Relativism is Self-Refuting

by Glenn Smith

People who hold to relativism in the area of goodness, evil, or morality hold that the standard of goodness can change from group to group. Relativists hold that each society can determine its own morality. Atheist Carl Sagan, for example, is quoted as saying the Ik tribe of Uganda systematically and institutionally ignore the ten commandments. This, and other examples like this, are said to be examples of how goodness is determined by each culture. Several problems arise with this view.

The idea is often more than just saying relativism exists, but relativists usually are at odds with objectivists who hold to objective, universal standards of goodness and morality. The relativist says, in effect, that relativism is right, objectivism is wrong, and relativism ought to be the way we all view goodness. The relativist ends up in a major conundrum. He must either hold that (1) relativism explains the way all goodness works for all people, or (2) it does not; these two options exhaust the possibilities. If he holds the first, that relativism is the way goodness works for all people, then the society next door is free to hold to whatever standard of goodness it sees fit. But if the society next door turns out to teach an objective standard of goodness that applies to all people, then the relativist is saying objective goodness is a proper thing for them to hold, which is in violation of his own sense of universal relativism. On the other hand, if the relativist holds the second, that relativism does not explain how goodness works for all people, then the society next door can teach objective goodness.

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Perhaps the relativist would respond by saying that relativism is the way he holds morality, and this applies to everyone whether they realize it or not, and the objectivists next door are simply wrong. But this has not gotten out of the conundrum, for now the relativist is again saying that relativism is universally good and true. The relativist is now saying that it is universally true that there are no universals, or that it is unchangingly good to hold that goodness always changes. Our relativist friend has dug a self-refuting hole that cannot be escaped.

But it gets worse for the relativist, for no relativist is actually a consistent relativist…


Relativism is Self-Refuting | Thomistic Bent



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