Relativism is a worldview that is pretty much defined by how it explains truth. For the relativist, “what is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me;” which can lead us to believe that if two people make two opposing statements - regardless of whether they pertain to morality, value, or outlook - they can both be considered equally valid.
The reason this can be held to is because for the relativist, there is no such thing as ‘;absolute truth,’ just ‘;personal truth.’ This mode of thought has spread rapidly throughout our western society and has left many simply dumbfounded and without anything to say in response… mostly because it doesn’t make any sense.
Three Types of Relativism
In general, people who hold to this system of thought believe that their moral foundation is derived from one of the three following theories that we will examine a little more thoroughly:
- Society Does Relativism - What my society does determines what is right or wrong for me.
- Society Says Relativism - What my society decides or says determines what is right or wrong for me.
- I say Relativism - What I say determines what is right or wrong for me.
Society Does Relativism
Defenders of this view often appeal to the idea that each culture has a unique set of moral values which are generated by the natural influence of pain and pleasure as people seek to satisfy their base wants or desires. The culture, believing that their morals are correct, will then criticize the values of other cultures that do not agree with theirs.1
In addition, proponents of relativism will likely point to the Hudson Bay practice of patricide (The killing of one’s parents), the Hindu practice of Suttee (The immolation of a female widow), or even Hitler’s killing of the Jews to show that not all cultures have believed murder to be wrong. But the fact is the exact opposite, all cultures believe unjustified killing is wrong.
In regards to patricide, children would strangle their parents in a* clearly odd* act of kindness so that they didn’t have to live to an unproductive age where they were a burden on the rest of the tribe. Hindus value the virtues of chastity and purity so much that grieving widows would express their adherence to these through the practice of self-immolation upon their spouses death. Turning to Hitler we see that he justified killing Jews by declaring them subhuman, like animals to be hunted and slaughtered, not humans to be valued.
Society Does Relativism dies because it wrongly assumes that each culture has its own unique set of moral rules that may be different than ours. Just because there are differing views on what is right or wrong, does not mean that an objective or absolute truth does not exist, it merely means it will take more time, thought and discussion to find it. We shouldn’t give up the search for what is true just because different people have different views. That’s called laziness.
Society Says Relativism
Those who seek to cling to this view state that morality “is relative to their culture, determined by popular consensus, and expressed through laws, customs, and mores.”2 But right from the start we have a serious problem. If there is no law above society, then no one can criticize the actions of society. This literally makes it impossible to criticize the deeds of societies like Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Pol-Pot’s Cambodia, Hussein’s Iraq, Jong-Il’s North Korea, Castro’s Cuba and Cameron’s Pandora. We are just supposed to sit back and let them do their thing and watch millions upon millions die unjustly.
Additionally, what many people fail to see about Society Says Relativism is, if morality is the result of consensus or vote, then society can have no laws that are immoral. For example, if a law was somehow passed which made it illegal to tell my wife how much I loved her, I must view that as a good law and there could be nothing wrong with it. While that is absolutely absurd, the real paradox of this view is what follows.
On this view, if you were to attempt a moral reformation, it would actually require an act of immorality itself. Reason being, if we have views that are already accepted by the masses as good and true, for someone to come in and say that those same views are wrong is simply obscene. This would mean that William Wilberforce’s fight against slavery was villainous, the battle for civil rights by Martin Luther King Jr. was evil and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s speaking out against Hitler was deplorable.
I Say Relativism
Probably the most absurd and dangerous of the three types of relativism is this one. It is a belief that says that ‘;there is no such thing as absolute truth,’ therefore I can say or believe whatever I want and it must be held as true. By this view, the adherer renders things like language, justice, morality, fairness, blame, evil and praise meaningless because the validity of the statement or issue is dependent on the person’s acceptance or denial of it; therefore, if I want to say that stealing is good, then it must be a true, and therefore wrong to tell me otherwise. In reality, such a claim goes against every logical notion in us and appeals only to our feelings and desires.
But the easy defeater of this view only requires that we apply it to our everyday life. If we are all left to decide what is right and wrong for ourselves, and that no one has the right to tell us what is wrong, then what if someone thinks it is virtuous to break into my house and attack my family? Well, it’s his lucky day! Since it would be immoral of me to fight back, he can do whatever he wants! Why you may ask? Because if I did, that would be me imposing my beliefs that “It is wrong to break into my house and attack my family” on my attacker and that would just be awfully intolerant of me. But if we’re intellectually honest, we see how irrational this position is.
Let us now examine the common slogan “there is no such thing as absolute truth.” If that statement is false, then it is false, no problem there. But if it is true, then it is again false, because it is making an absolute statement. It’s like saying, “I don’t know how to write any words in English.” The structure of the assertion defeats the meaning of the statement.
If we sincerely analyze ourselves, we see that there are some things that we know by pure intuition, that the truth of the idea is immediately evident, it needs no further justification and is obvious once all the facts are known. Even the founding fathers of the United States believed that there are some truths that are self-evident, whose validity comes from basic common sense. A perfect example of this would be the simple equation 2+2=4. We wouldn’t need to question it at all, the answer is plainly known. But what if the equation is even greatly more sophisticated than that? If we simply abandon it due to difficulty, that may mean we never find the cure for cancer or further prove the existence of God. We must pursue truth and not apathy. Chase knowledge and not ignorance. Desire facts and not feelings.
The worldview of relativism is morally and intellectually bankrupt. By even arguing to stand up for it, it is proven false. The key flaws of this way of thinking are numerous. Relativists can’t accuse others of wrongdoing, can’t complain about the problem of evil, can’t place blame or accept praise, can’t make charges of unfairness or injustice, can’t improve their morality, can’t hold moral discussions and can’t promote the obligation of tolerance; yet many of them do.3
One final way to assess the value of this outlook on life is to think of what kind of person it produces. If we imagine the moral hero of someone in perfect obedience to the Father in heaven, we think of Jesus of Nazareth. But if we ask ourselves, “What is the best that relativism has to offer? Who is their hero?” Our answer is startling, because the heroes of the view which states that truth is flexible according to society or self are none other than sociopaths like Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol-Pot. It doesn’t take much to see that any system of thought that produces people like this is not to be held by the sane.4
While it may initially sound convincing and intellectual, in the end, relativism falls apart at its seams.
- Pojman, Louis P. "Folkways." Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1995. 28. Print.
- Beckwith, Francis, and Gregory Koukl. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-air. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998. 49. Print.
- Ibid. 61-69
- Ibid. 30-31
- Copan, Paul. True for You but Not for Me: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2009. Print.