The phrase “it’s all relative” is rapidly becoming the mantra of many Americans and is no longer just a cultural idiom used to express a difference of opinion. Within a society actively seeking instant gratification and self-satisfaction, the concept of subjective truth is preferable to the narrow framework of objective morality. Under the guise of promoting acceptance of all people, relativism undermines the foundations of the legal system, scientific exploration, human rights, etc. Rather than seeking absolute truth—information that accurately corresponds with reality—many are content reducing the essence of truth to a matter of personal preference. Unfortunately, this dangerous and deceptive philosophy has crept into every facet of the human experience in America, and the spirit of relativism has even infiltrated the Christian Church—an institution founded upon the doctrine of absolute truth and objective morality. This short essay will explore the fundamental principles of relativism/subjectivism, showing the philosophy to be unreasonable while demonstrating the impossibility of consistent practical application.
A Definition of Terms
Before conducting a systematic analysis of relativism, a distinction between subjective and objective truth is necessary. Subjective truth accurately corresponds to the subject (i.e. the person making the statement), rather than external reality. For instance, if an individual says, “Chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream,” they have made a subjective statement. While the statement accurately reflects the personal preference of the individual, it does not universally apply to everyone, nor does it make a truth-claim about external reality.
However, the statement “2 + 2 = 4,” is an objective statement, as it refers to an external truth. Since the statement refers to an external truth, disputing parties can examine the object in question to adjudicate between conflicting opinions.1 If the truth-claim accurately corresponds with external reality, then the statement is objectively true. Conversely, if the statement fails to harmonize with reality, the statement is objectively false (regardless of the observer’s opinion). Similarly, an individual may maintain a worldview based on subjective criteria (i.e. it is psychologically preferred over an alternative) even though the worldview is objectively false (i.e. it does not accurately represent reality). Relativism is one such worldview: psychologically appealing to many, yet unable to withstand impartial scrutiny.
Relativism is Inherently Contradictory
The law of non-contradiction is arguably the cornerstone of logic, specifying that a mutually exclusive proposition cannot be simultaneously true and false, under the same conditions, or in the same respect.2 For example, the existence of a married bachelor is inherently contradictory—and is therefore impossible—since a man cannot be simultaneously married and not married under equivalent circumstances. The same folly exhibited in the notion of a married bachelor is equally apparent in the definition of relativism, which claims that different things are true, right, etc., for different people simultaneously. In this, the relativist denies the existence of objective truth, while concurrently making the claim that relativism is categorically true. Philosopher Paul Copan addresses the inconsistency of such statements, explaining, “…we cannot deny truth or knowledge or objectivity without affirming them by our denials. For example, to say there is no universal truth is to make a claim that is universally true. Each of us will affirm some kind of metanarrative or grand story to explain how things operate. The real question is: which one does the best job of explaining these things?”3
Moreover, Aristotle addressed the irrationality of the relativistic argument in 350 B.C., stating, “For the person that says that all things are true renders the statement contrary to this true also: wherefore, he makes his own affirmation not true; for the contrary says that it is not true; but he that says that all things are false, even himself falsifies his own position.”4 Aristotle’s assessment becomes evident when examining the most widespread application of relativism, the assertion that morality is subjective. Proponents of subjective morality (or cultural relativism) propagate the philosophy under the guise of promoting cultural equality (or the unconditional acceptance of all people). However, tolerance is not an inherent necessity of cultural relativism, and the relativist cannot advocate tolerance while consistently maintaining a relativist worldview.
Philosopher Lewis Vaughn highlights this contradiction, commenting, “To advocate tolerance is to advocate an objective moral value. But if tolerance is an objective moral value, then cultural relativism must be false, because it says that there are no objective moral values.”5 By objectively examining this fundamental principle of relativism, one hurriedly determines the philosophy is inherently contradictory, and therefore, must discount it as a valid truth-claim.
A Relativistic Worldview is not Externally Livable
When determining the validity of a worldview, one must determine if its fundamental doctrine is externally livable (this is known as the pragmatic test).6 Because of its contradictory nature, the relativistic worldview quickly leads to absurdity when applying its philosophical principles to everyday life. For example, when the relativist receives a bill requesting a mortgage payment, they do not respond to the bank, “This balance is true for you, but not for me. I don’t owe anything.” Such a response would warrant ridicule, and a justified foreclosure would result. Inherently, we know absolute truths exist, which is why even the relativist obeys traffic signals, conforms to the law of gravity, pays debts, and expects payment earned through employment.
Furthermore, by precluding the existence of absolutes, moral relativism “implies that each person is morally infallible and that individuals can never have a genuine moral disagreement.”7 Practically applied, this concept brings about utter chaos rather than cultural acceptance of all people, effectively eroding the fundamental basis for human rights and the legal system. Christian apologists Francis Beckwith and Greg Koukl take this argument one step further by asking, “…if there are no moral absolutes, why be tolerant at all? Why not force my morality on others if it’s in my self-interest and my personal ethics allow it?”8
Extending moral relativism to world history results in the assertion that neither Hitler nor Joseph Stalin did anything morally reprehensible. Each acted according to his “truth,” or his subjective moral framework, and should anyone opposes such actions, it is simply a difference of opinion. Similarly, relativism eliminates the foundation for human rights. Without an absolute standard, conflict is resolved based on which party is stronger and can impose their will upon others. Accordingly, the losing party cannot consistently object to the outcome, since his subjective preference has no authority over his opponent’s preference.9
Finally, the concept of relativism eliminates the underpinnings of scientific exploration and discovery. The scientific method is a systematic framework consisting of objective criteria, used for examining facets of the external world, and determining if truth-claims accurately correspond with reality. If the universe were void of absolutes, scientific pursuit would be utterly meaningless. As the renowned scientist Richard Dawkins so eloquently puts it, “There really is something special about scientific evidence. Science works. Planes fly…Gravity is not a version of the truth; it is the truth. Anyone who doubts it is invited to jump out a tenth-story window.”10 Dawkins’ statement highlights the fact that scientific pursuits require external evidence, and rely upon the existence of absolutes, while sarcastically illustrating the folly of applying relativism universally.
Technological advancements and scientific discoveries, characteristically demonstrate the presence of objective reality and absolute truth. To deny such basic tenets runs contrary to basic human understanding and reason. Moreover, to apply such absurdities to everyday life results in disorder, and cannot be consistently lived out. Therefore, relativism fails in the area of pragmatic testing, and thus, requires rejection as a coherent philosophy or a viable basis for a comprehensive and objectively accurate worldview.
In conclusion, when subjected to objective scrutiny, subjectivism proves incapable of providing a reasonable basis for a viable worldview. The philosophy of relativism is inherently contradictory, defying the laws of logic and basic human understanding. Moreover, subjectivism fails the pragmatic test, proving impossible to live out consistently. Under the guise of promoting cultural acceptance, relativism produces a social construct void of individual accountability, moral obligations, and a basis for judicial authority. Practical application of the philosophy results in utter chaos, producing a society in which superior strength dictates justice and everyone is free to behave as they see fit. Finally, subjectivism undermines the foundations of the legal system, scientific exploration, human rights, etc. Therefore, relativism requires rejection as a coherent philosophy, and cannot provide a viable basis for an accurate worldview.
- Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Michigan: Baker Books, 1998), 27-28.
- Douglas J. Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy (Massachusetts: Cengage Learning, 2016), 219.
- Paul Copan, “What Is Wrong (and Right) With Postmodernism?” North American Mission Board, SBC, accessed February 04, 2016, http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbnew.aspx?pageid=8589952827.
- Aristotle’s work is translated in John H. M’Mahon, The Metaphysics of Aristotle (London: George Bell and Sons, 1896), 110.
- Lewis Vaughn, Doing Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues, Third Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012), http://www.wwnorton.com/college/phil/ethics3/ch/02/summary.aspx.
- Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Michigan: Baker Books, 2007), 35.
- Lewis Vaughn, Doing Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues, 69.
- Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, 69.
- Douglas J. Wilson, Persuasions: A Dream of Reason Meeting Unbelief (Idaho: Canon Press, 1989), 25.
- Richard Dawkins, The Genius of Charles Darwin, episode 3, aired August 2008 (IWC Media, 2008).