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Relativism, Part 1

"Tolerance is a virtue for those who have no convictions."

G. K. Chesterton



By Matthew J. Slick

Relativism is the philosophical position that all points of view are equally valid and that all truth is relative to the individual. This means that all moral positions, all religious systems, all art forms, all political movements, etc., are "truths" that are relative to the individual. Under the umbrella of relativism, whole groups of perspectives are categorized:

  • Cognitive relativism: Cognitive relativism affirms that all truth is relative. This would mean that no system of truth is more valid than another one and that there is no objective standard of truth.
  • Moral/ethical relativism: All morals are relative to the social group within which they are constructed.
  • Situational relativism: Ethics (right and wrong) are dependent upon the situation.

Unfortunately, the philosophy of relativism is pervasive in our culture today. With the rejection of God, and of Christianity in particular, absolute truth is being abandoned. Our pluralistic society wants to avoid the idea that there really is a right and wrong. This is evidenced in our deteriorating judicial system which has more and more trouble punishing criminals, in our entertainment media which continues to push the envelop of morality and decency, in our schools which teach evolution and "social tolerance," etc. In addition, the plague of moral relativism is encouraging everyone to accept homosexuality, pornography on TV, fornication, and a host of other "sins" that were once considered wrong, but are now being accepted and even promoted in society. It is becoming so pervasive that if you speak out against moral relativism and its "anything goes" philosophy, you're labeled as an intolerant bigot. Of course, this is incredibly hypocritical of those who profess that all points of view are true, yet reject those who hold the view that there are absolutes in morality. It seems that what is really meant by the moral relativists is that all points of view are true except for the views that teach moral absolutes, or an absolute God, or absolute right and wrong.

Some typical expressions that reveal an underlying presupposition of relativism are comments such as "That is your truth, not mine," "It is true for you, but not for me," and "There are no absolute truths." Of course, these statements are illogical. Relativism is invading our society, our economy, our schools, and our homes. Society cannot flourish nor survive in an environment where everyone does what is right in his own eyes, where the situation determines actions and if the situation changes, lying or cheating is acceptable-as long as you're not caught. Without a common foundation of truth and absolutes, our culture will become weak and fragmented.

I must admit, however, that there is validity to some aspects of relativism. For example, what one society considers right (driving on the left side of the road) another considers wrong. These are customs to which a "right and wrong" are attached, but they are purely relativistic and not universal because they are culturally based. Childrearing principles vary in different societies as do burial practices and wedding ceremonies. These "right and wrong ways" are not cosmically set in stone nor are they derived from some absolute rule of conduct by some unknown god. They are relative and rightly so. But, their relativism is properly asserted as such. It doesn't matter which side of the road we drive on as long as we all do it the same way.

Likewise, there are experiences that are valid only for individuals. I might be irritated by a certain sound, where another person will not. In this sense, what is true for me is not necessarily true for someone else. It is not an absolute truth that the identical sound causes irritation to all people. This is one way of showing that certain aspects of relativism are true. But, is it valid to say that because there is a type of personal relativism that we can then apply that principle to all areas of experience and knowledge and say that they too are relative? No, it is not a valid assumption. First of all, to do so would be an absolute assessment, which contradicts relativism.

Furthermore, if all things are relative, then there cannot be anything that is absolutely true between individuals. In other words, if all people deny absolute truth and establish relative truth only from their experiences, then everything is relative to the individual. How then can there be a common ground from which to judge right and wrong or truth? It would seem that there cannot be.

Of course, the issue that is important here is whether or not there are absolute truths. Also, can there be different kinds of absolute truths if indeed there are absolute truths? We might ask, is it always wrong to lie? Or, does 1 + 1 always equal 2? Is it always true that something cannot be both in existence and not in existence at the same time? Is it always true that something cannot bring itself into existence if it first does not exist? If any of these questions can be answered in the affirmative, then relativism is refuted-at least to some degree.

Ethical Relativism

With ethical relativism, truth, right and wrong, and justice are all relative. If all moral views are equally valid, then do we have the right to punish anyone? In order to say that something is wrong, we must first have a standard by which we weigh right and wrong in order to make a judgment. If that standard of right and wrong is based on relativism, then it is not a standard at all. In relativism, standards of right and wrong are derived from social norms. Since society changes, the norms would change and so would right and wrong. If right and wrong change, then how can anyone be rightly judged for something he did wrong if that wrong might become right in the future?

Just because a group of people thinks that something is right does not make so. Slavery is a good example of this. Two hundred years ago in America, slavery was the norm and morally acceptable. Now it is not. Of course, a society involved in constant moral conflict would not be able to survive for very long. Morality is the glue that holds society together. There must be a consensus of right and wrong for a society to function well. Ethical relativism undermines that glue.

Relativism also does not allow for the existence of an absolute set of ethics. Logically, if there are no absolute ethics, then there can be no Absolute Ethics Giver, which can easily be extrapolated as being God. Therefore, ethical relativism would not support the idea of an absolute God and it would exclude religious systems based upon absolute morals; that is, it would be absolute in its condemnation of absolute ethics. In this, relativism would be inconsistent since it would deny beliefs of absolute values.

However, I do not believe that the best ethical patterns by which societies operate (honesty, fidelity, truth, no theft, no murder, etc.) are the product of our biological makeup or trial and error. As a Christian, I see them as a reflection of God's very character. They are a discovery of the rules God has established by which people best interact with people because He knows how He has designed them. The Ten Commandments are a perfect example of moral absolutes and have yet to be improved upon. They are transcendent; that is, they transcend social norms and are always true.

I was once challenged to prove that there were moral absolutes. I asked the gentleman whether or not there were logical absolutes-for example, whether it was a logical absolute that something could exist and also not exist at the same time. He said that it was not possible, so he agreed that there were indeed logical absolutes. I then asked him to explain how logical absolutes can exist if there is no God. I questioned him further by asking him to tell me how in a purely physical universe, logical absolutes, which are conceptual, can exist ... without a God. He could not answer me. I then went on to say that these conceptual absolutes logically must exist in the mind of an absolute God because they cannot merely reside in the properties of matter in a purely naturalistic universe. And since logical absolutes are true everywhere all the time and they are conceptual, it would seem logical that they exist within a transcendent, omnipresent Being. If there is an absolute God with an absolute mind, then He is the standard of all things-as well as morals. Therefore, there would be moral absolutes. To this argument the gentleman chuckled, said he had never heard it before, and conceded that it may be possible for moral absolutes to exist.

Of course, as a Christian, as one who believes in the authority and inspiration of the Bible, I consider moral absolutes to be very real because they come from God and not because they somehow reside in a naturalistic universe.

Adapted from an article by the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry ([1]

[1] Cameron, K., & Comfort, R. (2004). The school of biblical evangelism: 101 lessons: how to share your faith simply, effectively, biblically-the way Jesus did (pp. 491-495). Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers.