Who Are You To Impose Your Morality on Others?

by Paul Copan

Moral relativism dominates the guild of cultural anthropologists. Cultural enemy No. 1 is the Christian missionary. Why? He imposes his values on tribal cultures and ethnic groups. Should we not leave these peoples alone, unspoiled by the Western cultural baggage that will ruin their way of life?

This who-are-you-to-say-another-culture’s-wrong philosophy goes back centuries — perhaps most notably to philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803). He despised the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment, and emphasized the individuality of persons and their cultures.2 According to von Herder humans do not have a fixed nature; their environment and family experiences influence them, and we can predict their actions and responses based on those influences.

Von Herder was big on the idea that cultures are so different from one another that we should not be picking out what is wrong with them. After all, he argued, no one “became man by himself alone.” In fact, we should not be chronological snobs (as C.S. Lewis put it), acting as though we are so much better than our ancestors. It is simply unfair to judge our forebears since our descendants will similarly judge us. As the English poet Alexander Pope wrote, “We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow. Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so.” Like Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” not to interfere with another planet’s social development, none of us should judge other societies by our own culture since we are all products of historical accident and social forces.

In this essay, I look at two related themes. The first has to do with the idea of imposing morality or forcing one’s morality down another’s throat. The other addresses the more specific theme of morality and the law. I will tackle the slogan, You cannot legislate morality.

Imposing Morality on Others

To be sure, cultural anthropologists have a point about humility in here somewhere. Yet, when they throw stones at the missionary, it is hard to see any basis for their denunciations. How can you condemn even the most tyrannical despot or mass murderer since he too is simply the product of his own environment? Despite the anthropologists’ rallying cry to respect other cultures, we can ask, “Why all the huffing and puffing by these moral relativists?”

How can you criticize the critic if there are no objective, universally binding moral standards? As it turns out, “Everyone ought to respect other cultures” happens to be the same old thing — moral relativism minus the relativism. Why do relativists, when they do their pontificating about no moral absolutes, slip in their own moral absolute? We simply have variations on the same theme: yes, advocate relativism, but remember to be tolerant, not to hurt anyone, to be involved with another consenting adult, or whatever. The cultural anthropologist gives us yet again, “Relativism! Well … sort of.” This faux relativism slides in an exception — a moral rule — to take the edge off an all-out, anything-goes relativism.

When anyone levels a moral critique against another culture, the anthropologist condemns this as the universal wrong of ethnocentrism, which snootily says, “My culture’s better than yours.” In fact, the anthropologist — the exemplar of moral relativism — has in his arsenal an array of not simply cultural, morally loaded epithets to hurl at the missionary and his methods: “ethnocentrist,” “colonialist,” “exploiter,” “ideologue,” and the like.3

Another problem for the moral relativist is her view flies in the face of our deepest intuitions about morality. Consider a story from September 2008: Christian missionaries to tribes in Brazil’s Amazon region accused the government of turning a blind eye to the tribes’ practice of infanticide. These tribes often bury infants with treatable birth defects alive (or those born to a single mother). Some have defended this practice in the name of not interfering with ancient, indigenous cultures or by claiming that “it is not considered murder” in this culture.4 To follow this logic, if Nazis want to kill Jews, who are outsiders to interfere? After all, the Nazis did not consider it murder. Neither did some people consider suttee murder in India. Yet, we can be grateful that the Christian missionary William Carey helped bring a halt to this practice. The government banned this evil, as eventually were others, including infant sacrifices in Calcutta’s Hooghly River and elsewhere, the burning of lepers, and child marriage that left tens of thousands of young widows destitute.

God has equipped humans — whether atheists, theists, or somewhere between — with a yuck factor. The thought of torturing babies for fun, gang rape, or leading the blind over a cliff revolts us.

While suppressed conscience and hard-heartedness can make cultures morally jaded, we should not ignore basic moral intuitions, even if we may need to adjust or refine them after reflection. They are, as atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen calls them, “bedrock”: “It is more reasonable to believe such elemental things [as wife-beating and child abuse] to be evil than to believe any skeptical theory that tells us we cannot know or reasonably believe any of these things to be evil. … I firmly believe this is bedrock and right and that anyone who does not believe it cannot have probed deeply enough into the grounds of his moral beliefs.”5

Any questions?

One criticism of moral relativism is that it cannot cope with the reformer’s dilemma. Why bother with moral change about anything? Moral reform cannot happen if relativism is the case. But surely abolishing slavery in the West was a moral victory and brought about greater human flourishing. The granting of equal rights to blacks in America was a significant moral gain, was it not? In fact, during and after the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, people accused Abraham Lincoln of wanting to impose his morality on Southern states. Well, it wasn’t Lincoln’s morality but a universally binding one. Furthermore, slaveholders, ironically, were imposing their will on slaves.6

We can be grateful for Lincoln’s dedication to affirm that slaves, too, are included in the “all men” who are “created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” And was it not a good thing that we stopped Hitler’s aggression? A band of moral relativists could never have achieved the moral milestones reached in the West. Why sacrifice to live like a Mother Teresa if she is no better (or worse) than Hitler? Why bother voting for change if there is no moral standard to follow?

Another problem for relativists: They cannot adjudicate between conflicting moral beliefs. Admittedly, the West has its share of problems; its moral decline continues. Yet, West-trashers and haters are abundant: they seem to favor non-Western cultures that often traffic in tyrannies and oppressions of their own. Indeed, these critics ignore the remarkable moral and cultural gains in the West. But beyond this, such condemnations of Western culture — whatever their merits — tend to be arbitrary. If moral relativism rules, then why make passed pale patriarchs (“dead white males”) into whipping boys? Why condemn colonialism or favor multicultural curricula over a Western “cultural canon” at universities?7

Despite the relativistic assertion that you cannot impose your moral values on others, the irony is that condemnations of the West typically go hand-in-hand with attempts to impose moral values on others. Such impositions include attempting to change the definition of marriage, causing the death of unborn children, injecting all kinds of morally questionable practices into schools’ sex education curricula, voting for activist judges, and the like. Behind the smiling face of tolerance, the relativist often seeks to do his own imposing on others.

One more matter: Doesn’t the condemnation of imposing moral values entail a moral standard? Yes, of course. Here is the moral rule assumed by the relativist: “It’s always wrong to impose your moral values on others.” So we should graciously ask the relativist: “Why is it wrong to impose moral values on others? What do you do with someone who wants to impose his moral values on others? Should you impose your morality on the one who wants to impose his?” No doubt the relativist thinks that his morality should be imposed on those who think their morality should be imposed on others. We keep seeing how relativists conveniently pull moral standards out of their back pocket when it suits their agenda.

You Cannot Legislate Morality

The U.S. Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992) led the majority of justices to affirm: “Some of us as individuals find abortion offensive to our most basic principles of morality, but that cannot control our decision. Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code. … At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Here we can carry the idea of not imposing one’s views on others a bit further. This idea often goes hand-in-hand with the protest, “You cannot legislate morality.” As we saw earlier, we cannot avoid some kind of legal imposition upon people to prevent horrendous evils, punish criminals, and protect the innocent from injustice. In this legal decision, liberty took priority over unborn human life. That is, how some people define their concept of “the mystery of human life” will mean that the unborn do not have a right to be protected. Tragically, the unborn do not have the same liberty to speak up and say, “You cannot legislate morality.”

As we briefly consider this question, here are some considerations.

First, the view that you cannot legislate morality is a naïve, unsustainable view.After all, this statement itself is a moral one: such a thing ought not to be done. But where does that standard come from, and what is to be done with those who reject it? Indeed, we can and should legislate morality at a fundamental level — when it concerns the safety and security of individuals and promotes the public good by preserving the fundamental rights of all. The rightness of legislating morality against rape, murder, wife or child abuse, robbery — or of outlawing slavery, apartheid, or Jim Crow laws — seems inescapably clear.

We do legislate morality, and that is often good for society. Here, the relativist often shifts to another question: “Well then, whose morality should we legislate?” We can respond by saying that (objective) morality is not just arbitrary or idiosyncratic. Indeed, civilizations across the ages have come to the same kinds of moral conclusions about what is virtuous and what is evil. Romans 2:14,15 refers to a moral law written on the hearts of Gentiles (those without special revelation). For those who deny any right and wrong, we can ask: “Do you really have problems with affirming that taking innocent human life, raping women, sexually abusing children, or torturing babies for fun is wrong?” Those who really do not see a problem here are simply hard-hearted. They do not need an argument; they need psychological and spiritual help.

Getting back to the you-cannot-legislate-morality assertion, we can add that such a claim assumes the myth of neutrality, which is incoherent; it should be rejected. Citizens cannot be neutral about abortion or gay marriage, and neither can the government (whether federal or state). Indeed, the claim that the government ought to do something is itself a moral claim — not a neutral, nonmoral one. Regarding homosexual marriage, the government will either support the definition of a marriage as being a binding one-flesh union between a husband and a wife, or it will not.8

Regarding abortion, even if one is ignorant about the status of the unborn, one cannot be neutral about the treatment of unborn humans. Some claim that abortion is permissible or up to individual choice because, after all, “we do not know the moral status of the fetus.” But that is like a hunter shooting at something moving in the bushes before he finds out what is causing the commotion. When an abortion-rights interest group says that the government should not force its views on citizens, this raises the question: If the unborn is a human being rather than just a blob of tissue, then permitting abortion-on-demand would result in forcing one’s view on an unborn child — with lethal consequences.

The right to choose is hardly neutral. It is a matter of life and death. (Let me add that we should show full concern for the pregnant mother, who often feels trapped and needs a community offering compassionate, practical support — including the alternative of adoption.)

Third, the language of “freedom” or “rights” in our culture tends to be empty and without content. Those thinking we should never impose morality are likely to emphasize their right to do this or that. Consider the phrase, the right to choose. This does not tell us much. We could ask, “To choose what?”To choose to rape, murder, and torture babies for fun? No, the “freedom/right to choose” is like the phrase “to the right/left of ____.” The context and the object of the choice need to be supplied. We should question the idea of blank-check choices. Choices can be immoral or moral — not simply morally neutral.

Fourth, thankfully, society has often legislated morality in the proper manner — stopping Hitler from wreaking further havoc in the world, protecting children from child molesters, putting mass murderers into prison. When we are functioning as we ought to, we intuitively recognize the rightness of imposing legislation against practices like widow burning, wife beating, honor killings, and racial discrimination.

We are inescapably moral beings. We know when someone is treating us unfairly or violating our rights. We know we need to take responsibility for our actions rather than blaming our genes or our environment. Our judicial and prison systems take for granted that humans are morally responsible for their choices. What is it that gives us our dignity and worth, our moral responsibility, and our rights? Where do our duties come from? Well, it’s hard to see how mindless, natural processes could produce such an outcome. The fact we have been made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26,27) offers us a robust, satisfying answer to such questions.


1. This essay is adapted from two chapters in Paul Copan’s, True for You, But Not for Me: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith, 2d ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009).

2. See Patrick Gardiner’s discussion of Johann Gottfried von Herder in Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 3 (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 486–489.

3. Robert Priest, “Anthropologists and Missionaries: Moral Roots of Conflict,” in Current Concerns of Anthropologists and Missionaries, ed. Karl Franklin (Dallas: The International Museum of Cultures, 1987) 23,31.

4. Dan Harris, “Missionaries Accuse Indians of Killing Babies,” ABC News (Sept. 23, 2008). From http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/story?id=5861778&page=1. Accessed 27 October 27, 2009.

5. Kai Nielsen, Ethics Without God, rev. ed. (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1990), 10,11.

6. George Anastaplo, Abraham Lincoln(Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 173.

7. Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Free Press, 1991).

8. For further discussion about homosexuality and the public square, see Paul Copan, When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).