Last month I began a review of Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (soft cover, Kindle, GoodReads) by Frank Beckwith and Greg Koukl. In that portion I summarized the authors’ explanation and critique of moral relativism in the first two parts of the book. This month I will dig into the connections the authors see between relativism and education and public policy and their recommendations for responding to relativism in the public square. I will conclude the review with my thoughts and recommendation.
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.
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.