The Human Truth Foundation

Moral Relativism
Absolute Morality is Not Possible

By Vexen Crabtree 2017

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#absolutism #christianity #islam #morality #philosophy #relativism #religious_morals #subjectivism

Moralists rarely agree on what morals to follow. So many situations are unique, special and complicated, that it seems impossible to find any absolute morals that provide guides on how to behave in all circumstances. Even when we wisely adhere to the great teachings of ethical giants, we are still subject to our own personal opinions on what they meant. It is impossible to communicate the absolute. If an absolute moral ethic was ever codified, then, interpretation would have to be the main effort, and would be the cause of many disagreements about what the absolute ethic meant. It is impossible to dictate an absolute moral because we all understand things subjectively.

If there is a good God watching over us all, it seems quite clear that such a being has not given us any absolute moral guidelines nor has it given us the mechanism to appreciate absolute morals, nor absolute facts, of any kind. The nature of the absolute means that all people would have to be given the same rules1; not one set to the Hebrews and another to the Christians, and a different set to the Muslims. There are no absolute morals and if there were, Human subjectivism denies us the possibility of us perceiving them. These problems have been a keystone of philosophical thought. Aristotle taught that in moral thought "systems of rules", "exactness" and "fixedness" are unattainable and intrinsically faulty as it is more important that "it must be left in each instance to the individual agents to look to the exigencies of the particular case"2. It is this conclusion - that of the relative subjectivism of each particular case, where most people's concept of justice and ethics correctly begin.

1. An Introduction to Subjectivism

#epistemology #philosophy #solipsism #subjectivism

Subjectivism is a problem of epistemology (theory of knowledge). The word describes the fact that we can only understand the world through our own senses and our own rational deliberations, in conjunction with our own limited experience in life. Our brains are imperfect organic machines, not a mystical repository of truth. Our senses are imperfect, our point of view limited, and the reality we experience is never the total picture. Our divergent contexts result in each of us interpreting, understanding and perceiving the world differently to one another even when looking at the same stimulus. Human thought is infused with systematic thinking errors. Our knowledge of absolute reality is hampered by our limited insights and imperfect brains, and we can never truly escape from the shackles of our own minds. Our total take on reality is a mix of guesses and patchwork. These problems have been debated by the most ancient philosophers, thousands of years ago, and no practical answers have yet been forthcoming.3.

Everyone experiences a different reality and there is no way to reconcile the experiences of two different people. Our internal worlds are unverified. No knowledge is absolute. To accept this doubt behind every theory and fact is the scientific way - evidence and logic must back up theories, but theories are never irrefutably proven, they always remain not-yet-disproven. The psychologist William James wrote that many interpretations of reality are arrived at because people find them nicer or better for themselves:

Book CoverThe obvious outcome of our total experience is that the world can be handled according to many systems of ideas, and is so handled by different men, and will each time give some characteristic kind of profit, for which he cares, to the handler, while at the same time some other kind of profit has to be omitted or postponed.

"The Varieties of Religious Experience"
William James (1902) [Book Review]4

The result of all this fog is subjectivism, the realisation that our realities as we experience them are completely tied up with personal experience and personal mental traits. Any attempts to learn "absolute" truths will fail, simply because our Human brains are not equipped to deal with reality in an objective way.

"Subjectivism and Phenomenology: Is Objective Truth Obtainable?" by Vexen Crabtree (2017)

2. Morals From God

#benevolence #god #philosophy #religious_morals

Immanuel Kant argued that moral absolutes, by their very nature, must apply universally. If they apply to Humans, then they apply to us in all situations. They also apply to all sentient beings. If it did not apply universally (or if there are exceptions), then, it would be a relative and not an absolute moral law. So, a perfect God could not create a law of "Do not murder", and yet, drown the inhabitants of an entire planet, including the unborn (etc).

Everyone must admit that if a law is to have moral force, i.e., to be the basis of an obligation, it must carry with it absolute necessity; that, for example, the precept, 'Thou shalt not lie,' is not valid for men alone, as if other rational beings had no need to observe it; and so with all the other moral laws properly so called; that, therefore, the basis of obligation must not be sought in the nature of man, or in the circumstances in the world in which he is placed, but a priori simply in the conception of pure reason

"Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals" by Immanuel Kant (1785)1

It is hard to imagine any moral absolute being congruent with reality. There is one increasingly vibrant line of thought which compares what life itself must do to survive (i.e., the food chain) to what morals a benevolent God would adhere to. Clearly, the evidence is that any creator God does not itself adhere to any positive morals:

The main piece of evidence here is biological matter and the food chain. All life dies - all biological life decays, erodes, fades, becomes diseased and ill if it does not sustain itself. To sustain itself nearly all life, except the least living elements of life, kills and eats other life. If not this, then it consumes biological matter at the expense of other living beings; the fight for food is also a case of living beings being required to outdo each other merely to survive.

If life was created, and not simply the result of undirected unconscious evolution (as seems sensible), this is surely the worst possible way to have created life. It appears very much that life cannot survive without causing suffering for other life. A god could not have created a more vicious cycle if it tried: Tying the very existence of life with the necessary killing of other life is the work of an evil genius, not of an all-powerful and all-loving god, that could choose if it wanted to sustain all life immediately and forever with manna from heaven. But it seems such an all-powerful good god doesn't exist.

"God Must Be Evil (If It Exists): 1.2. The Dominance of Death in Nature" by Vexen Crabtree (2003)

Even if God does embody absolute morals, this question must be asked: why are we, as a species, not equipped to collectively perceive absolutism? Why is it that we all see things differently?

Finally, given the evidence, one sensible conclusion presents itself:

3. Good and Evil are Culturally Constructed Illusions

#good_and_evil #morals #opposites #religious_morals

The following section is taken from "Opposites are Illusions" by Vexen Crabtree (2005):

Good and evil are to many an 'obvious' reality but with thought, the concept of these opposites makes little sense. What is good for one being is frequently bad for another. For example in nature the whole cycle of biological life is based on death and recycling. Hence why major religions have historically been based around these themes, especially vegetation gods who are reborn every Winter Solstice. All predators find it good that prey is available; if you protect the prey you harm the predators, and whilst it is bad from the prey's point of view to be eaten, it is necessary from the predator's point of view. In nature, survival is violent and competitive.

Bacteria5 feed on biological chemicals to survive and breed. What is good for them is bad for us. While antibiotics are good for us and reduce our suffering, their usage creates suffering and death for countless other minor species. What is good for one species is bad for others. While one culture may consider multiple marriage to be a virtue of love and positivity, another considers it an evil sin. What is good in one culture is bad in another. What was good in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible is bad in the New, what is good in the Buddhist Pali scriptures is wrong in the Therevada, what is considered an ethic by one group in society is considered wrong in another. Contraception may be evil according to Catholic doctrine, but, overpopulation causes suffering for all. What the homeless rightly do to survive is a "social evil" to those with homes, and how governments collect tax is evil to the poor person but a social necessity. Good and Evil are impossibly complex, inherently subjective.

Moral subjectivism is not limited to the human concern for other humans. A nuclear attack is bad for billions of people but may well be good for undersea creatures who suffer from our pollutants. Eliminating environmental toxins from our waste may make industry less efficient and slow the economy, but is good for other species. A life-saving vaccine may be good for many people but could be atrocious for the environment and create suffering due to overpopulation.

There are no actions that are "good" or "bad" from the point of view of all peoples, cultures, societies, species and interests. There are no actions that are absolutely good for life, and there are no actions that are bad for all species. There is no "opposite" to good or evil; there is no scale with "good" on one side and "evil" on the other: There are only conflicting subjective interests. It is all personal opinion, compromise and discord. "Good" is not the opposite of "evil" as both concepts are too personal, too subjective and too elusive to warrant definition or resolution as opposites.

Current edition: 2017 Jan 23
Parent page: The Human Truth Foundation

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References: (What's this?)

Book Cover

Book Cover

Aristotle. (384-322BCE)
(350BCE) Ethics. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Originally published 340BCE (approx).

James, William. (1842-1910)
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Paperback book. Subtitled: "A Study in Human Nature". 5th (1971 fifth edition) edition. Originally published 1960. From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902. Quotes also obtained from Amazon digital Kindle 2015 Xist Publishing edition. Book Review.

Kant, Immanuel. (1724-1804) German philosopher.
(1785) Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition prepared by David J. Cole prepared by Matthew Stapleton. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913).

Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
(1946) History of Western Philosophy. Paperback book. 2000 edition. Published by Routledge, London, UK.


  1. Kant (1785) digital location 33-36.^^
  2. Aristotle (350BCE) digital location 695-701.^
  3. Russell (1946) p1-10.^
  4. James (1902) p132.^
  5. If we classify bacteria simply into parasites and symbiotes, then hopefully it is obvious I am here talking only of parasitical bacteria.^

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