On Relativism

Barb Wire

Up until recently all of Western vilification recognized and affirmed the reality of universals and absolutes. But for various reasons much of that has been replaced more recently by relativism and subjectivism. Instead of reality consisting of unchanging and objective truths and values, we now claim that such things no longer exist.

There are various types of relativism, including:
-Epistemological Relativism: the idea that there is no absolute truth.
-Moral Relativism: the view that morality is subjective, based on individual preferences.
-Cultural Relativism: the belief that one cannot judge other cultures; each one is right in its own way.

Let me offer just one obvious example of such relativistic thought. Australian thinker Hugh Mackay wrote a book on ethics in 2004 called Right & Wrong. In it he wrote: “When it comes to the moral questions … we must each decide for ourselves. . . . Over and over again, we must ask ourselves Is this right? And then, in a spirit of compassion and sensitivity to the well-being of everyone involved in the issue, we must listen carefully to our own answer.”

So morality simply boils down to one’s personal opinion and subjective feelings. As will be seen in a moment, this is really not at all helpful, and in fact causes a host of problems. But it will be noticed that in all these forms of relativism there is the denial of absolutes.

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As Peter Kreeft explains in A Refutation of Moral Relativism, “Relative is always ‘relative to something else’, contingent upon something else, conditional upon something else. Absolute means ‘not relative’, not contingent but necessary, not conditional but unconditioned. No ifs, ands, or buts.”

Thus absolutes are unchangeable, universal and objective. Kreeft continues,

Those are the three characteristics that distinguish an absolute. It is not relative to time, so it doesn’t change. And it’s not relative to place or nation or class or culture or race or gender or any group – it’s universal. Third, it’s not relative to opinion or thought or belief or desire or feeling or any subjective consciousness. It’s objectively real, objectively true, whether I or you or anyone else knows it, or believes it, or likes it, or cares about it, or obeys it.

relativism 1Much of relativism is deeply flawed, crippled by inconsistencies and contradictions. Indeed, it is often self-refuting. This is easy enough to illustrate. If someone insists that there is no such thing as absolute truth, one simply has to ask: Do you think that is an absolutely true statement?

Of course if he says ‘no’, then he has denied what he just said. If he says ‘yes’ he has just refuted himself. Either way he loses. He cannot be consistent in claiming with great assurance that there is nothing we can say with great assurance.

Let me look a bit more closely at moral relativism. The idea that we cannot judge another person’s moral position is held by many. The idea that right and wrong are ultimately a matter of subjective opinion is now the dominant belief in the West.

But we have plenty of problems with moral relativism. As with all forms of relativism, it is really a type of skepticism. But it is always going to be self-refuting. As Peter Kreeft says in Summa Philosophica, “The skeptic is not skeptical enough, for he is not really skeptical of his skepticism.”

Also, such a view makes impossible any sort of moral progress. If there are no transcendent objective standards by which we can assess morality, then we will never know if we are making moral progress or regress. As C.S. Lewis, put it in Mere Christianity:

Progress means not just changing, but changing for the better. If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilised morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality.

Indeed, if morality is simply about our own personal preferences, then why should we pay any attention to the mere opinions of others? The “ought” of ethics is lost if it is all just a matter of taste and subjective feeling. As philosopher Peter Williams put it,

It is self-contradictory to argue for moral subjectivism. If there are no objective moral values then it can’t be objectively true that I morally ought to consider the relativist’s arguments, or that I ought to consider them fairly, or that I ought to value truth over falsehood such that I should accept the subjectivist’s conclusion if I find their arguments persuasive.

And moral relativism makes any kind of justice impossible. All law systems and judicial systems are based on the premise that certain things are right and wrong. But if these turn out to be mere personal preferences or cultural biases, then we can have no real system of justice.

As Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl say in their book Relativism: “If relativism is true, then there is no such thing as justice or fairness. Both concepts depend on an objective standard of what is right. If the notions of justice and fairness make sense, however, then relativism is defeated.”

The truth is, we all make moral judgments all the time. We all assume that there are some standards external to us which we all can appeal to. When someone cuts into your lane on the highway, you get angry, blow your horn, and maybe raise a finger in protest. Why? Because you not only know this action is wrong, but you assume that the guy who did it also knows that it is wrong.

That is, you are appealing to a higher authority. You are not saying, “I personally do not prefer that you behave like this – just as I personally prefer white chocolates rather than dark chocolates.” No, you are saying quite clearly, “It is wrong to cut into another person’s lane – everyone knows this.” As Norman Geisler puts it in his encyclopaedia on apologetics:

Moral disagreements demand objective standards. Real moral disagreements are not possible without an absolute moral standard by which both sides can be measured. Otherwise both sides of every moral dispute are right. But opposites cannot both be right. For example, “Hitler was an evil man” vs. “Hitler was not an evil man” cannot both be true in the same sense.

The law of noncontradiction will always come into play here. As Frank Turek says in his new book, Stealing from God: “Self-defeating statements violate the self-evident law of logic known as the law of noncontradiction, which says that opposite ideas cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. If someone says he does not believe in the law of noncontradiction, tell him he actually does believe in it. He’s using the law in order to deny it! No one can think or make any truth claim without the law of noncontradiction.

So the next time someone insists that a moral position is “just your opinion”, ask him if that is just his opinion. If he insists that there is no truth, ask him if that is true. If he claims everything is relative, ask him if that statement is relative. As you can see, two can play this game.

While much more can be said on this, it should be becoming clear that relativists and sceptics are on very slippery ground. The basic thing they seek to affirm must also be rejected by their own system. As always, G. K. Chesterton cuts to the chase. As he put it in Orthodoxy:

All denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. . . . In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.

Or as he puts it elsewhere: “The real skeptic never thinks he is wrong; for the real skeptic does not think that there is any wrong. He sinks through floor after floor of a bottomless universe.”

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg
Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com. Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.

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