“Sure,” said Evan. “Do you want to try to get some people together for a pick-up game?”
“Nah,” replied John. “Let’s just toss it for a while. I’m not looking to get wrapped up in all the rules of a game. I just want to stretch my arm out a bit.”
So, the two of them went into John’s back yard and started throwing the ball back and forth. After about five minutes, though, things started to get weird.
Evan threw a beautiful long pass to John who tried to make a diving catch but the ball bounced off his fingertips. Muddied for his efforts, John got up and screamed at Evan, “That was an illegal forward pass!”
“What?” said Evan. “What are you talking about?”
“You were already across the line of scrimmage when you released the ball. That’s a five yard penalty plus loss of down.”
“Are you feeling alright John? I thought you said we were just playing catch here. No rules, so there can’t be any penalties.”
“That’s it, you’re ejected. Leave the field of play now!”
Has this ever happened to you? Probably not. You don’t need to understand the rules of football to know what it means to just play catch. There are no rules. Just throw the ball back and forth, that’s it. So how would you react if someone started calling penalties in the middle of a game of catch? You’d probably be somewhat bewildered, just like Evan.
What is truly amazing, though, is that the same thing that seems so odd to us in the realm of football happens quite regularly in our postmodern culture in the realm of morality, and so few people bat an eye.
“When it comes to moral issues, there really is no right or wrong answer. Everyone should just make up his or her own mind.”
“You should never try to impose your opinion of morality on anyone else. That’s just intolerant. Who are you to say that your opinion is better than anyone else’s?”
Have you heard phrases like this before? They are the philosophical equivalent of our friend John saying he just wanted to throw the ball around without having to play by any rules. There are no penalties in catch; no rules to follow. But then, during the game something happened to John and he got upset. All of a sudden he tried to incorporate rules into the game even though earlier he had said that there weren’t any.
It sounds so noble to say, “Can’t we all just respect everyone else’s right to make his or her own moral decisions?” This is called “moral relativism,” the idea that there are no objective standards of right or wrong to which we all must be held subject. Instead we all create our own moral code and everyone else should leave us alone and respect our right to do so.
In reality, though, nobody lives this way. All it takes is one instance of something happening to us that we feel is unfair for us to cry “foul.” A moral relativist says in his or her calmer moments that there are no moral rules only to turn around and implicitly invoke a moral rule when a perceived wrong arises. They are like John who says there are no rules to the game then tries to invoke a rule. You cannot have it both ways. If nobody has the right to impose their idea of morality on anyone else, you also do not have a right to complain when someone does something to you that you believe is immoral.
In fact, when a moral relativist argues, “You should not try to impose your opinion of morality on anyone else,” their view self-destructs. Let’s allow our friend Evan illustrate the contradiction for us:
John: Evan, you really shouldn’t try to impose your opinion of morality on anyone else.
Evan: Really, John. Is that your opinion of morality?
Evan: Then why are you trying to impose it on me?
You see, when the moral relativist makes statements like this, he or she is violating the very same rule they are trying to get you to follow! They are trying to impose their moral opinion that it is wrong to impose moral opinions!
When we express it this way, the contradiction is pretty easy to see. Unfortunately, opinions such as these are usually expressed with far more rhetorical flourish, utilizing noble sounding platitudes that make us want to stand up and cheer without really thinking through whether the content of the proposition hidden beneath all that eloquence was worth anything. In regard to moral relativism, it is worthless. So the next time someone tells you that you are “imposing” your opinion or being “intolerant,” beware. There is a good chance they are making the same mistake as Evan did here.