Dabney’s Refutation of Relativism

Robert Lewis Dabney was the great Southern Presbyterian theologian and professor of ethics during the late 1800s who turned down a professorship at Princeton due to a love of his home in Virginia. Denouncing government schools and an early detractor of feminism and socialism, Dabney foresaw innumerable dangers we face today.

Moral relativism was – and is – one of those great dangers. To this, he responded with boldness and clarity, with a sophistication that earns the respect of learned men, yet with a simplicity and means of clarity that the unlearned man, too, can master the simple argument. 

What argument did Dabney oppose?

David Hume and William Paley’s to be specific. Hume argued that there is never, in any sense, a “thou ought” or “thou ought not” which can be derived from any kind of circumstance. That is, we can never decide what should be from what is. 

Suppose you watch one man murder another man, and you have an unpleasant feeling. There is nothing in the movement of the murderous villain’s arms, or the twitch of the finger, or any other fact that is, by which we can derive or conclude what should or should not be done. 

All we observe, Hume argues, is one man killing another. We do not, and cannot, observe any moral standard, decree, or obligation with our eyes. 

To this, Dabney objected. In fact, Dabney’s position is not unique among Reformed thinkers, such as Herman Bavinck. 

First, Dabney held that, in point of fact, we do see more than what the eye sees. We observe with our soul, as well as our eyes. The moral precepts are “not written in the mind as a set of conscious logical rules, but the power of apprehending intuitive truth is innate in the reason.”

Dabney’s so-called ‘intuitionism’ is much like how another philosopher put: a priori empiricism. If all we can do is observe with our eyes, then we have no ability to observe meaning, love, beauty, or any of the other intangible affairs that are directly perceived by the soul. 

Second, Dabney shows that Hume specifically and relativism broadly, are confused in this matter. The Southern Presbyterian that Hodge called the greatest theologian in America explains the breakdown of moral arguments into syllogisms.

Is alcohol acceptable or forbidden was a question debated in his day. Dabney points out that both sides are making a moral argument. Both sides agree with the major premise, “The illegitimate use of alcohol is a violation, in some degree of the 6th commandment to protect life and not destroy it.”

Today, we are keenly aware of how the illegitimate use of strong drink can and does destroy lives. Not only do fatal car accidents count as a violation, but also the man who destroys his liver and kidneys. 

Dabney’s detractors, and most relativists, argue that because man says alcohol is bad, and it is a sin to drink, while another man argues it is not always bad, and not always a sin, we cannot all have agreement on morality. Therefore, since we all cannot be in agreement on what the correct moral answer is, as we can in mathematics, then there must not be a moral answer.

Or, if there is, apparently we cannot know it. Dabney was fighting relativism. 

But upon closer inspection, we realize that the relativist is mistaken. He makes the same mistake as Hume. He assumes that difference of opinion is regarding the moral premise, but as already shown, this is the one area of agreement. Both parties agree that a violation of the 6th commandment is morally prohibited. The disagreement was on what counts as a violation. 

This is because both parties differ on the non-moral premise regarding the biological and physiological effects of alcohol. The party that holds to strict prohibition believes that the use of alcohol is always deleterious, even if only in a small degree. That is, the strict party holds that there is no positive good that comes from drinking, only bad.

On the other hand, the pro-drinking party holds that there are physiological benefits when alcohol is consumed in moderation. Thus, both parties could come to agree if they both have the same non-moral conclusion regarding the nature of its effect on the human body. As Dabney’s example illustrates, of the two premises which every moral argument requires, “one may be a moral principle and the other a non-moral proposition.”

Hume, Paley, and the relativists believe that the only knowledge we have is knowledge of the non-moral kind. Hence why Hume argued that there can be no way to derive an ought from and is. 

This is why Dabney was an intuitionist. He believed that we have knowledge about the 6th commandment which is prior to reason and empirical observation, even if only logically prior. “It is…more important to assert that the judgment of the reason, which distinguishes the right from the wrong, is, in simple and elemental cases, intuitive.”

Hume, Paley, and the relativists believed that there was no common morality, but Dabney irrefutably showed this to be the case. Pre-figuring C.S. Lewis’ argument in the middle of the 20th century, Dabney writes that, “Among all races, civilized and savage, cowardice is considered disgraceful. Treachery towards friends is seen to be wicked. Filial obligations of children to their parents are recognized as binding.” 

The relativism from the Enlightenment exaggerates the amount of differences that exist between men on moral matters, because it fails to recognize that the non-moral premise is ordinarily what people disagree about. Not the actual moral principle itself. 

Dabney’s refutation of relativism was not innovative, nor has it been entirely forgotten. Next to the ethical writings of Herman Bavinck, Dabney’s work is perhaps one of the most valuable writings on ethics in a post-Enlightenment context.

Robert J. McPherson II

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Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.

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