“It’s All Relative” and Other Such Absolute Statements: Assessing Relativism

By Paul Copan

You have probably heard all kinds of relativistic statements: “That’s just true for you but not for me,” or “That’s just your reality,” or “Who are you to say that someone else is wrong?” Some might consider you arrogant or even dangerous for believing in “truth” or “moral standards.” Relativists even get angry with nonrelativists, which is strange if you think about it. Pope John Paul II called this phenomenon “the dictatorship of relativism.”

Here’s some scary news.1 In one survey, 83 percent of American teenagers claimed moral truth depends on circumstances; only 6 percent of teens said objective moral values exist; 75 percent of adults (18 to 35) claimed to embrace moral relativism. What’s even scarier is that statistic is more than 10 years old.

In this article, I address two major problems with relativism — it is self-refuting or self-contradictory and it is selective. In the second half of this article, I offer some practical responses to relativism.

PROBLEMS WITH RELATIVISM

1. Relativism Is Self-Refuting: Relativists Believe Their View Is True for Everyone

Before we can assess relativism, let’s get our terms straight. What do we mean by relativism and truth? While we are at it, look at two loaded and misunderstood terms — tolerance and judging.

a. Defining Relativism and Truth: Relativism is the view that a belief or philosophy of life can be true for one person but not for another. When it comes to morality, one person’s or culture’s moral beliefs may be “right” for them but not necessarily for another. Truth is relative — that is, dependent on my own feelings, preferences, time of history, or culture.

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The opposite of relative is absolute or objective. Truth does not depend on what people believe or what period of history in which they are living. Even if everyone believed the earth is flat, it would still be round.

What then is truth? Truth is a match-up with reality. If a belief, story, idea, or statement does not match up with reality, with the way things really are, then it’s false. “The moon is made of cheese” is false because it does not match up with reality. Only reality confers truth or falsity. A true statement is faithful to reality.

b. Why Relativists Are Absolutists: Despite the relativist’s claims, the average relativist believes the following to be true for everyone — not just for him/her:

  • You should not say that someone else is wrong.
  • All views are equally acceptable.
  • You should not impose morality on others.
  • You ought to be “tolerant” and should not “judge.”
  • You ought to be open-minded.

Consider some typical relativistic slogans and assertions, which turn out to be an exercise in self-refutation…

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“It’s All Relative” and Other Such Absolute Statements: Assessing Relativism