The 5 Views of Morality

By Brian Chilton

I recently read Gregory E. Ganssle’s book Thinking about God: First Steps in Philosophy. In his book, Ganssle provides 5 particular views pertaining to morality. As one examine these views, it becomes clear that one view of morality stands above and beyond the value of the other moral opinions. Many of these lesser viewpoints have invaded the mindset of many modern individuals. However, it becomes clear that only one is valid. So, what are the five views of morality?

The Error Theory

Ganssle describes the error theory as one that “holds that there are no moral facts. This theory denies them altogether.”[1] This theory holds that it is factually wrong to claim any form of morality. Thus, one could not say whether it is wrong or not to torture an animal or person. The error theory, while held by some philosophers, could be attributed to some Eastern religions which claim that good and evil are just illusions and not real.

From the outset, one should be able to deduce the great problems found in the error theory. For instance, the one who claims that the error theory is correct will dismiss such a theory the moment the advocate claims some form of act (i.e. racial discrimination, the Holocaust, terrorist acts, etcs.) as wrong. Thus, the error theory collapses upon itself as most everyone will acknowledge the existence of good and bad behaviors.

Individual Relativism

Individual relativism is best explained by the classic phrase, “What’s good for you may not be good for me.” That is, individual relativism is the belief that the individual sets forth his or her own morality. Thus, one person cannot tell another person what is right or wrong according to this theory as each person must decide good from bad themselves.

Upon careful examination, anyone can see the great problem with this theory. For example, if person A (we’ll call him Adam) is driving along and person B (we’ll call him Bob) steals Adam’s car, Adam may say, “Hey, that’s not right.” But according to individual relativism Bob would be justified in saying, “Hey man, it’s not right for you but it is for me!” However, we all know that it is morally wrong for anyone to steal another person’s car. A judge in a court of law will let Bob know quickly about the failures of his philosophy when sentencing him to jail time.

Why do so many jump on board with this philosophy? I think Ganssle is correct in saying that “I…think that people do not want other people to tell them what to do and that people do not want to tell others what to do. If morals are individually relative, then no one can tellyou that something is wrong.”[2] Passivity, however, do not justify wrong thinking. Neither does a prideful heart. Individual relativism implodes the moment the individual relativist is a victim to an immoral act.

Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativists try to correct the problems of individual relativism while maintaining to the idea of moral relativism. The cultural relativist does so by claiming that morality is set by the cultural mores of an area. That is, “What is right or wrong is determined by one’s culture or society.”[3] While cultural relativism holds more of a base than does individual relativism, the theory still holds a major flaw.

Most people are horrified by the ruthless brutality of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and extremist terror groups. However, if one accepts cultural relativism, then there is no basis for condemning such actions. For Hitler, he felt that he was doing the right thing according to his flawed moral viewpoint. Yet, cultural relativists hold no ground to condemn beheadings, gas chambers, and mass bombings if each culture establishes their own moral code. The cultural relativist begins to think more objectively than relative in such cases, as they should.

The Evolutionary Theory of Morality

The fourth theory is called the evolutionary theory of morality. According to this theory, it is held that treating other people in good ways rather than bad helped the human species to survive. Thus, the theory holds that morality falls in line with Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” philosophy. However, it is apparent that the theory holds some flaws.

Ganssle rightly notes that the evolutionary theory of morality “does not explain morality.”[4] Setting aside one’s acceptance or rejection of the evolutionary theory, this moral theory does nothing to define morality. For the evolutionary theorist, morality coincides with survival of the human species. This brings us to another flaw. Many societies have sought to destroy other groups of human beings. Catastrophic wars do not seem to help the human race survive. Rather than helping the species survive, war often threatens human existence. Wars are fought with both sides thinking they are correct. Therefore this theory tends to find itself in a form of cultural relativism which we have already denounced.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with the final theory of morality which appears to be the clear choice.

Objective Morality

Thankfully with the failures of the first four models, a fifth option exists. There is theobjective morality theory. Norman Geisler defines objective morality as the following:

“Morality deals with what is right, as opposed to wrong. It is an obligation, that for which a person is accountable.

An absolute moral obligation is:

an objective (not subjective) moral duty—a duty for all persons.

an eternal (not temporal) obligation—a duty at all times.

a universal (not local) obligation—a duty for all places.

An absolute duty is one that is binding on all persons at all times in all places.”[5]

Thus, objective moralists view morality as transcendent reality which applies to all individuals and societies. An objective moral is held by all people. This seems to be the case. While different tribes and societies hold different outlooks on peripheral matters of morality, the core morals are the same especially among those of their own tribe. It is wrong to murder. It is wrong to steal. It is wrong to commit adultery. And so on. Even so, we can conclude that objective morality is the correct viewpoint. Furthermore, we can deduce as did Norman Geisler in that

“Moral absolutes are unavoidable. Even those who deny them use them. The reasons for rejecting them are often based on a misunderstanding or misapplication of the moral absolute, not on a real rejection of it. That is, moral values are absolute, even if our understanding of them or the circumstances in which they should be applied are not.”[6]

Objective morals, thus, point towards the necessity of an objective law (or moral) giver. That objective lawgiver is none other than God.

Visit Brian’s Website:

© March 7, 2016. Brian Chilton.


 Sources Cited

 Ganssle, Gregory E. Thinking about God: First Steps in Philosophy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.


 [1] Gregory E. Ganssle, Thinking about God: First Steps in Philosophy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 90.

[2] Ibid., 92.

[3] Ibid., 92.

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 501.

[6] Ibid., 502.

Free Resource

Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.

Powered by ConvertKit
7 replies
  1. Tom Rafferty says:

    “Objective morals, thus, point towards the necessity of an objective law (or moral) giver. That objective lawgiver is none other than God.” Another example of the fallacy of the argument from ignorance, or the “God of the Gaps’ argument. You did not support that there are “objective” morals, thus, your syllogism stopped there. Morality is from most of humanity’s collective sense of what is right or wrong. It is biological and cultural, and has been successful. There is no need, nor evidence for, a subjective law giver. Humanity does fine overall, if ignorant ideologues would stop interfering with how most of humanity functions morally.

  2. Andy Ryan says:

    “From the outset, one should be able to deduce the great problems found in the error theory”

    All you have to do to falsify the theory is to logically prove that something is morally wrong. Can you do that?

    “Ganssle rightly notes that the evolutionary theory of morality “does not explain morality.””

    No, but it explains the phenomenon of people having strong instincts against murder and the suffering of children. The so-called ‘evolutionary theory of morality’ is a strong rebuttal against appeals to those instincts as an attempt to falsify the error theory.

    “While different tribes and societies hold different outlooks on peripheral matters of morality, the core morals are the same especially among those of their own tribe”

    …Which is explained very well by evolution, right down to the valuing of your own family and tribe in particular over ‘out groups’.

    “Objective morals, thus, point towards the necessity of an objective law (or moral) giver.”

    If they come from and are dependent on a law-giver then by definition they aren’t objective or absolute.

    A God providing a set of rules for humans doesn’t create objective morals, it just provides a set of rules. What makes them objectively moral?

    • Reepicheep says:

      @andy ryan

      1. Yes. “thou shalt not murder”. The creator of the universe said it, therefore it’s wrong. This eliminates the error theory. To rebut you would have to go into the existence of God or attack what he said, both are tangent topics. If there is no God then the error theory is correct and the others are false. More on that below.

      2. I agree almost completely. Evolution would be the cause of the actions we see and perceive as moral actions (as well as every other action humans do in a materialistic universe). But without God, they are merely inclinations of our behavior. Evolution is not an entity that will act against us if we disregard our cultural. All the murders rapes and wars are also explained by evolution. You cannot select some attributes and traits and say, “we got these ones by evolution” and ignore the others. They are all there from evolution, so there really isn’t any sort of moral guideline whatsoever.

      3. It is true, the writers of this website would be more accurate to say, “if there are objective morals, then there must be a God”. But their comment might very well still be correct and this is why. You are programmed (whether from evolution, God, or both) to see morals objectively and you can’t turn it off. Even now you are taking your time to correct someone on a website, why, because they are “immorally” spreading what, to you subjectively, appears to be “lies” or “false-hoods”. If you really didn’t believe in objective morals at all you would not bother with websites like this because their behavior would not bother you. But it does. Does the fact that you can’t turn off your pre-programming for objective morality mean there is an objective morality? Even if your actions are motivated by a belief that your morals come from society it’s still an objective moral frame-work. Who said we need to do what the majority does? Or what society does? Why do that action if we can please ourselves more by not doing it? If there are no morals there is no point in even having this discussion unless it is just fun for you. If there are morals and this discussion is really worth having there just might be an objective moral law.

      • Reepicheep says:

        By stating the morals of a society is an objective framework, I meant it’s an objective law with a subjective variable. Let’s say the “God of society” says, “Thou shalt do whatever thy society deems to be moral”. Then you have that objective law with a subjective variable (we’ll call it “x”) in it. “Thou shalt do ‘X'”. That X would change with society. The problem with saying morals come from society is that there isn’t a “God of Society” making this law that you must do what society says to do. It’s an objective moral law that came from no where. Who made this law? Why follow it if breaking it is more beneficial?

        As to saying that God’s law isn’t objective, that isn’t accurate. If you think about pizza within your own head, you are objectively thinking about pizza. It is true to everyone that you are thinking about pizza. If God creates a moral law for the entire universe, that law is true for everyone in the universe. The moral law is no more subjective than anything else God created (granted if he exists). The moral law then would be no more subjective than the speed of light, the gravitational constant, or the pull of an electron. To say a moral framework given by divine command theory would not be objective makes not quite accurate.

        • Reepicheep says:

          Yes I realize the irony of mixing “makes very little sense” and “isn’t quite accurate” together by accident making a confusing mess for a concluding sentence. I should have proofread. I have likely violated the divine command theory of the God of Grammar.

      • Andy Ryan says:

        “The creator of the universe said it, therefore it’s wrong”

        Why does that follow, Reepicheep? Is that a rule that the creator himself made up? In other words, did God make up the rule that he gets to make up the rules? If so, it seems like a circular argument. If not – if you’re saying that it’s axiomatically true if you create a universe then you get to assign morality within it – then this appear to be an objective rule that itself exists apart from the creator. In which case it follows that objective rules can exist without a God. If it can be axiomatically correct that creating a universe means one can assign morality within it, then why cannot we also say that it’s simply ‘axiomatically correct’ that, say, torturing babies for fun is wrong?

        “If you really didn’t believe in objective morals at all you would not bother with websites like this because their behavior would not bother you”

        I care about what is true, and I think these arguments, being based on falsehoods, contribute to the sum unhappiness in the world. I care about human happiness. Hope that helps. Happiness and unhappiness exist whether or not objective morals exist. My caring about other humans doesn’t depend on the existence of a God. If you discovered objective truth that there was no God, would you care about the suffering of others less? If so, it would seem to me that you never cared about their suffering much in the first place! I don’t believe that to be the case – I think you’d still care, Reepicheep!

        “All the murders rapes and wars are also explained by evolution.”

        Yes, I agree. I think that human biology and our biological history are far better explanations for the way we act than appeals to the divine.

  3. Luke says:

    Hi Reepicheep,

    I just have 2 questions:

    1, Why is it wrong to do something that the creator said is wrong?

    2. You said that “[T]he error theory collapses upon itself as most everyone will acknowledge the existence of good and bad behaviors.” Is this your proof that the error theory is incorrect? In other words, “we know X is true, because most everyone will acknowledge X is true” is interesting, but it does little to establish something as fact. What actual proof can we offer?




Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *