Norman Geisler and Moral Relativism

Cross posted.

“Ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong. Christian Ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong for a Christian.” Norman Geisler. Christian Ethics: Options and Issues. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Academic, 1989. Pg. 17. (All quotations and paraphrases in this post are from this source.)

Let’s step carefully through Dr. Geisler’s statements.

“Ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong.”

To state that ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong is rather straightforward. If any objections to Geisler’s statements are to be raised they must be raised with respect to the latter of the two sentences quoted or with respect to the latter of the two sentences quoted understood in light of the preceding sentence.

“Christian Ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong…”

To state that Christian ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong likewise appears to be unproblematic.

“…for a Christian.”

Briefly, if only one Christian is meant by the use of “a” then there is at least one problem at this point. Assuming that the use of “a” is closer to the use of “any” allows us to move on. Christian ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong not just for “a” Christian, but for “any” Christian or “all Christians;” the assumption here is that the use of “a” is not intended to exclude other Christians.

To state that Christian ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong for a Christian is also problem free since the statement does not necessarily exclude that Christian ethics also deals with what is morally right and wrong for a non-Christian.

There is still a problem with Geisler’s statements to be found in the latter part of the second sentence. If the first portion of the second sentence is affirmed along with the first sentence then ethics and Christian ethics may be understood to be the same thing since they both deal with what is morally right and wrong. However, it is clear from his adjectival use of “Christian” that Geisler wishes to differentiate one from the other.

Geisler distinguishes ethics from Christian ethics; this much is plain. While this is cause for concern in and of itself, the way in which Dr. Geisler distinguishes ethics from Christian ethics is even more worrisome. He does so by relativizing Christian ethics. Christian ethics – according to Geisler – deals with what is right and wrong for a Christian while ethics just deals with what is right and wrong for…apparently everyone else.

Now all of this seems rather odd coming from a Christian ethicist who generally rails against relativism and subjectivism, but if Geisler’s statements are not to be understood in this fashion then how are they to be understood?

Geisler goes on to explain that his book is about Christian ethics and that Christians “base their beliefs on God’s revelation in Scripture.” Of course he notes that God reveals Himself both in Scripture and in nature and that there are “similarities and overlaps between God’s natural and supernatural revelations.” Frankly, this is worded in such a way that one is left thinking that – coincidentally – God’s revelation matches God’s revelation to some extent. The implication of the use of “similarities” is that the revelation of God is similar to but not the same as the revelation of God, which is false. The implication of the use of “overlaps” is that while the revelation of God overlaps the revelation of God there are nevertheless differences between the revelation of God and the revelation of God. These implications are quite clear in light of Geisler’s aforementioned statements concerning the allegedly relative morality of Christianity.

The reason Geisler provides for the “similarities and overlaps” just discussed is that “God’s moral character does not change.” Indeed, he provides this truth as a reason to expect that there will be “similarities and overlaps.”  Note that the observation concerning the unchanging moral character of God – while significant and true – has little to do with alleged “similarities and overlaps between God’s natural and supernatural revelations.” What Geisler needs to appeal to here is not the immutability of God, but the rationality, internal consistency, coherence, goodness, etc. of God as our standard. Unfortunately he is in the precarious position of having to justify his statements by appealing to the very attributes of God precluded by the would-be truth of the statements he seeks to justify.

Geisler explains that, “the focus of this book is not God’s natural law for all men, but his divine law for believers.” Again, note the implied presence of dissimilarities between the “natural law” and the “divine law”. More to the point note the distinction between ethics and Christian ethics. According to Geisler, what is right and wrong for a non-Christian and what is right and wrong for a Christian are not necessarily the same. There is apparently no need to bring the law of God as revealed in Scripture to bear upon the sins of that unbeliever you are witnessing to. Norm Geisler is endorsing a form of moral relativism.

[EDIT:

Christopher G. Weaver argues (I think correctly):

(1): It is morally impermissible to install, as an overseer of a Church-body (proper), a recent convert.

Cognizers who affirm (1) [which follows ampliatively from 1 Timothy 3:6], are at least justified in their affirmation by the following moral principle:

(2): The appropriate governing individuals of a Church-body (proper) ought not appoint as an overseer of a Church-body (proper), a recent convert.

Assuming (2) is true, the moral principle that is (2) constitutes a moral duty for some set of moral agents. However, it is not true that (2) comprises a duty for all moral agents. This follows just from the fact that the moral principle itself specifies who is under the relevant ought. Likewise, a non-Christian who is not a member of an appropriate governing body of a Church-body (proper), will not be obligated to behave in the way recommended by (2). Quite obviously then, there are moral principles which constitute duties for Christians, and not for non-Christians; a fortiori, there are moral duties peculiar to some Christians, and not all Christians…

Consider a second example.

(3): On the assumption that eating meat makes my brother or sister (in the Lord) stumble, it is morally impermissible for me to eat meat in their presence.

Cognizers who affirm (3) [which follows ampliatively from Paul’s writings], are at least justified in their affirmation by the following moral principle:

(4): A moral agent’s x being such that he is appropriately related to another moral agent y by means of Christian brotherhood, or sisterhood, materially implies (on the assumption that y is caused to stumble by action phi) that x ought not phi in the presence of y.

Assuming (4) is true, the moral principle that is (4) [or the consequent of (4)] constitutes a moral duty for some set of moral agents. However, it is not true that (4) comprises a duty for all moral agents. For example, it isn’t true that a non-Christian ought to not eat meat in the presence of y, by virtue of the fact that the moral principle posits that the individual for whom (4) comprises a duty must be appropriately related to y. The relation in question does not obtain re a non-Christian and y.

To (perhaps over-) simplify by way of another example; a wife is not morally obligated to obey the command given to husbands in Ephesians 5.25-27. All of this is, so far as I know, relatively non-controversial. So we can agree with what Mr. Weaver has presented thus far.

What bearing does this concession have upon my understanding of the quote from Geisler? So far as I can tell, little to none. Mr. Weaver writes, “Christian Ethics (as Geisler seems to understand it), would be that enterprise which shows concern for, among other things, discovering what true moral principles constitute duties for Christians (e.g. (2) above), and not for non-Christians (e.g. (2) above).” Mr. Weaver continues, “Geisler can now say that Christian Ethics is concerned with discovering principles like (4), whereas Ethics simpliciter is concerned with discovering principles which comprise duties for both Christians and non-Christians.” As already mentioned, Geisler explains that, “the focus of this book is not God’s natural law for all men, but his divine law for believers.” (17) How would Mr. Weaver’s theory apply in the cases of abortion, euthanasia, biomedical issues, capital punishment, war, civil disobedience, homosexuality, marriage, divorce, and ecology? These are all topics discussed in Geisler’s book. Are we to believe that “divine law” does not have anything to say to unbelievers on these topics? In some places Geisler appears to answer in the negative, but in other places (like the introduction I quoted) he answers in the affirmative. Thus while it may be the case that Geisler is inconsistent, I do not agree with Mr. Weaver that Geisler’s introduction is referring to the nuances Mr. Weaver explains.

Mr. Weaver believes I am confused with respect to my understanding of moral relativism. Of course it could be the case that I am confused (I often am!), but I am sure he would agree that thinking this is so does not make it so and that we need to look more closely at what he believes I am confused about. He quotes from Russ Shafer-Landau; Moral Realism: A Defense (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003):

“Meta-ethicists think of moral relativism as the thesis that: moral principles are not objectively true, whereby ‘objectively’ I mean, never true in some mind-independent way (i.e., true irrespective of what any one cognizer thinks).”

Having already set aside the worry of Geisler’s endorsement of (4) as an explanation of the original quote from him it may be conceded that this is one way of understanding moral relativism which does not pose any problems for my understanding of moral relativism. There are of course other definitions and descriptions of moral relativism where it is explained in a positive sense. For example:

“Relativism is not a single doctrine but a family of views whose common theme is that some central aspect of experience, thought, evaluation, or even reality is somehow relative to something else. For example standards of justification, moral principles or truth are sometimes said to be relative to language, culture, or biological makeup.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/; emphasis mine)

“First, cultural ethical relativism makes right and wrong relative to one’s culture…Second, individual ethical relativism says that right and wrong are relative to the individual’s opinion, what she thinks is right and wrong.” Shaw, William H. Ethical Relativism. In Contemporary Moral Problems: Eighth Edition. ed.  James E. White. USA: Wadsworth, 2006. (34)

Given what was explained concerning the quote from Geisler and the definitions above there is no reason to think that I am confused about what moral relativism is. The claim was also qualified; “a form of moral relativism.” That is, moral principles which are relative to the Christian or the non-Christian. This fits just fine with the definitions provided above. While Geisler is inconsistent in later portions of his book, there is no reason to take his inconsistency to warrant reading Mr. Weaver’s theory into the portion quoted from Geisler in his introduction. Not only is the quote introductory and hence ill-suited to merit the meaning that Mr. Weaver suggests ascribing to it; that’s just simply not what the book is about.]


12 Comments

Christopher G Weaver

Part I

Jamin, I think you are confused.

Give attention with the minds eye to the following proposition:

(1): It is morally impermissible to install, as an overseer of a Church-body (proper), a recent convert.

Cognizers who affirm (1) [which follows ampliatively from 1 Timothy 3:6], are at least justified in their affirmation by the following moral principle:

(2): The appropriate governing individuals of a Church-body (proper) ought not appoint as an overseer of a Church-body (proper), a recent convert.

Assuming (2) is true, the moral principle that is (2) constitutes a moral duty for some set of moral agents. However, it is not true that (2) comprises a duty for all moral agents. This follows just from the fact that the moral principle itself specifies who is under the relevant ought. Likewise, a non-Christian who is not a member of an appropriate governing body of a Church-body (proper), will not be obligated to behave in the way recommended by (2). Quite obviously then, there are moral principles which constitute duties for Christians, and not for non-Christians; a fortiori, there are moral duties peculiar to some Christians, and not all Christians.

Christian Ethics (as Geisler seems to understand it), would be that enterprise which shows concern for, among other things, discovering what true moral principles constitute duties for Christians (e.g. (2) above), and not for non-Christians (e.g. (2) above).

Consider a second example.

(3): On the assumption that eating meat makes my brother or sister (in the Lord) stumble, it is morally impermissible for me to eat meat in their presence.

Cognizers who affirm (3) [which follows ampliatively from Paul’s writings], are at least justified in their affirmation by the following moral principle:

(4): A moral agent’s x being such that he is appropriately related to another moral agent y by means of Christian brotherhood, or sisterhood, materially implies (on the assumption that y is caused to stumble by action phi) that x ought not phi in the presence of y.

Assuming (4) is true, the moral principle that is (4) [or the consequent of (4)] constitutes a moral duty for some set of moral agents. However, it is not true that (4) comprises a duty for all moral agents. For example, it isn’t true that a non-Christian ought to not eat meat in the presence of y, by virtue of the fact that the moral principle posits that the individual for whom (4) comprises a duty must be appropriately related to y. The relation in question does not obtain re a non-Christian and y. Geisler can now say that Christian Ethics is concerned with discovering principles like (4), whereas Ethics simpliciter is concerned with discovering principles which comprise duties for both Christians and non-Christians.

Jamin…you also seem to be confused about what moral relativism is. Meta-ethicists think of moral relativism as the thesis that:moral principles are not objectively true, whereby ‘objectively’ I mean, never true in some mind-independent way (i.e., true irrespective of what any one cognizer thinks) [1]. But, Geisler thinks that (2) and at least the consequent of (4) above are true independent of the cognitive deliverance of human persons. Geisler thinks that (2) and (4) would be true even if no singular human person thought they were true. This is enough for any meta-ethicist to properly label Geisler as a non-moral relativist.

———–
[1] Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defense (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003).

Christopher G Weaver

Part II

There is one way around my reasoning, and that’s by positing that (2) and (4) should be revised so as to constitute duties for all human persons. This would-be revision would have the interesting consequence of implying (at least) that recommended (good) courses of action always constitute duties for ALL moral agents. But this is wrong. Here’s a counter-example. Consider the fact that it would be good for me to join Doctors without boarders. It does not follow from the fact that it is good for me to join this organization that I ought to join this organization. If it did follow everyone would have a duty to join doctors without boarders. But what would the world be like if everyone fulfilled that duty? So, the fact that a recommended course of action is a good course of action, does not imply that it is the duty of all moral agents to behave in accordance with that recommended course of action. In other words, an action’s being good does not imply that it is the duty of all moral agents to perform that action.

Actions, I think, have the property goodness (or being such that they are of moral worth) insofar as those actions are appropriately related to the intentions of the agent in question (a la Robert Audi), and the conjunction of true moral principles. Some moral principles resemble (2) and (4) above and therefore comprise duties, but not for all agents. Some principles are uniquely contextual, and yet it can be mind-independently true that agents in particular contexts, who have particular properties ought to phi.

Christopher G Weaver

borders*

RazorsKiss

Chris Bolt authored that article.

Resequitur

Jamin did not write this, Mr. Bolt did

Christopher G Weaver

Now I’m confused! lol

My apologies. Thanks to Razorkiss and Resequitur.

Substitute “Chris Bolt” wherever you see “Jamin Hubner”.

Thanks again!

Christopher G Weaver

I have some responses to Jamin Hubner’s recent “interesting” post, under Evidentialism and Reformed Epistemology, over on Bill Craig’s website.

RazorsKiss

Please don’t duplicate comments. Thank you.

Christopher G Weaver

Chris. I just now noticed you edited the above text in response to my post.

Thanks for your respectful tone. I appreciate it very much. I hope you and I can have some good substantive dialogue.

I will respond to you shortly.

Christopher G Weaver

Part 1:

Chris Bolt thinks that I’ve misunderstood Geisler’s citation. That citation was:

“Ethics deals with what is right and wrong. Christian Ethics deals with what’s right and wrong for a Christian.” [1]

Given a particularly plausible move one can make from a particular batch of moral principles to a particular batch of appropriately related moral judgments:

“Christian Ethics (as Geisler seems to understand it), would be that enterprise which shows concern for, AMONG OTHER THINGS, discovering what true moral principles constitute duties for Christians (e.g. (2) above), and not for non-Christians (e.g. (2) above).” [2]

It’s clear that Chris Bolt thinks this reading of Geisler is wrong. He said in a revision of his original post, the following:

“Thus while it may be the case that Geisler is inconsistent, I do not agree with Mr. Weaver that Geisler’s introduction is referring to the nuances Mr. Weaver explains….Having already set aside the worry of Geisler’s endorsement of (4) as an explanation of the original quote from him it may be conceded that this is one way of understanding moral relativism which does not pose any problems for my understanding of moral relativism.” [3]

Chris Bolt misinterprets both Norm Geisler, and I. With respect to his misinterpretation of my words, it’s clear from the above excerpt that he thinks I understand Geisler to be suggesting that Christian Ethics is solely concerned with discovering those moral principles which constitute or comprise duties for only Christians. But that’s not what I said at all. If you look up at my post I had the clause, “AMONG OTHER THINGS”. This is an important clause, for it should keep the charitable interpreter from understanding me to be saying that Geisler thinks Christian Ethics is solely concerned with discovering moral principles that constitute duties for solely Christians. This is a misinterpretation of me.

Second, as I suggested above, Chris Bolt misunderstands Norman Geisler. As substantial proof of this, I’ll include some correspondence between Norm Geisler and I. Here’s what I wrote to him:
———————————————
“I wanted to get some clarification from you regarding the following excerpt:

“Ethics deals with what is right and wrong. Christian Ethics deals with what’s right and wrong for a Christian.” [1]

I took you here to be suggesting that there are moral principles which constitute or comprise duties for Christians, and that Christian Ethics is a sub-discipline of Ethics-proper which takes on the task {NOT THE SOLE TASK} of discovering what moral principles are uniquely duty-comprising for Christians. You are not here suggesting any type of moral or ethical relativism, but simply that some moral principles constitute duties for Christians and not for non-Christians.

Is this accurate?

Thanks

—————————————–
Geisler responded:

“Corrrect. Norm” [4]

—————————————–

So I haven’t misunderstood Geisler, by his own admission, I’m correct about how to understand him.

So Chris Bolt, here is what is going:

You’ve got the set of moral principles that are duty-comprising for Christians, [call it C]

then…

You’ve go the set of moral principles that are duty-comprising for non-Christians, [N]

Geisler understands the logical relationships between the sets this way:

(1) N is a proper-sub set of C.

Christian Ethics is needed to discover the members of C, going beyond the mere members of N. Thus, some moral principles are duty-comprising for non-Christians and Christians (to think that Geisler would reject this claim is very odd indeed). So both Christians and non-Christians ought not have abortions (in particular circumstances perhaps), but Christian Ethics isn’t merely concerned with these principles it’s also concerned with those principles which are uniquely duty-comprising for Christians. Thus, Christian Ethics is concerned with what’s right and wrong for a Christian (thought some of what’s right and wrong for a Christian will be right and wrong for a non-Christian as well).

I hope that helps bro.

————————
[1] Norman Geisler. Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Academic, 1989), 17.
[2] From previous post above. Emphasis mine here.
[3] Chris Bolt Revised Original Post https://choosinghats.org/?p=1363 downloaded 7/12/2010
[4] Personal email correspondence with Norman Geisler dated 7/13/2010.

Christopher G Weaver

Part 2:

I did not quote Russ Shafer-Landau. My footnote was only meant to serve as an indication of a work where one can find a similarly stated explication of moral relativism. In my original post, I nowhere included quotation marks around the passage which Chris Bolt ascribes to the pen of Russ Shafer-Landau. I merely cited the source so as to show that a work of scholarship on the issue would agree with my take on what moral relativism is. Citing to show agreement is much different then suggesting that the individual(s) in question said what I typed word-for-word. So let’s be careful here.

Second, “Meta-ethicists think of moral relativism as the thesis that: moral principles are not objectively true, whereby ‘objectively’ I mean, never true in some mind-independent way (i.e., true irrespective of what any one cognizer thinks).”

Chris Bolt says, “There are of course other definitions and descriptions of moral relativism where it is explained in a positive sense.”

He then cites an excerpt from SEP’s article on Relativism (not moral relativism). That excerpt began, “[r]elativism is not a single doctrine but a family of views whose common theme is that some central aspect of experience, thought, evaluation, or even reality is somehow relative to something else.” The passage goes on to note that some people believe that things like justification, moral principles, and truth are relative. Sure! There are people who are relativists about truth, and about epistemic justification, and about moral principles. But notice, this doesn’t at all suggest to us that there are varying definitions of moral relativism. It’s a trivial truth that there are varying descriptions of moral relativism (insofar as one word is replaced by a synonym for example), so the conjunct “descriptions” is not helpful. The point here is that invoking the SEP on relativism proper, is illicit. The citation does nothing to underline the point that there are varying definitions of MORAL relativism. It specifically states that Relativism (simpliciter) is not a singular thesis but a family of theses.
Third, consider my [not verbatim or a quotation from Shafer-Landau] explication of moral relativism one more time:

“Meta-ethicists think of moral relativism as the thesis that: moral principles are not objectively true, whereby ‘objectively’ I mean, never true in some mind-independent way (i.e., true irrespective of what any one cognizer thinks).”

I’m here couching moral relativism in terms of a view about how moral principles have their truth-values. Chris Bolt’s citation from the Wadsworth press book suggests that there are cultural ethical relativisms, and individual ethical relativisms. These relativisms are demarcated by the fact that they both regard moral principles (the things which inform us about what’s right and wrong) true ‘relative to a culture’, or true ‘relative to an individual’s opinion.’ But both of these “relativisms” are subsumed by my view of moral relativism as explicated in the excerpt above. Likewise, my understanding of moral relativism is entailed by the truth of either theses. That is to say, understanding moral relativism as the broad thesis that moral principles are not objectively true allows you to suggest that underneath that broader meta-ethical moral relativism, there are more specific things we can say about how moral principles get their truth values, but one thing is for sure, in order for a moral principle to have a truth-value in a way that’s consistent with meta-ethical moral relativism it’s gotta have it’s truth-value non-objectively. This is why renowned meta-ethicists such as Russ Shafer-Landau couch meta-ethical relativism in ways similar to how I’ve couched it. You could even make things broader. One could say that the truth, or epistemic justification for the truth of moral principles is non-objective (this would be a disjunctive analysis of moral relativism). This is in fact how SEP understands meta-ethical moral relativism: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/

Now, is Geisler a moral relativist. No! He thinks that the set of moral principles that are duty-comprising solely for Christians, are all objectively true, irrespective of what anyone thinks (this excludes both individual and ethical sub-classes of moral relativism). Mutatis mutandis for moral principles that are duty-comprising for both Christians and Non-Christians. As I said in my original post, this is enough to preclude him from being accurately identified as a moral relativist proper.

So I think you’re a little confused about what I was up to in my post above, what Geisler was up to (by Geisler’s own admission), and what moral relativism amounts to.

Christopher G Weaver

Another email sent to Norman Geisler:

“Right. Thanks.

I should add, that you don’t think Christian Ethics is SOLELY concerned with the set of moral principles which are duty-comprising for Christians only….as some moral principles which are duty-comprising for Christians are also duty-comprising for non-Christians…is this correct?

Thanks again.

Christopher Weaver”

—————————————————
Norman Geisler’s response:

“Correct. Norm”

Email Correspondence dated 7/13/2010

FYI


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