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Is It All Relative?

Is it unethical to eat meat? Many people today think it is. They argue that animals have the capacity to suffer and do suffer both in the merciless way they are raised for slaughter and in the slaughter houses themselves. These same people maintain that a vegetarian diet is better for human health. They note that Adam and Eve seem to be vegetarians in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:30; 2:9-16) and that Daniel purposely abstained from meat in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace (Daniel 1:8-16). Considering the world’s food shortage, they say, more food could be produced by giving up meat products, since animals raised for slaughter consume huge quantities of agricultural products and land area that could be redirected toward human consumption.

As Christians, you probably view the question of eating meat as a personal preference that has no ethical implications. After all, the Bible nowhere forbids the eating of meat per se. In fact, we find extensive teaching in the law as to which animals may be eaten (Leviticus 11) and as to how one should consume the meat of animals that have been sacrificed (Leviticus 7:15; 22:30) in religious ceremonies. Jesus seems to have had no qualms about eating meat. In his famous parable, the father who commands the fattened calf to be killed and served for dinner is a symbol for God himself (Luke 15:23).

I use this example to underscore a major difference between secular ethics and Christian ethics. Secular ethics are usually based on argument and reason whereas Christian ethics are based primarily on the revelation of God found in scripture. Christians do reason, but they reason mainly about the meaning and application of scripture. In addition, they sometimes give pragmatic reasons to buttress and defend scriptural teaching that may otherwise seem arbitrary. Generally speaking, if an action does not contradict a clear command, example, or principle found in scripture, it is considered a matter of opinion rather than a matter of right or wrong. On the other hand, if an action does go against a clear command, example, or principle of scripture, it is considered wrong, no matter what reasons or arguments can be marshaled to defend it.

What is the difference between sin and unethical behavior? Sin is something God disapproves of; unethical behavior is something society and moral philosophers disapprove of. They may overlap, but they are not always the same. Randy Cohen makes the interesting observation that there can be solitary sin, but there is no solitary unethical behavior. You can sit at home and covet your neighbor’s wife. That is a sin. But for people who don’t believe in a God that reads your mind, ethics isn’t ethics until other people are involved, until you try to seduce your neighbor’s wife. You see the difference. God is able to look upon the heart and see secret sin. Human beings cannot call something unethical until they know for sure it has actually happened.

Another clear distinction between secular ethics and Christian ethics is that the former tends toward relativism and the latter toward absolutism. In philosophical terms, relativism is the idea that any system of ethics is a reflection of the customs of the society in which it operates. To a relativist, saying that slavery is wrong merely means that my society disapproves of slavery. Relativism essentially says that whatever the majority of a particular society believes is right or wrong is indeed what is right or wrong, but just for that society.

For the relativist, ethical truth can and does change. For example, in the 1950’s, the majority of Americans believed homosexuality was wrong. Fifty years later, homosexuality is portrayed favorably on many television shows and in many movies. Public and judicial opinion has changed to the point that homosexuality is considered an alternate lifestyle, but not necessarily wrong. On the other hand, in the 1950’s, smoking was considered entirely acceptable. Today, smoking is often banned from restaurants and public places, and society increasingly looks upon it as harmful, dangerous, and the wrong thing to do.

Subjectivism is an extreme form of relativism. For a subjectivist, to say something is wrong is simply to say that I personally disapprove of it. If someone else does not disapprove, it is not wrong for that person. According to subjectivism, you cannot argue about ethics because ethics is simply personal opinion, the expression of attitudes or the expression of personal wants and preferences. There is no such thing as an objective moral fact.

Whenever someone says, “That’s just your opinion” or “It’s all relative,” in regard to an ethical question, that person is often expressing the subjectivist viewpoint. There is no absolute truth, only subjective personal opinions. For Christians, ethics is based on the character and revealed will of God (1 Peter 1:15-16; 1 John 3:3; Hebrews 12:14). Christian humility recognizes that Christians may not fully comprehend or correctly apply those objective moral facts, but that does not alter either their existence or their authority.

It is difficult to convince secular people that Christian teachings about ethics are factual rather than subjective. C. S. Lewis attempts the task in his book The Abolition of Man. Because secularism is based on reason rather than upon revelation, secularists accuse Christians of confusing their belief statements with reasons. For example, we Christians say sexual promiscuity is wrong because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. For secular philosophers, our claiming to have the Holy Spirit is a belief statement, but certainly not a rational, compelling reason to forbid sex between consenting adults who may not even believe in God.

Most secular moral philosophers are not complete relativists. They cannot bring themselves to say that slavery is right or that the genital mutilation of females is right just because some society practices it or accepts it. They cannot bring themselves to say that Hitler and Stalin were moral men simply because they were national leaders supported by the majority of their country’s citizens. Moral philosophers base their ethical ideas on reason and argument, but they realize that society as a whole mostly ignores them. Their arguments have no authority behind them. They stand or fall on the persuasiveness and personality of the philosopher or politician making the argument.

In some ways, the same holds true for Christians. This side of eternity we can never prove the validity of our faith statements. The way to persuade unbelievers that God is right and relativism is wrong is not by reasoning better than they do but by living better than they do and dying better as well.


1. If we as Christians believe our moral and ethical standards are absolute, do we therefore have the right and even the responsibility to impose them on others who are not Christians? For example, was Prohibition a good idea that should be reinstated? Is the movement to ban abortions a good thing or misguided? Should we try to legislate morality?

2. When my cousin’s 12-year-old daughter got out of my car, she opened the door into a parked car, leaving a visible dent. I asked my cousin to leave a note. She refused because she didn’t want to pay for a repair. Should I have left a note myself with her name and number? With mine?

3. We are writing a will and want to leave all our money to our two children. One is very rich and the other lives almost hand-to-mouth. Do we divide equally or give the poorer one a greater proportion?

4. As a teacher, sometimes I make mistakes grading a test. Sometimes when an answer is wrong I inadvertently mark it as correct. If the student brings this to my attention, I praise him for his honesty, then take off the points. Is this right, or should I let him keep the points because the mistake was mine?

5. In one of his novels, Ernest Hemingway wrote this: “What is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” Is this a good ethical rule-of-thumb to follow? Why or why not? What if you feel good because you’ve done the right thing?

6. My mother has Alzheimer’s disease. Recently her condition has deteriorated and her doctor has warned me she soon will need to be placed in a nursing home. With my power of attorney, should I transfer her assets to my name so that when she enters the nursing home she will qualify for Medicaid, thus preserving her small estate?

7. What do you think about eating meat? Can anything be wrong if it is not considered wrong by Scripture? For example, slavery is not expressly condemned in the Bible. Does the Bible consider slavery to be wrong? The same goes for gambling. Is it okay since the Bible doesn’t expressly condemn it?

Comments (1)

Dear Mr. Williams:

I have read your writing with some interest and find it very well done, although I would quibble that this piece on Christian and secular ethics gives too little consideration to the Golden Rule of treating others as you would have them treat you, an ethic that I would argue is as natural to secular thought as to Christian belief. Specifically, I think human beings have an innate sense of this ethic without the need for religion to impose it and other values on them. True, the principle was enunciated in Leviticus, presumably by Moses and presumably about 12 centuries before Christ, but it also appears about four centuries before Christ in the secular Confucius, who I do not believe had any knowledge of the Torah. The principle also is hinted at in the Code of Hammurabi at least 17 centuries before Christ. Having said all this, however, I find your piece well-informed, well-written and, considering these two virtues, well worth reading.

Which brings me to my point (I do go on -- I'm retired, you know): I have a website, actually a
combination website-weblog called Readersandwritersblog.com, that serves writers by publishing nonfiction, fiction and poetry of any length at no cost and serves readers by providing them these works and a forum to comment on them. Even more basic, the site is dedicated to good writing, and yours is certainly good.

So here's the point (finally): I would like include in my blogroll a link to your site. I'm sure you've had plenty of good feedback about your writing, and I'd like to extend it to other readers who might find it through my site.

Best regards,

Sid Leavitt

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 21, 2007 1:50 PM.

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