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

By Paul Copan at Enrichment Journal

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.


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.

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:

  • Truth is just a matter of perspective: Is this true (“if you disagree with my perspective, you are wrong”), or is it just another trivial perspective?
  • There are no facts, only interpretations: Is that just a fact, or is that just your interpretation?
  • You can do whatever you want, just as long as you do not hurt anyone: Why is it wrong to hurt someone? Isn’t this a moral standard that we should not violate?
  • You can do whatever you want, just as long as it is between two consenting adults: Why the absolute rule about consenting adults?

c. Relativism, Tolerance, and Judging: Have you ever been in a conversation where someone charged you with being “intolerant”? Or perhaps someone condescendingly asks: “Who are you to judge someone else?” Suggestion: Don’t immediately address the accusation, but ask for a definition. Find out what the relativist means by tolerance or judge. As it turns out, relativists use terms they cannot live up to themselves. They make themselves the exception to their own rules.

The classical understanding of tolerance is putting up with what one takes to be erroneous or false.2 We do not tolerate chocolate or ice cream. We enjoy them. Today, however, tolerance has come to mean “accepting all views as true or equally legitimate.” So, to disagree with another is arrogant. But think about it: How can you accept both Buddhism (which rejects God) and the Christian faith (which affirms God’s existence)? It’s a contradiction, plain and simple.

What about the term judging? Relativists like to cite Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” They say that means saying that someone else is wrong. But is this what Jesus meant? Not at all. First, it makes no sense: if someone accuses you of “judging,” isn’t that person judging you for judging someone else? Second, Jesus himself strongly disagrees with His religious opponents (see the “woes” of Matthew 23). Third, Jesus said: “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24).

Matthew 7’s context indicates a problem people need to address — a speck in someone’s eye. But believers should not go with a sense of moral superiority (“judging” or “being judgmental”); they should examine themselves first (taking the log out of their own eye) before confronting sin in another, but rather with a spirit of humility (cp. Galatians 6:1).

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