What is relativism?

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Relativism is the philosophical position that all points of view are equally valid and that all truth is relative to the individual.  This means that all moral positions, all religious systems, all art forms, all political movements, etc., are truths that are relative to the individual.  Under the umbrella of relativism, whole groups of perspectives are categorized.  In obvious terms, some are:

  • cognitive relativism (truth) - Cognitive relativism affirms that all truth is relative.  This would mean that no system of truth is more valid than another one, and that there is no objective standard of truth.  It would, naturally, deny that there is a God of absolute truth.
  • moral/ethical relativism - All morals are relative to the social group within which they are constructed.
  • situational relativism - Ethics (right and wrong) are dependent upon the situation.

Unfortunately, the philosophy of relativism is pervasive in our culture today.  With the rejection of God, and Christianity in particular, absolute truth is being abandoned.  Our pluralistic society wants to avoid the idea that there really is a right and wrong.  This is evidenced in our deteriorating judicial system that has more and more trouble punishing criminals, in our entertainment media which continues to push the envelope of immorality and indecency, in our schools which teach evolution and "social tolerance," etc.  In addition, the plague of moral relativism is encouraging everyone to accept homosexuality, pornography, fornication, and a host of other "sins" that were once considered wrong but are now being accepted and even promoted in society.  It is becoming so pervasive that if you speak out against moral relativism and its "anything goes" philosophy, you're labeled as an intolerant bigot.  Of course, this is incredibly hypocritical of those who profess that all points of view are true, yet reject those who profess absolutes in morality.  It seems that what is really meant by the moral relativists is that all points of view are true except for the views that teach moral absolutes, an absolute God, or absolute right and wrong.

Some typical expressions that reveal an underlying presupposition of relativism are comments such as: "That is your truth, not mine;" "It is true for you, but not for me;" and "There are no absolute truths."  Of course, these statements are illogical, which I demonstrate in the paper "Refuting relativism."  Relativism is invading our society, our economy, our schools, and our homes.  Society cannot flourish nor survive in an environment where everyone does what is right in his own eyes, where the situation determines moral truth, and that lying and cheating are okay as long as you don't get caught.  Without a common foundation of truth and absolutes, our culture will become weak and fragmented.

I must admit, however, that there is validity to some aspects of relativism.  For example, what one society considers right (driving on the left side of the road) another considers wrong.  These are customs to which a "right and wrong" are attached, but they are purely relativistic and not universal because they are culturally based.  Child rearing principles vary in different societies, as do burial practices and wedding ceremonies.  These "right and wrong ways" are not cosmically set in stone, nor are they derived from some absolute rule of conduct by some unknown god.  They are relative, and rightly so.  But, their relativism is properly asserted as such.  It doesn't matter what side of the road we drive on as long as we all do it the same way.

Likewise, there are experiences that are valid only for individuals.  I might be irritated by a certain sound, where another person will not.  In this sense, what is true for me is not necessarily true for someone else.  It is not an absolute truth that the identical sound causes irritation to all people.  This is one way of showing that certain aspects of relativism are true.  But, is it valid to say that because there is a type of personal relativism that we can then apply that principle to all areas of experience and knowledge and say that they too are also relative?  No, it is not a valid assumption.  First of all, to do so would be an absolute assessment, which contradicts relativism.

Furthermore, if all things are relative, then there cannot be anything that is absolutely true between individuals.  In other words, if all people deny absolute truth and establish relative truth only from their experiences, then everything is relative to the individual.  How then can there be a common ground from which to judge right and wrong or truth?  It would seem that there cannot.

Of course, the issue that is important here is whether or not there are absolute truths.  Also, can there be different kinds of absolute truths if indeed there are absolute truths?  We might ask if it is always wrong to lie.  Or, does 1 + 1 always equal 2?  Is it always true that something cannot be both in existence and not in existence at the same time?  Is it always true that something cannot bring itself into existence if it first does not exist?  If any of these questions can be answered in the affirmative then relativism is refuted -- at least to some degree.

Morality and Punishment

More questions arise.  If all moral views are equally valid, then do we have the right to punish anyone?  Can we ever say that something is wrong?  In order to say that something is wrong, we must first have a standard by which we weigh right and wrong in order to make a judgment.  If that standard of right and wrong is based on relativism, then it is not a standard at all.  In relativism, standards of right and wrong are derived from social norms.  Since society changes, the norms would change and so would right and wrong.  If right and wrong change, then how can anyone be rightly judged for something he did wrong if that wrong might become right in the future?

Finally, is it fair to apply logical analysis to relativistic principles?  Many relativists say no, but I do not see why not.  If a relativist were to convince me that logic isn’t necessary in examining relativism, he’d have to convince me using logic, which would be self-defeating.  If a relativist uses relativism -- the subjective view of his own opinions -- to validate his position, he is using circular reasoning; namely, he is using relativism to establish relativism.  So, either way, he has lost the argument.  But, with relativism who really cares, since it is all relative?

To conclude, if relativism is true and all points of view are true, then is my view that relativism is false also true?


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.