On Relativism

Whether a moral, ethical or philosophical statement can be absolutely true is the central issue of our time. We live in a culture bombarded by messages from television, books, radio, magazines and more. The discoveries of archeology and technology in the last 100 years have placed the entire past and a vision of the future at our doorsteps.

We each have at our fingertips an opportunity Aristotle or Voltaire would practically have given their lives for: We can wade into an almost endless supply of facts and piece together what is true or not true about life, death, the world, the soul and the progressive income tax.

Where science ends, we can rely upon the greatest philosophers and thinkers humanity has ever known to see over the edge. We can climb onto their shoulders and peer out further towards the truth.

The only thing holding us back is a malignant theory of our own invention: The idea that there is no truth to find. As the world has grown smaller and the perspectives of all the cultures have come into focus, some among us have decided that because there are so many belief systems, all of them must be equal.

More than just a cultural assertion, though, the core idea that everything is subjective has infested all fields from morality to literary criticism, politics to philosophy. And in the end it halts the oldest and noblest of human endeavors: the pursuit of truth. Plato, after all, was not looking for his views to be thrown lamely onto a pile with all the others. Augustine did not end his every sentence with “…but that’s only my opinion.”  Mohammed did not suggest that it depends how you define morality.  Indeed, Jesus Christ did not suggest that his words offered one of many truths, that his life was a suggestion as to one possible way to lead your life, that he offered one a way to eternal life but that others were just as good.

Stepping back, there has been a driving quest to discover the truths of our existence since mankind was born. Successive generations around the world have offered their greatest thinkers to ponder the greatest truths. Each then built on what had come before.

Now, with our vast technology and all of history a few clicks away, we seem to be on overload and have declared a tie in humanities greatest project–what is the Truth?  In doing so, we offer to those who strived before us the weak and hollow reply that there is nothing exalted to find. We sit amongst the greatest treasure trove of informational and historical resources ever and declare that every individual or civilization that came up with a theory is equally right — and equally wrong.

This relativism and hiding in the gray shields us from having to weigh moral issues or consider ethical implications. It is the easy way out: Societies and individuals always travel the path of least resistance unless dared or inspired to do otherwise. For each of us relativism provides a comfortable excuse. We can hide between definitions of words and between the right and wrong — we can bend the lines so we always fit between them. That is not, though, what we believe in our hearts.

When confronted with the horrors of genocide in World War II, we can all see the evils; when giving or receiving in a true moment of charity we can all feel the implicit good. Individuals can do things that cross unbending, solid lines. Everything is not relative; truth is not unattainable. We deny these absolutes at our peril.

There are principles all cultures have agreed upon. There are truths that can be said about humanity. In these facts can be found a unity which relativism can never admit. Celebration of diversity is a much-needed look at our differences, but at the end of the day it is more important to see the very strong connections that are shared by all of us.

Still, two cultures may have different mores or ideals. Two people may have different goals. The chasm from these facts to the claim that both sides are morally right is a leap we should be wary to make.

Is every claim to truth equal? Is everything subjective? Is everything relative? The chorus of the greatest voices from our past offers us a ringing “no.”

Relativism can be seen as nothing more than a culture throwing its arms up in defeat. By doing so we sadly declare that the information around us is too overwhelming to ponder; that because the pursuit of truth has led many people in many directions none will ever get us where we want to go.  Relativism claims that there are no great truths as its greatest truth. Choosing this idea as a belief system is lazy and transparent attempt to take the easy way out.

Any self-respecting Sumerian or Babylonian would slap us in the face for not having the courage to say whether his culture’s views were right or wrong. We are, after all, choosing to do far worse: We are cowardly ducking the question entirely. We are passing around a hearty “good job” to everyone and abandoning the project.

It is all about the central question of how we view the world. On one side we can embrace a sense of purpose and a future with the highest of ideals, on the other side we can accept defeat and carefully examine the many splendorous cultures of the world without for a second feeling what truly drove all of them. For what drove them is what drives each of us. What inspired them to moments of greatness can inspire you or me.

Life is a shallow thing without the glory of, and chase after, meaningful truth. When we deny that we set about extinguishing the spark that motivates us toward greatness. We abandon the essential connection that makes us participants in a civilization.  Abandoning the pursuit of truth does not set someone above their own culture or the back-and-forth of history but rather signals a giving up on the central passion of humanity.  It is not tolerance.  It is not pluralism.  It is not even relativism.  It is cowardice.  And that is the truth.

Copyright 2012 Traditium.

3 thoughts on “On Relativism”

  1. This is an interesting piece, but can it be that this a just a piece of nostalgia? A burning search for the possibility of moral absolutes has long been replaced by an indifferent shrug from the modern world. OK, so Dostoevsky was tortured with worry at the risk to absolutes in his time, more than a century ago, as the denial of God spread. Theologists pulled out there hair in the early 20th century as relativism and uncertainty crept out of free thinking and into modern physics. By WWII absolutes had puffed up the chimney of Auschwitz, and Camus sat on the ash pile of Europe pondering the crime of the 20th century, scratching his sores and hoping only for the possibility that there might be a convincing argument for absolute limits to humanities worst misconduct.

    But all that is behind us now, at least until another war or some personal catastrophe of injustice forces those concerns before our eyes. And for those not so confronted, life breezes by. Now most of us take uncertainty for granted. God has disappeared with his certainties and rules. Yet we can manage to get through our days under the indifferent fluorescent light that has replaced the sun, enjoying the chatter between cubicles. We work, we play, we compromise with ourselves and others, we do what seems to be right, but without certainty. We lie, pretending to have have certainties for our kid’s sake so that that illusion can help them through puberty. But there is no longer a central moral question to life. Life just is and the absence of the absolute is just the background against which we live our lives. It is a background we don’t even notice any more.

  2. By the way, Camus did seem to find that absolute limit. But he found it in empathy… which is not very absolute at all. Empathy is just the recognition that my subjectivity is pretty much like yours. That seems good enough for most of us. And for those who don’t acknowledge that very limited limit (psychopaths for instance) we reserve the threat of state prisons and lethal injection.

  3. This was a very good read and a most fascinating article. The last two paragraphs hold especially true in today’s world, culture and economy. Defeat can come very readily and accepting defeat can cause one to lose motivation and the will to push forward. I’ve seen this a lot in the job market both for friends and myself. Defeat pushes people towards a state of limbo until they find something to snap themselves out of it.

    Very well written a very apt topic, that goes largely unnoticed, in today’s world.

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