The Trouble With Relativism

I. What Relativism Is
Moral relativism is an outgrowth of a broader family of relativistic ideas. A number of philosophers, particularly in the 20th century, argued that all of reality was perspectival: that things appeared as they do to us because of our culture, our language, and the various other components which constitute our viewpoint. In other words, if a modern artist and I saw a square sloppily painted red, we would literally be seeing different things, based on our frame of reference.

From this sort of framework arose a couple of conclusions. One, that there are no absolute Truths we can rely upon. This can take two forms: (a) there is no absolute Truth, and (b) we cannot know absolute Truth (whether it exists or doesn’t). A proponent of (a) would said that the square painted red has no objective value – that its meaning, its value, and its essence is defined entirely by the viewer, and can vary from viewer to viewer. A proponent of (b) would said that what the square painted red is, we cannot define it or understand it apart from our frame of reference. The result of these two belief systems is generally the same: it may be art to him, but it’s a bad paint job to me.

This gave birth to cultural relativism. Here, the example of letters and sounds is a good one. English speakers look at the grouping of letters “Mayo,” and take one objective meaning [or two: the Mayo Clinic and the sandwich spread], while Spanish speakers look at the same grouping and assign a whole different pronunciation and meaning. The language and culture assigns values to words, letters, and sounds. Within an Anglophone context, I can correct another English speaker for mispronouncing Mayo; with a Spanish context, someone might do the same to a Spanish speaker; and neither of us can really say that the other person’s pronunciation is “wrong”; it’s just right in their own language.

II. Where Relativism Breaks Down
First of all, whether wittingly or not, relativism relies upon the very absolute truth claims it thinks either don’t exist or aren’t knowable. Here’s how. Remember the two relativistic claims I mentioned before:

  • In (a), “there is no absolute Truth,” the speaker is really claiming, “there is absolutely no absolute Truth.” It’s a paradox. If there’s no absolute Truth, (a) can’t be true.
  • In (b), “we cannot know absolute Truth (whether it exists or doesn’t),” the speaker is really claiming “we absolutely know that we cannot know absolute Truth.” In other words, it’s a claim to know at least one absolute Truth (that there are zero knowable absolute Truths), and is another paradox.

Obviously, this is a case of the argument eating its own tail. The argument seems cutesy, and I’ve been anxious to hear a relativist answer it, but I’ve never heard a coherent response to it, and not for lack of trying. I’ve heard postmodernist college professors scoff at the above logic, but never answer it.

What the speaker usually means is: “some truths are relative” (like whether navy looks good with black), and “I don’t know what the Truth is, so I’m skeptical you do.” But because the speaker in both instances believes in absolute truths (whether aware of it or not), they have the assurance and confident that “truly, objectively, some truths are relative,” and “truly, objectively, they don’t know what truth is.” In other words, people continue to proclaim relativism precisely because they don’t believe it. Confronted with the logical inconsistency, they’ll keep proclaiming it, because in their hearts, they just know that there mustn’t be absolute truths.

III. How Christians Can Glean the Truths Relativism Tries to Affirm
It’s not logically inconsistent to say “we know absolutely that x isn’t an issue of absolute truth.” That’s a logical statement, but only if the speaker believes in absolute Truth. In other words, I can say, “one’s favorite color is not a moral judgment,” but only because I believe that there is such a thing as actual and absolute morality, and believe in objective Truth. Based on these beliefs, I am aware that the boundaries of this Morality objectively do not extent to matters with no moral value, such as favorite color. In other words, only believers in Absolutes and objective Truth can say what those absolutes absolutely and truly do not apply to. So it’s only a believer in those things who can rationally and logically say, for instance, that “Mayo” has no objective meaning apart from language.

Christianity goes even further: it acknowledges that there are areas that are authentically unknowable to us. Both 1 Corinthians 2:11 and Matthew 24:36 establish things which we absolutely know that none of us absolutely know (the mind of God and the timing of the Second Coming, respectively). This sort of claim puts the relativist in a bind.

Affirming 1 Corinthians 2:11 would concede that Paul can make this absolute truth claim and have it be true regardless of culture, context, or even our place in history. He makes an axiomatic and irrefutable claim. Denying 1 Corinthians 2:11 would amount to saying, “No, that’s not true, some people may absolutely know the mind of God.” That affirms the possibility that someone absolutely knows everything (since God is omniscient). Either choice negates the possibility of absolute moral relativism. But of course, perhaps the relativist says, “I deny, not because someone may know the mind of God, but because God doesn’t exist.” Here, it’s important to note that they can’t just say “God may not exist,” because if God may or may not exist, someone may or may not know His thoughts, if He exists. So the relativist must establish that absolutely God does not exist, and that’s an enormous truth-claim about the existence or non-existence of a Deity. How can the relativist ever know that God doesn’t exist? So even this third option breaks down.

My point in this is that relativists rightly point out that some things we consider values are simply the product of our culture or upbringing (things like which words are verboten), that some “truths” are merely preferences, and that there are some things which we don’t know. But trying to extend those three factual claims, and forming a denial of Absolute Truth out of it is logically impossible. In fact, they only way to properly affirm all three of those helpful claims is by having a belief system which affirms Absolute Truth.

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