Moral Relativism and Two “Ten Commandments”

Does moral relativism make sense? Are all ethical theories equally good and deserving of our respect? Can a moral code be wrong? Should we always tolerate people and cultures who have different moral standards than we do?

One way of examining these questions is to compare two very different versions of the Ten Commandments. We will look at Richard Dawkins’ version and then the Ten Laws of Camp 14 in North Korea. And finally, we will consider the legitimacy of moral relativism in light of these contrasting systems of morality.

Here are Richard Dawkins’ Ten Commandments, from his book The God Delusion:

  1. Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
  2. In all things, strive to cause no harm.
  3. Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
  4. Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
  5. Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
  6. Always seek to be learning something new.
  7. Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
  8. Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
  9. Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
  10. Question everything.

These are pretty generic stipulations. In general, atheists, Christians, and people from a wide variety of religions and worldviews would be very likely to find a great deal of common ground on these principles.

By contrast, here are the Ten Laws of Camp 14, a North Korean labor camp (from Escape from Camp 14, pp. 193-196. Sub-points for each rule are omitted for the sake of brevity):

  1. Do not try to escape.
  2. No more than two prisoners can meet together.
  3. Do not steal.
  4. Guards must be obeyed unconditionally.
  5. Anyone who sees a fugitive or suspicious figure must promptly report him.
  6. Prisoners must watch one another and report any suspicious behavior immediately.
  7. Prisoners must more than fulfill the work assigned them each day.
  8. Beyond the workplace, there must be no intermingling between the sexes for personal reasons.
  9. Prisoners must genuinely repent of their errors.
  10. Prisoners who violate the laws and regulations of the camp will be shot immediately.

This isn’t a theoretical moral system. About 200,000 people in North Korea are currently living under these rules. Their entire existence is subject to their guards and this moral code. The prisoners who dare to violate it, or who are said to have violated it, are subject to food rationing, beatings, torture, and execution. Under such conditions, many of the prisoners have come to accept these rules as normative (especially since those who don’t are typically murdered).

Clearly, these two different Ten Commandments contradict each other. The North Korean prison system and Richard Dawkins have developed radically different moral codes.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

G.K. Chesterton, well-known for his wit, is reported to have said,

Whatever we may think of the merits of torturing children for pleasure, and no doubt there is much to be said on both sides, I am sure we all agree that it should be done with sterilized instruments.

Simply by raising the example, Chesterton intended to point out the absurdity of moral relativism: who would argue in favor of torturing children for pleasure? But the awful truth is that the North Korean guards do torture children for pleasure. And the kind of people who torture children, it turns out, don’t care much for sanitation.

My observation about the North Korean ethics and prison system is, “That is outrageous. Their rules are wrong. Their actions are evil. They deserve to be held accountable.”  In other words, no, we can’t just get along. The North Korean government must be removed from power and brought to justice for their crimes against humanity.

But how can we justify such a perspective?

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a precise definition of “metaethical moral relativism”:

The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.

This is a widely held view in America. According to Barna polling in 1994, 72% of Americans agreed with the following statement:

There is no such thing as absolute truth; two people could define truth in totally conflicting ways, but both could still be correct.

In this view, disagreeing with the North Koreans is simply intolerant. It shows a lack of cultural understanding. If we lived in North Korea, we would realize that political dissent is a serious problem, and understand that prison camps, harsh as they are, represent a necessary response to those traitors who don’t properly honor the Supreme Leader.

To believe and say that, however, is to lend moral legitimacy to the North Korean government and their prison camps. It is an endorsement of their moral code, a recognition of their right to set their own laws, and a sympathetic acceptance of our different approaches to penal systems.

But as Martin Luther King, Jr. explained,

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

You have to take sides. You cannot stay neutral. You’re faced with a choice. If one of these statements is true, the other is false:

A)   It is evil for women to be born into slave prisons, raped by guards with total authority over them, and executed when they become pregnant.

B)   Some people approve of the North Korean system, other people don’t, but both of these perspectives are equally valid.

We are able to observe many truths about the world: the existence of other people, the reality of the past, the presence of words on computer screens. Is it not equally clear that the North Korean labor camp system is wrong, unjust, and terribly evil? If so, this is an excellent reason to reject moral relativism.

As the outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens said,

I absolutely refuse to associate myself with anyone who cannot discern the essential night-and-day difference between theocratic fascism and liberal secular democracy, even less do I want to engage with those who are incapable of recognizing the basic moral distinction between premeditated mass murder and unintentional killing.

And Richard Dawkins, as part of his rejection of the authority of the Bible, argued:

But then we must have some independent criterion for deciding which are the moral bits: a criterion which, wherever it comes from, cannot come from scripture itself and is presumably available to all of us whether we are religious or not.

Whether atheist or Christian, let’s agree on this: moral relativism is a dead theory. It is an idea that gives legitimacy to evil people committing unspeakable atrocities. Instead, we must be able to recognize such monstrous evil, speak against it, and work together for a better world. As Dawkins advises us, “Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice.”

For a deeper look into the North Korean prison system, I recommend Escape from Camp 14, which I have reviewed here. It is a compelling story worth your attention!