April 3, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Science Cannot Defend Moral Relativism

If morality evolves, then why do some scientists cast judgment?

Science reporters occasionally make the case for moral relativism: the idea that moral judgments can vary from culture to culture, depending on what the people in a culture were taught is right or wrong. Live Science, for instance, teaches that “Right or Wrong: How You Judge Others Depends on Your Culture.” But in other articles, they will promote abortion rights, gay rights and other moral questions in an absolutist manner (e.g., 3/13/16).

In another case, PNAS published results of surveys about whether people take reason into account when they make moral judgments. “It is widely considered a universal feature of human moral psychology that reasons for actions are taken into account in most moral judgments,” the summary begins. “However, most evidence for this moral intent hypothesis comes from large-scale industrialized societies.” So who’s right? Aren’t hunter-gatherers closer to the pristine evolved state of Homo sapiens? Isn’t industrialized society a recent anomaly? If they believe that, it undercuts their reason for writing this paper, since natural selection considered our ancestors fully fit without “reasons for actions” for millions of years, according to consensus theory.

Modern secular science is in a hopeless dilemma. Evolutionary scientists and their reporters teach that morality evolved, but want to speak with authority about right and wrong. Some recent examples:

  1. “Oregon’s new birth control law increases access, but more still to be done” (Science Daily). The headline makes a moral judgment on a divisive issue that is currently pitting the Obama Administration against the Little Sisters of the Poor (and other religious institutions) in an important case facing a deeply divided Supreme Court. Yet the academics behind the article say, “This law is a step forward for contraceptive access.”
  2. “‘Abortion Pill’ Gets New Label: 5 Things to Know About Mifepristone” (Live Science). Try as she does to present a straightforward, factual explanation of the infamous abortion pill, Rachael Rettner delivers a list of “5 things to know” that omits the very most important aspect: whether the pill causes a murder of an unborn human baby. Some of the facts and terms are useful to know, but one cannot be neutral on a moral issue this important that is dividing the country and the world. She ends by focusing only on the potential risks and side effects for the mother, totally omitting reference to the other human being inside of her. You can’t find the words baby, unborn, or even fetus in the article.
  3. “Breeding humans: Utopias from the early modern period” (Science Daily). The opening sentences show moral relativism: “The idea to improve humans and to optimise procreation emerged long before genetic engineering. As far back as the 18th century, concepts did exist that appear unthinkable from the modern perspective.” But if it wasn’t unthinkable for them, was it morally right?

Sometimes Big Science can’t handle the moral hot potatoes. There was the notorious “evolution of rape” controversy a few years ago (7/18/03). More recently, scientists published in PNAS a defense of polygyny (plural marriage) in some contexts as healthy for children, or at least not harmful. That was too much for a couple of sociologists who responded in PNAS with criticism of the claim, not so much on grounds that polygyny is “immoral” as to argue that the conclusions were not supported by the data. “Additional evidence could be collected,” Rieger and Wagner say, “about cowives and inheritance conflicts and longitudinal nutritional and educational outcomes for children of polygynous families to gauge whether polygyny is really harmful for children in the long run.” Gauging harm is a moral question.

To that, the original authors stuck to their guns. In PNAS, they defended their opinion on purely pragmatic grounds (e.g., “our demonstration that (male-headed) polygynous households are relatively food secure and wealthy compared with monogamous households.” But is their final rationale neutral? “In studying ‘harmful cultural practices’ it is vital that we apply equivalent standards of evidence independent of whether results meet or contradict conventional expectation.

But if it’s merely a question of conventions, those are relative. It’s clearly conventional to the families in Tanzania. How does one measure what is harmful? If it is harmful to children but not their polygamous father, why don’t his values trump those of his children?

Let’s apply the scientists’ relativistic morality back on themselves. Is it just a convention to study other human tribes and report on them in journals? What would they say if ISIS bombed their labs? Would that just be an Islamic cultural convention? We can continue this line of thinking on the earlier stories. Would it have been Rachael Rettner’s mother’s “convention” to take the abortion pill, preventing Rachael’s embryonic self from being born? Is our process of reasoning about one another’s intentions to make moral judgments an illusion from our evolutionary past? That destroys both reason and morality, robbing them of any foundation. If a society breeds humans, will those humans have free will if they disagree with the morality of breeding humans?

Moral relativism has a way of biting the ones who promote it.

Everybody has a worldview, even the person who says he has no worldview. Everyone espouses a philosophy, even those who say philosophy is dumb or worthless. Nobody can escape making moral judgments and believing his or her judgments are justified, even the one who says morality is relative. To see why this must be true, ask each of these scientists if they feel their own writings and research are justifiable. If they say no or balk, they become purveyors of nonsense.

The only escape from the self-refuting trap of moral relativism is to believe in moral absolutes. And the only One who can give us moral absolutes is a timeless, omniscient, holy Creator. Then, the project of moral judgments consists of comparing one’s assertions to the standard. Unless morality is immutable, it is not moral. The same goes for truth.


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  • John C says:

    “they defended their opinion on purely pragmatic grounds…”

    Yet even their ‘pragmatism’ appears morally relativistic. For if I kidnap and rape a host of women, is it morally acceptable as long as I meet their other needs, such as food and adequate warmth? If not, then the food question is not a pragmatic basis for cultural correctness.

    Of course I believe that rape and imprisonment (so-called ‘human trafficking’) is wrong and reprehensible–but that is only because the Creator Who has given His Ultimate Word on the subject declares it wrong. Either there is an ultimate standard for good, or nothing is good or bad, only what society declares it to be–and society tolerated the Holocaust, the pogroms, and Mao’s atrocities in China. So what will it be, doctors?

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