therefore, there must exist some standard of morality beyond society.

5. It reduces morality to might makes right. 

If morality is determined by society, then morality is reduced to might makes right. Consider the fact that laws are made by those who have the most power—either the power of government or of the majority. So, if Society Says Relativism is true, then the one with the most power will always determine morality. But this is the same mentality as the tyrannical forms of government every rational person rejects. Therefore, there must exist a standard of morality that exists beyond the most powerful human governments and societies.

So where does that standard lie? One option is the individual’s judgments; but this is subject to many of the same critiques mentioned above plus more—critiques that must be saved for another discussion. Without getting into great detail, the standard must lie in that which is common to all humans: namely, human nature.

When discerning appropriate human behavior, we must ask, “What is good for man?” The answer to that question is found in human nature. Human nature is inherently directed to certain ends or goals and the achievement of those goals is what constitutes human flourishing (e.g., self-preservation, knowledge of the truth, propagation and education of the species, and social existence). Therefore, correct human behavior—that which is good for man as such—is behavior that allows and helps human nature to achieve those ends.

It is this standard of human nature from which morality must be derived in order for it to be rational and truly objective.

Of course, for such a law to be morally obligatory, there must be a transcendent being from which human nature derives it dignity, i.e., God. But that’s for another time! 

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Catholic Answers.
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  • BXVI

    Relativism is only a weigh-station on the road to the new orthodoxy. At first, the change agents must insist that each man be permitted to hold his own truth. Otherwise, their cause would never get off the ground. Ultimately they will permit only their own version of “new” truth. We are at the point now where we have left the weigh-station of relativism and the new “orthodoxy” is being imposed relentlessly. Christians, whose worldview is no longer to be tolerated, are now left begging for a return to relativism.