On Relativism

Relativism comes in many forms, all united in the belief that absolute truths do not exist and that truth is always relative to a particular reference frame (e.g. a particular culture). In short, it advocates the statement that “all truth is relative”. It has widespread implications if true, but suffers from a number of logical flaws.

The most obvious of these logical flaws is its absurd and self-defeating basic premise that “all truth is relative” since, of course, this statement itself is an absolute. We are asked to believe that every truth is relative to one’s reference frame except for the premise of relativism itself. This premise must be an absolute because if it is relative then I can say that it is true for me that truths are absolute (and, thus, that relativism is false), and in order to maintain his philosophy a relativist must agree that my “truth” is valid and that he is wrong.

Other logical absurdities that result from this premise are easy to find. For example, it is a truth that the city of Rome is located in Europe; one cannot say that Rome is located in Europe for a European and say that it is simultaneously located in North America for an American. Europe and North America are distinct continents and so the city of Rome cannot be located in both simultaneously — it is located in Europe no matter what reference frame we are viewing it from. We can say that Rome is east relative to a person standing in North America (in the sense that one must travel eastward to reach Rome from North America in the shortest distance), but this statement is absolutely true for everyone else as well (it is true for someone standing in, say, Asia that Rome is east relative to the American).

Realizing the logically untenuous position such a broad premise as “all truth is relative” puts them in, many relativists advocate a “softer”  relativism such as “all moral truths are relative”. This is a less problematic premise since the premise itself is not a moral statement and only declares moral “truths” as  relative. Nonetheless, such a “softer” relativism still has its problems.

Relativism suffers from the failure to understand that an absolute truth can be unknown or even unmeasurable, and it confuses this lack of knowledge with the idea that the absolute truth itself does not exist. Great moral questions remain unanswered, but that does not preclude absolute answers to them. We simply have not discovered these answers. As a physical example, suppose we wish to detect a signal in noise (e.g. a voltage representing a logical zero or one, with noise that affects the voltage we measure). We may lack the instruments to accurately determine this signal, but the signal absolutely exists and is either a logical zero or one. The local environment in our reference frame may render this signal very difficult to detect but this does not affect the existence or state of the signal.

Some moral questions are relatively easy to answer (yes, I use the word “relatively” purposely since I am making a comparison). Going back to our physical example, this would be a signal for which we have instruments that can measure it very accurately. An example of an easy moral question, for example, is whether or not one person may arbitrarily kill another. There are certainly situations in which is it morally permissible to kill another (e.g. self defense), but the fact that one person may not arbitrarily kill another is almost universally recognized. (Isn’t it odd that nearly everyone has come to the same conclusion on this matter if this moral question is relative?) The few individuals or cultures which do not recognize this fact either have not had a chance to reach this conclusion, have some incentive to disagree (e.g. financial gain), or have some unusual obstacle which causes disagreement (e.g. immaturity, insanity, etc.).

Other moral questions are considerably harder to answer. Many individuals and societies still disagree whether actions like abortion and the death penalty are moral. This does not mean that absolute answers to these questions do not exist, rather it means that humanity has not converged on the right answers yet. This failure to converge may be disconcerting considering civilizations have had thousands of years to answer these questions, but it is not entirely surprising when one remembers that slavery was finally (legally) abolished only decades ago. (Again, wouldn’t it be highly improbable for all nations to agree that slavery is immoral if moral truths are relative?)

Belief in relativism has many negative implications. For example, individuals who believe in relativism cannot simultaneously adhere to many of the major world religions, for relativism contradicts the belief system of any religion which teaches that a supreme deity exists (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example). This supreme deity is believed by these religions to proclaim various absolute truths, so it is not logically possible for an individual to say that “all truth is relative” (or even “all moral truth is relative”) while also believing in a supreme deity who proclaims absolute truths. Christianity, for example, teaches that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came down from heaven, died, and was resurrected for the sins of us all — regardless of our culture, nationality, ethnicity, etc. Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, which speaks against relativism in great detail and applies to faiths other than Catholicism. Relativism’s contradictory nature with respect to these religions does not affect atheists or individuals who adhere to a religion which does not advocate absolute truths, but such individuals cannot escape the consequences of relativism, either.

The most important way in which relativism negatively impacts all people of any faith (or lack thereof) is in the realm of international relations. International law inherently relies on the concept that certain actions are immoral and illegal among all nations, regardless of reference frame. One culture or nation cannot violate international law and hide behind relativism as a justification for its actions. But who is the relativist to condemn the actions of international criminals? Such actions may be morally reprehensible within the relativist’s reference frame, but the very criminals he condemns can argue that their actions are perfectly moral within their own reference frame. The relativist’s condemnation carries no weight on account of his own belief system. A relativist cannot condemn any tyrant who brutally murders his own people and/or people of other nations (e.g. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Saddam Hussein, etc.). It is only if we recognize that certain actions are immoral and illegal in all reference frames that concepts like international law make any sense.

Intranational laws break down under relativism, too. Individuals living in the same nation but of different cultures can claim to have different “reference frames” under which it is “true” that certain laws of their nation can be ignored. Of course, these claims generally are not allowed in practice. Absolutely anyone under the jurisdiction of a certain law — regardless of “reference frame” — can be punished for breaking it. (One is tempted to say that laws which favor one group over another or include only one group within its jurisdiction do not follow this rule, but such laws discriminate for one reason or another and the legislator rarely attempts to justify them with an argument by relativism.)

Relativism suffers from many logical flaws and, while it has some adherents in philosophy, is rarely followed in practice. One may thus conclude: relativism is absolutely false.

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2 thoughts on “On Relativism

  1. Yes, yes and yes. You have taken the intellectual high road here. My example was a bare knuckles brawl that illuminates your intellectual logic with a bloody, real world example! lol!

    • I generally hate arguments that boil down to screaming and name-calling, but I know you were doing it only to make your point and didn’t really mean it. It was a great tactic to turn the tables on them. You would have made your point to your opponents, too, if not for the fact that they are so obtuse.

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