Would you consider yourself a tolerant person? Most people would. In fact, tolerance is the supreme virtue of our age. The very thought of being intolerant is greeted with frowns and shaking heads. We would rather accept everyone as they are, and never criticize. We say things like “whatever works” and “to each his own.” Other people’s beliefs aren’t wrong, just “different”. And this seems like an honorable sentiment. And in a sense it is. But there’s a dark side to it. At the root of this idea is a certain philosophy by the name of Relativism. Relativism is basically the idea that there is no absolute truth, only personal opinions. In other words, “everyone has their own truth.” And it’s a very convenient idea. It basically allows for complete tolerance. Right and wrong are just matters of personal opinion. There’s different types of relativism, but the basic formula is that X is relative to Y. One of the most popular ideas is that morality is relative to society. “Polygamy may be wrong in one culture, but not in another.” Or applied to religion, “Christians say Jesus is God, and Muslims say he is a prophet. But they’re both right.” Relativism can be a great philosophy to have. Nobody gets offended, Everyone can do what they want, and most importantly, everybody is right. But unfortunately, as tolerant as Relativism is, it’s actually an intolerable philosophy. In short, Relativism sucks.
I know that sounds mean, but it’s true. (Wait… what is truth?) Well, truth is basically defined as “that which matches reality.” (Though relativists like to redefine it, or ignore it altogether.) The fact is, relativism is a two-edged sword. It gives with one hand and takes with the other. It may affirm some of your opinions, but it also renders meaningless all the things you value. Consider some of your strongly held beliefs; that things like racism, sexism and homophobia are wrong. If you saw someone discriminated against at a restaurant based on any of these, you’d be filled with righteous indignation. You’d probably give the offender a piece of your mind, and then tell all your friends never to go to that place. But according to relativism, the offender is just as morally justified in their behavior as you are in your anger. Being a bigot is just “their truth”, and you have no right to criticize them. Dislike the Westboro Baptist church? According to relativism, hating gays is just “their truth.”
But a little background on relativism. For centuries, philosophers started out with certain assumptions. i.e. the world is real and we can trust our senses. From there they went on to more complicated things. For example, you would have to assume this paper exists if you were to argue this article is boring (though hopefully you don’t think so). But around the 17th century some philosophers came around and basically pulled the philosophical rug out from everyone. They claimed “we can’t know anything.” Or ALMOST nothing. A French mathematician named Rene Descartes suggested such an idea as a method for finding truth. He claimed we should challenge the assumptions at the root of our beliefs and that the only thing we can know for sure is that we exist. (“I think, therefore I am.”) From there people could re-build on a foundation of sound reason. These ideas played a big part in forming the Scientific Method. But Descartes still believed in objective truth (that something out there exists, despite personal opinions). His ideas were only a tool for finding truth.
About a century later a German philosopher named Immanuel Kant came around and took that concept even further. He claimed that all truth is subjective. That there’s nothing out there. We basically create our own reality. (It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but that was essentially his conclusion.) Finally, the idea that groups create reality came from philosophers George Fredrick Hegel, and Karl Marx (yes, that Karl Marx). Marx was actually inspired by Hegel’s idea that all of history is a continual struggle between conflicting groups.
There were many more who contributed to this idea (Rousseau, Berkley, etc.) But for our purposes we’ll stop at these. Suffice it to say they got the ball rolling well past the enlightenment and into the 20th and 21st centuries. Relativism came to radically change the way people saw the world and led to widespread skepticism and moral malaise. And that’s where we are now. But it may be hard to recognize relativism at first glance because our society is so saturated in it – in the same way a fish can’t see the water he’s swimming in because it’s all he knows. Most relativists have become so more by osmosis than conscious choice. And on the surface it seems like reasonable – we don’t want to offend anyone by telling them they’re wrong. But if we look closer we will see this idea is self-contradictory and dangerous.
So why does relativism suck? Well there’s a number of reasons, and hopefully you’ve guessed a few by now. First of all, it negates the very things it values. Relativists value complete tolerance. Therefore they must also accept intolerance to be consistent. And they must accept things that are abhorrent to most people – things like genocide, human trafficking, sweat shops. Another thing it values – Multiculturalism – is rendered rendered meaningless. If all cultures are equal, none of them have any particular merit. They’re all the same. And if every religion is true, then no religion is true. Because what’s the point of believing in one God if it’s also true that there are many gods? This brings me to the main reason relativism just doesn’t work: The law of non-contradiction.
A cannot equal Non-A. The sky cannot be blue and not blue simultaneously. It’s either blue or it’s not. To restate an earlier example, Jesus is either a Prophet, God, or neither. He cannot be all of these at the same time. It’s self-defeating. Relativism claims that it is true that there’s no such thing as truth. It’s impossible to justify with the rules of logic. So you may be wondering how such an idea can survive and be successful. There’s a few reasons. For one, people are not logical – they are driven mainly emotion. And for two, it’s incredibly convenient. Whatever you feel like doing is fine because it’s just “your truth”. But emotion and convenience don’t justify an argument, and they aren’t a good basis for morality. The only thing that relativism creates is chaos. And that can be seen in all the misery and brokenness it has left in its wake. Drug addiction, broken families, unplanned pregnancies. Actions have consequences because there’s right and wrong actions. And doing wrong causes pain.
So I hope this article has been helpful. And if you realize now that you are a relativist, never fear. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.