The appeal of ethical relativism is rather plain to see. If there is no right and wrong then I can’t be convicted of any wrong. Ethical relativism allows me to write my own law, to edit on the fly, to finish “I may do this …” with an unassailable “… because I want to.” Desire becomes its own justification. My will becomes my law.
This appeal, however, soon enough begins to dissipate if we have any interest at all in being coherent, consistent in our thinking. We quickly turn, “I may do this, because I want to” into “You may not do that, because I want to do this.” Consider, just as an example, sexual perversion. The problem, morally speaking, with sexual perversion is that it is an abomination to God. Ethical relativism, of course, bars God from the conversation. Therefore there is no reason by which we might condemn the practice. There is, to these folks, no transcendent moral standard by which we are all bound. We can do what we want, no matter how perverse. Which means, doesn’t it, that I can call sexual perversion an abomination to God? What, after all, is to stop me?
My ethical relativist friends, of course, do not take my bigoted, narrow, hateful position lying down. In fact, they will insist that since there is no right or wrong, it is, oops, wrong for me to say otherwise. They will chasten me, rebuke me, come down on me with all the grace and love of a Pharisee. And in so doing expose the lie of their own foundational premise. They don’t deny the existence of law, just any law that would stop them.
In like manner, if instead of condemning sexual perversion I club baby seals, or question global warming (oops again, climate change), or argue that government schools ought to be forbidden to teach evolution, suddenly my friends embrace a transcendent moral standard—one I am guilty of violating. Sadly, it doesn’t do much good to be more thoughtful, or more radical. You still run into the same problem. Nietzsche, you’ll remember, castigated Christianity for its “herd morality.” He grumbled that we believers were all the time going about doing what we were told. If we wanted to be authentic, right thinking, if we wanted to be Super men, he reasoned, we ought to throw off all morality and each of us create our own. But, oops, there’s that pesky “ought” again. Did you miss it? It’s there. Why “ought” we to throw off the herd morality? Where did that moral imperative come from? Even Nietzsche could not escape the unbearable oughtness of being.
Lawlessness does not fail because bad things will happen without law. Lawlessness fails because if it succeeds it becomes law. If moral law requires there be no moral law, then it’s a rather nasty pickle. Law is inescapable, and all those who insist that we not follow any law ultimately want us to submit to their law. Nietzsche and his heirs are not liberators, but slave traders, slave traitors. They do not throw off law but impose it. The only difference is their yoke is not easy, their burden not light.