Have you ever watched people greeting each other? Some people shake hands, some bow or kiss; others go all in with a bro hug. Different greetings are acceptable depending on the people or culture involved. What happens though when applying that same logic to everyday life? Is everything relative like the ways we greet each other or does a real, unchanging standard of truth and morality exist?
Relativism can be defined as, “The doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.”¹
You might not realize it but relativism has become the prevailing worldview of today’s society. At first glance relativism sounds pretty good too. You decide what’s right and wrong for yourself; no one gets to tell you how to live. You choose your own path and do what’s right for you.
Whether its books, T.V., or movies, this message is everywhere – even kids are getting it. In fact, Disney is one of the biggest supporters of relativism. The underlying theme behind most Disney movies is the same – follow your heart.
What draw backs are there to this “live life as you choose” message? Isn’t following what we think is right important? Besides, who am I to tell you what to do or how to live?
THE PROBLEMS WITH RELATIVISM
While relativism has some serious flaws that could be covered, I’m limiting my list to three.
1. Relativism is self-defeating.
2. Relativism makes social reform impossible.
3. Relativists rarely live consistently within their worldview.
First and foremost, relativism as a worldview is self-defeating. The heart of relativism is the denial of objective truth. I’ve written about truth before so let’s think of the person who says, “There is no objective truth.” All that’s needed to expose their bad logic is to reply, “Is that objectively true?”
Here’s how it works – if the statement, “There is no objective truth” is true, then it’s an objective truth and the statement is false. If the statement, “There is no objective truth” is false, then it’s false! Why believe it if it’s false?
Saying, “Relativism is better than absolutism” assumes an absolute standard that contradicts relativism. As C.S. Lewis explains:
“The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures the two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.”²
Relativism is a system of thought that simply can’t get out of its own way. Claiming that truth or morality are relative reduces truth and morality to mere personal taste. Relativism exchanges the proper question, “What IS good, what IS right?” with the subjective question, “What FEELS good, what FEELS right?”
Here’s the problem: what happens when what feels good to me upsets what feels good to you? How do we decide who’s right and who’s wrong? In a relativistic world we can’t. According to relativism there are no absolute standards of right and wrong. It boils down to my opinion against your opinion. You may not like what I do, you may prefer I do something different, but you can’t tell me what I ought to do.
Bringing ‘ought’ into the conversation introduces a standard that’s beyond both our opinions. “Ought” says there IS a correct way of behaving and that one of us is closer to that standard than the other.
Deep inside we all know this is true. We know truth isn’t a matter of opinion. The equation 2 + 2 = 4 is true. It isn’t relatively true. You can’t say 2 + 2 = 5 for you. Even sincerely believing 2 + 2 = 5, at best, makes you sincerely wrong. Or, put another way, the truth that the earth is round was always true – even when we used to believe otherwise.
The same goes for morality. Proving moral truths exist is as simple as showing just one thing that’s absolutely morally wrong for all people in all places. Here are two off the top of my head:
1. Torturing babies for fun is wrong.
2. Murdering six million Jewish people in a Holocaust is wrong.
Neither of these are matters of opinion. Both are absolutely wrong for all people, in all places, at all times. Choosing what I put on my pizza is a matter of personal opinion. Murder is wrong regardless of my personal feelings about it.
WHAT ABOUT DIFFERENT SOCIETIES AND CULTURES
In their book, “Relativism – Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air” Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl divide relativism into three categories. Two of these categories deal with relativism in society and are called ‘society does’ and ‘society says’ relativism.³
The belief that society determines right and wrong is nothing new. Fully refuting that view would be a post on its own (and I couldn’t do it better than Beckwith and Koukl do). Instead, I’ll briefly highlight some problems with the belief that society determines morality.
The first obstacle society faces in determining right and wrong is the sheer number of societies acting differently. With so many conflicting beliefs how do we determine who’s right when societies clash? For instance, Americans eat beef, Hindus don’t. Some consider that as proof that right and wrong are determined by society. But not so fast. All we have is a difference of opinion, not a rule about which society is correct.
Hindus don’t eat beef because cows are sacred to them. Their belief in reincarnation leads them to believe one of their deceased family members might be a cow. Both societies agree that eating our family members is wrong; we just have different views about where our deceased family members are.
Also, if society determines morality, what happens when there is no society? Let’s say two men are stranded on a desert island. There’s no society there, so if one guy kills the other is that okay? What proportion of a society does it take to decide what’s acceptable? Is it 90%, 75%, 51%? What about just the one person in power? Why can’t the person in power simply decide what’s right and expect everyone else to fall in line? The relativist walks a fine line between social coherence and totalitarianism while being unable to affirm either option.
Here’s another problem – we can’t condemn the actions of any society if there’s no objective standard of morality beyond what that society decides. For example, without an objective standard of right and wrong what the Nazis did to the Jewish people during WWII wasn’t immoral. Interestingly, this is exactly the defense many high-ranking Nazi officials used during the Nuremberg trials.
Finally, if society determines right and wrong, social reform becomes impossible. Social reformers would be social outcasts for not following the status quo. Some Germans certainly opposed what Hitler did to the Jewish people. Following the logic of ‘society does’ relativism though, anyone opposing Hitler was wrong. If the majority of their society decided killing Jewish people was right they should have gone along with it too. How could any society ever make progress this way?
THE INCONSISTENCY OF RELATIVISM
Another flaw of relativism is that relativists often have difficulty living consistently within their worldview. Our true feelings are regularly revealed by our reactions, not our actions. Someone may say that each person gets to decide what’s right but living that out is another story.
If I were to cut in front of a relativist in line, or trip them, or steal from them, what are they going to say? They’ll likely say, “That’s not right, that’s not fair, you shouldn’t do that!” Suddenly an objective moral standard comes out! The relativist may say there are no absolutes but they’re quickly betrayed by their reactions to wrongs committed against them.
This inconsistency becomes clearer when applied to other aspects of the relativist’s life. Do they want their spouse to be relatively true to them? Do they want their doctor, or their financial advisor, giving them relatively true advice? No! They want the truth! If there is no truth why read labels on medicine bottles or nutrition information on packages of food?
Relativists also betray their standard when speaking out against intolerance or injustice. In a relativistic world, why be tolerant? Because tolerance benefits society? Why should I care about society? If what’s right for me is looking out for number one, why not do whatever it takes to make sure I’m happy? Matters of tolerance and justice become subjective opinions along with everything else.
Much more could be said about this topic. Some researchers, while observing social animal behavior, propose a sort of moral evolution. Others say moral intuitions are simply the result of our unique chemical make-ups. Still others have proposed a necessary dichotomy between truth and un-truth, good and evil. Without one, they say, the other couldn’t exist.
Undoubtedly, I’ll revisit this issue in the future. In the meantime we need to be aware of the self-destructive nature of relativism. Simply because relativism is the prevailing cultural worldview doesn’t mean truth is gone.
God is the grounding source of both truth and morality. The relativist tries getting rid of God, truth, and morality to avoid condemnation, judgment, and guilt. This is like trying to eliminate sickness by getting rid of doctors and hospitals – it doesn’t work.
The relativistic worldview quickly collapses because its foundation doesn’t provide any support. Relativism is false. Truth and moral absolutes do exist. Since all absolutes must have an absolute prescriber, and humans aren’t absolute, God must exist as well.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. Love your neighbors, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. Lay down your own life for the sake of others and follow me.” (John 14:6, 5:13, Matt 5:43-44, 16:24)
God isn’t a relativist; Jesus proved that by willingly sacrificing His life so we can be forgiven of sin. With Thanksgiving less than a week away I’m thankful for the truth God reveals. He gives meaning, value and purpose to anyone who accepts Him.
In the Olympia, Washington area and want to learn more? Visit New Bridge Community Church at 812 Central St SE, Olympia, WA 98501 Sunday’s at 9:00 and 10:45 a.m.
1. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/relativism, accessed 9/28/17
2. C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity” (Revised & Amplified), HarperOne, 1952, pg. 13
3. Francis J. Beckwith & Gregory Koukl, “Relativism, Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air,” Baker Books, 1998, pgs. 48-52