On Relativism

Up until recently all of Western civilisation recognised 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.

relativism 1There 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.

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.

Much 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 scepticism. But it is always going to be self-refuting. As Peter Kreeft says in Summa Philosophica, “The sceptic is not sceptical enough, for he is not really sceptical of his scepticism.”

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 sceptic never thinks he is wrong; for the real sceptic does not think that there is any wrong. He sinks through floor after floor of a bottomless universe.”

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14 Replies to “On Relativism”

  1. As Hitler once said when he was at Auschwitz, “I freed Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience and morality….We will train young people before whom the world will tremble.” (Quoted in “Relativism- Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air” by Beckwith and Koukl, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998, p. 155).

    Since Hitler’s time, Europeans have almost destroyed the Christian religion and its morality. Very sad to see this rapid decline.

    I get accused of being too strict and/or Calvinistic on a boringly regular basis but I firmly believe that “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” Malcom X

  2. Bill, listen to the 2GB podcast of Steve Price and Andrew Bolt for 12/3/15. Two agnostics taking about the positive contribution Christianity has made, the demonising of the church by the media and the church’s lost of influence. The silence of the church concerning Islam and the left wing bias of church schools.

  3. I’ve heard it said that the relativist is trying to construct his own godless worldview with tools borrowed from God’s toolbox. Morality is case in point.

    This train of thought has been on my mind a lot lately Bill. Many blessings for sharing this article.

    And how good is Geisler by the way?!

  4. Hi Bill, Very timely article. A friend posted some relativistic quote on facebook about having morals without religion (God) and only needing empathy.

    He and others didn’t get it when I used the arguments you have so eloquently put in this article.

    Thinking themselves to be wise, they became as fools. I’m glad God is here to save us for mankind can’t.

  5. Those who say believe people believe in a Divine Lawgiver and Judge of the Universe because of some alleged subconscious subjective wish-fulfilment psychological phenomenon lay themselves open to the same criticism of their own voluntary reasons for denying the existence and character of God.

  6. I don’t know about the silence of the church concerning Islam, Des Morris. Our priest says we should not pray for Muslims to convert to Christianity but we should pray that they become better Muslims. Silence would be preferred to that any day.

  7. Gosh, this is so true.
    Today this topic came up in my uni tute for Literature.
    Man, it’s sounds so possible and based heavily on experience that it seems that you can get caught up in it all, but thank God that it’s not the case…that there are absolutes and that we can only get that from God’s Word.
    I said that there could be both…as in overarching absolutes (God/Word) and then people with free will and stuff holding to what they perceive to be truth, even if its false….but don’t think that that was a good answer.
    If only I had read this before going in today! Gosh, am a bit frustrated.

  8. If there is no absolute truth, no standard of right and wrong that we are all accountable to, then we can never be sure of anything. That is what postmodern society is all about. People would be free to do whatever they want without conscience—murder, rape, steal, lie, cheat, etc., and no one could say those things would be wrong. There could be no authority, no government, no laws, and no justice, because one could not even say that the majority of the people have the right to make and enforce standards upon the minority. A world without absolutes and realities would be the most chaotic, horrible world imaginable. I believe in the absolute universal truth because Jesus is the truth and without his revelation of truth, people will live in darkness leading to everlasting destruction and death.

    A God-fearing man with a brilliant mind like Philosopher Paul believes in the absolute Creator who sustains life in the universe saying, “since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:19-22)

  9. Let these people who say such mindless things be given the wrong change in a business transaction and they will soon enough insist on the “absolutely “correct change to be given.
    What concerns me with overarching morals coming down and being replaced by situational ethics is that we have exchanged a code of justice that applies to everyone, for it was given by God who is not a man, so separate from us and someone we are not in competition with to ethics according to one or another human who states what is ethical at the time, which gives him or her an elevated position among humans, which can amount to tyranny very quickly especially when that person controls either the guns or the money. But I guess it takes humility and the help of the Holy Spirit to grasp this truth, because we naturally love to be proud and full of ourselves, we can easily shoot ourselves in the foot and be persuaded we have done something clever.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  10. It is not just in the area of truth and morality that the idolaters claim there are no objective absolutes. It is also in the area of ontology, of existence. They say that ideas of differences between man and animal, male and female, all forms of categorical difference are merely social constructs. There is no difference between them.
    Hence gays turn up to a Christian bed and breakfast or a photographer or cake maker and demand that we recognise their same sex marriage to be no different from a heterosexual marriage. They demand that we recognise a redefinition of existence to be whatever THEY want- that the sun is the moon and the moon is sun. They demand the right to identify themselves however they wish. The subjective becomes objective reality, like Norrie the Aussie who has the right to be whatever he wants to be at one moment [1]
    But surely aren’t we also allowed to play the game? When gays turn up and demand a double bed or a cake to celebrate their wedding, or a photographer to record it, are we not allowed to enter this world of make believe and offer them either a concrete cake, a photograph of a cake or even a blank piece of paper with the word, “cake” written on it. The same with a double bed: offer them an empty room or simply a piece of paper saying this is a double bed.
    For us not be allowed to play the game of gender and reality bending is discriminatory and excluding. They cannot be allowed to be selective with which parts of the world are open to re- definition, whilst we are not. Establishing reality bending as being universal has to be consistent in order to be universally binding.
    [1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy7QrZuJ1Jw

  11. The opening quote above from McKay’s book is self-defeating as well – “When it comes to the moral questions … we must each decide for ourselves.” In the same sentence he tells us we choose/decide morality for ourselves – but he says we MUST do it. Hmmmm. Sounds like an absolute claim to me.

  12. Whilst my natural tendency is towards absolutes, my inability to define clearly what those absolutes are and my relation to them causes significant, if not insuperable, problems.

    Bill, you know me a little, so you know that I’m a pretty staunchly conservative sort of chap. But lets discuss one of God’s commandments: You shall not kill.

    Doesn’t get much simpler than that? Yet its not all that simple really. In context: “You shall not murder” or in other words “Don’t take life unlawfully”.

    Even a clear, unambiguous statement such as “you shall not kill” is contextual. I can conceive of situations where it would be a great sin to not kill (e.g. to prevent an even greater injustice”. What if, by lying, I can prevent a killing? What then do I do with “Don’t bear false witness”?

    My understanding is that Christ, as a Jewish Rabbi, would have instructed his followers in the nuances of their faith. He would have taught them about light and heavy obligations and how to weigh them. The parable of the Goo Samaritan is a great example of that.

    So … I used to be very, very sure about the black and white nature of my moral obligations … the older I get, the less sure I am … and the more I must rely on faith and God’s grace to bridge the gap for me.

  13. Thanks Stephen. Hey, no need to throw out absolutes just yet! Things are nowhere near as dire as you seem to imply. As to the Sixth Commandment, as most people should realise, the Hebrew is quite clear: murder is being prohibited here. Killing is never absolutely forbidden in Scripture. Indeed, God authorises morally licit killing in at least three cases: self-defence, the death penalty, and just war. And of course any court of law worth its salt makes the elementary distinction between killing and murder. So there really are no problems here at all. But for more on this see here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/11/is-it-ever-right-to-kill/

    As to the others, we realise that in a fallen world there may be times when moral absolutes can come into conflict. The fact that we may have to choose between the lesser of two evils in no way mitigates against the absolute nature of moral absolutes. It just means moral conflicts can and do exist in a fallen world. Thus the old conundrum of whether Corrie Ten boom was right to protect the life of innocent Jews, while not being completely forthcoming with the Nazis.

    So I hope you do not go too far down this path of questioning absolutes. Things are not all that bad actually!

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