We Have a Conventionalism Problem!
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We Have a Conventionalism Problem!

“I’m not rigid.” “That is so old-fashioned.” “Those people are so archaic!” In our society, we often hear these objections used regarding Bible principles. In response, the following is what I’ve heard personally throughout my thirty years of living: “Morality is a construct of culture.” “What is good for one culture may not be good for another” “Who are we to tell those people that what they’re doing is wrong?”

This view of culture is known as conventionalism which is closely associated with relativism. conventionalism emphasizes contemporary differences between cultures and argues considering these differences that morality is just the invention of the culture.[1] This seems appealing because it allows the individuals who make up the culture to feel free to define right and wrong for themselves. Furthermore, the only moral authority anyone must answer to is the culture. On the surface, conventionalism seems to promote respect and tolerance and to do away with absolutes. But, does conventionalism really offer moral freedom? On closer examination, conventionalism is found to produce absurd results which ultimately cause the ethical code to collapse.

For example, conventionalism implies an absurdity known as The Reformer’s Dilemma—if culture determines what is right and wrong, then a reformer of culture is actually going against what is right. Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce, and even Jesus would all have been deemed immoral because they promoted ideas that drove against what their respective cultures had deemed right.[2] Similarly, it would have been immoral for the United States to try Nazi’s in Nuremberg, or for the Union to force the Confederacy to stop slavery, or for the U.N. to deploy peacekeepers to Rwanda in the early 90’s since the reformers in each case rejected the atrocities that individual societies had deemed right.[3]

While the above scenarios took place in international settings, the same principle would hold true on a college campus. For example, take the recent Charlottesville protest and counter protest. On conventionalism, there is no moral reason why the KKK or Neo-Nazi should tolerate groups they hate. Still, as we speak, there are attempts to expel them from campuses around the country, a decision which many deem to be the right move. However, on conventionalism, what moral basis does the administration have for making this kind of move? Such actions and thinking are the product of an individual culture. There simply is no moral basis for these decisions. All that can be appealed to is the power in the administration.[4]

The same results are seen in civil rights issues. For example, what if a group of people wanted polygamy to be the law of the land but were in the minority? On the one hand, many people think that marriage is a relative concept which is constructed by each individual culture. Thus, Defining marriage is up to us and no objective universal norm applies to it. Yet, the way proponents of polygamy would make their case is to appeal to the notion of equality, namely that equals should be treated equally. The term “equality” is an appeal to the principle of justice, which would not be a relative, cultural construct, but a binding, fundamental norm which applies to all.[5] However, in taking conventionalism seriously, equality is a construct of culture which is subjectively determined. Why then, should people who do not hold to the same principles as the polygamists, have to accept the polygamists’ standard of equality as binding upon them too?[6] It seems, on conventionalism, the result is a state of equally valid, relative mores, where the only way to determine right and wrong is an appeal to power. Thus, in the absence of an objective moral standard, the best conventionalism can offer is an ultimate appeal to “might makes right.”.

Where conventionalism is inconsistent Christianity is consistent. While there are no good reasons to think that the ethical codes of Neo-Nazi’s or the KKK are really wrong on conventionalism, Christianity appeals to the objective truth which is grounded in God. Therefore, all have intrinsic worth, equality and are bound by objective moral values and duties. Thus, the person looking for a consistent worldview where all people are created equal and equally valued should reject conventionalism and accept Christianity.


[1] Ronald Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 160.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 161.

[5] Ibid. 163.

[6] Ibid. 163.

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