Thursday, November 1, 2007

Relativism: A misuse of terms

There's nothing like a little frustration to awaken me, a la Kant, from my "blogmatic" slumbers (haha).

Recently, Greg Koukl, President of Stand to Reason, was on Stu Epperson's show TruthTalkLive to discuss/debate (though I hesitate to use that term here) with Bob Enyart, a Christian talk show host from Colorado, on the question, "Should a Christian ever vote for a pro-choice candidate?" You can listen to it here. Greg took the affirmative, arguing that the greater moral imperative is to realistically and pragmatically save the most lives possible, even if that means voting for a pro-choice candidate, if that candidate is the lesser of two evils, and a vote for a third party candidate would ensure that the worse of the two realistic candidates would take office. Bob took the negative, arguing that supporting someone who is pro-choice, regardless of pragmatic concerns, is morally despicable in the eyes of God, and likened it to the Herodians of 1st century Palestine.

My point here is not to get into the arguments, for or against. What was frustrating was that several times during the show, Bob Enyart accused Greg of being a moral relativist (along with a few other things, such as a situational ethicist and a legal positivist) without displaying any evidence that he understood what those terms mean or how in the world they would apply to someone like Greg. (Anyone who would call Greg a moral relativist clearly doesn't understand what the term means, or at least can't identify the type of argument with which he is being presented.) On top of that, he kept using horribly fallacious lines of argument (e.g., Giuliani is a "mass-murderer", so you can't believe he's telling the truth when he says he'll appoint conservative, constructionist judges). And on top of that, he was rather beligerent and unprofessional in his manner of discussion - a steamroller, as some would call it, rarely letting Greg finish a thought before interrupting, and consistently putting words in Greg's mouth that he plainly didn't say.

It didn't end there, however. In the comment section for that show on the TruthTalkLive blog, commenter after commenter proceeded to apply labels inaccurately to Greg, misrepresent his position and views, and display overall deplorable reasoning skills. (Here, here and here are some examples.) I am reminded of why James White calls blog comment sections "Internet Ignorance Aggregators." I made a few contributions to try to help clear up the confusion. Here are some excerpts:

You all have no idea what “moral relativism” means... one thing you can’t call [Greg's position] is moral relativism - unless you also don’t object to me calling you all a bag of potato chips. Words have meaning...

Greg claiming that Christians have an objective moral obligation to, by choosing the lesser of two evils, act in such a way as to produce the greatest moral good - in this case, saving the innocent lives of future aborted unborn humans - is NOT moral relativism...Now, if he were to say that he thinks he should vote for Giuliani, but if you as a Christian think you shouldn't, then that’s what’s right for you - THAT’S moral relativism.

...would someone care to explain to me how Greg Koukl, when he says that all Christians everywhere have an objective moral obligation to act in such a way as to produce the greatest good, is being a moral relativist? Like I said, perhaps he’s got his objective morality wrong - maybe there is a greater moral imperative that would apply here. You can argue that. Maybe he’s wrong in his assessment of the efficacy of his recommendation (voting for Giuliani as the lesser of two evils) in achieving the moral outcome (preserving the loss of innocent life through abortion) - maybe there is no greater chance of conservative, even pro life judges being appointed to the Supreme court with Giuliani as president vs. Hillary. You can argue that, too. But it is the height of intellectual dishonesty to make him say something he’s not, and the last thing he’s saying is that the moral rules that apply to this decision are relative.

I promise, I'm not pointing to controversy for controversy's sake. Okay, I'm a little upset that a man I respect and admire is being falsely accused, but that aside, here's my concern: I'm worried that "relativism", in virtue of it having become a dirty word among most evangelical Christians, and compounded by the rather disheartening state of modern American Evangelicalism's critical thinking skills, is now being used much like "intolerant" is used (abused) in our mainstream culture - as a conversation stopper and a signal that no more rational argumentation is needed to condemn someone. I'm also concerned with the lack of careful thinking on the part of Christians making a statement in the public square. As an anonymous commenter wrote in response to the problems I addressed:

If we want our opinions to be taken seriously, we must learn to construct coherent arguments. Too often Christians are guilty of throwing out far more heat than light. Inflaming the debate with ad hominem attacks and misunderstanding the meaning of moral relativism only make us look uninformed. I am not saying that I side with Koukl. I am only trying to plead for more sound argumentation.

I'd agree, and add that, as I view both Greg and Bob as my brothers in Christ, and inasmuch as we are all trying to be pleasing to our God, our Lord is not honored by sloppy thinking and inaccurate accusations, particularly coming from those to whom other Christians are looking for leadership. "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment." (James 3:1) We can - and should - do better than this, Mr. Enyart.

1 comment:

Bob Enyart said...

Aaron, thanks for your careful report of my disagreement with Greg Koukl. I have often be elated by Greg's wisdom while listening to his radio show. After a couple years, I still believe that Greg (and you) are very wrong about defending, voting for, campaigning for, urging Christians to support those who aggressively advocate killing the innocent, as Rudy Giuliani does, and I hope you will acknowledge that a government official who does not himself physically kill anyone but advocates (de-criminalizes, funds, etc.) the intentional killing of the innocent are, in fact, guilty of murder.

By the way, have you seen the AmericanRTL Youtube video The Ann Coulter Hang-Ups at ?

It's right in line with our discussion, and exposes how Christian leaders who will defend child killers (this time, it's Mitt Romney) also will utterly misrepresent the facts (claiming that child-killers are actually pro-life). Here is my interpretation of this: when a Christian is willing, in hopes of achieving some transient political victory, to undermine God's enduring command Do not murder, and to do evil that good may come of it, then such a Christian is already so far down the road of misrepresentation of the truth, that incidental misinformation, negligence regarding the child-killing legacy of "their" candidate, etc., are simply to be expected as part of their politically-motivated moral slide into relativism.