I recently had an eye-opening discussion with an undergraduate student that began with the question, “Do you believe there is objective Truth?”. I expected she would take a few moments before giving an answer, but was surprised both with how quickly and how resolutely she answered “No”. Afterward, I asked a friend how anyone could really think this way, but he was not surprised, given the student’s young age of nineteen.
This didn’t quite satisfy me. When I was nineteen, I knew there were objectively discernable truths in this world. (The only objective truth the student would assert is that we cannot know any objective truth, which is self-refuting.) However, there is a subtle difference in how the student responded and the question asked, which I only pieced together afterwards. Her answer indicated that an objective truth does exist, but that we cannot know that truth due to our own subjective experiences.
All experiences are not subjective, of course. If I hold a hot coal to your arm, you’ll feel pain just as anyone with an intact nervous system will.
Where are these ideas of extreme relativism coming from and how widely do they permeate society?
The Origins of Moral Relativism
Relativism is nothing new; it has surfaced in history with varied ferocity, though likely never to the new heights reached in the 21st century. An ancient Indian (Jain) (~500s BC) principle taught by Mahavira purports that truth is pluralistic, relative to one’s point of view. About a hundred years later, the Greek philosopher Protagoras said that “man is the measure of all things.” Another Greek contemporary, the historian Herodotus, noted each society’s ethnocentrism, with each society measuring others according to its relative truths (This doesn’t necessarily mean Herodotus was a relativist, however.) Around 200 AD, Sextus Empiricus, a Pyrrhonist philosopher, believed it better to suspend judgement on what is knowable, believing it better to live a life without asking such questions.
Jumping past the “Dark Ages” and the Medieval era, when absolute belief in objective truth likely peaked, Baruch Spinoza (1600s) emerged to question whether anything is inherently good or evil. Another hundred years later, David Hume, himself not proclaiming to be a relativist (questionable), wrote of morality’s lack of an objective basis, believing morality to be a matter of value rather than fact. In the late 1800s, relativism took stage again with Nietzsche purporting that morality is relative to the self, to one’s personal values and goals.
Interestingly, not all academic trajectories have converged on relativism. Evolutionary biology, while often considered an enemy of religion and its teachings, gave birth to the idea that morality is a product of evolution. In other words, objective statements on morality could be derived from what promotes a species or the cooperation among species. Thomas Aquinas and other Church fathers would’ve recognized this as a form of “natural law”, i.e. objective truths derived from the world around us.
Regardless of how it got here, moral relativism may be the defining philosophy of our time, as it often (sadly) trumps even one’s religious affiliation.
Shaking the Foundations of the Western World
Of all the types of relativism, moral relativism may be the most dangerous idea to take hold in the West. Once moral relativism becomes the norm, we lose our societal recognition of good or evil, right or wrong, just or unjust, true or false. Fact becomes relative to one’s perspective. Our conversation on what is good and true ceases. As the great G.K. Chesterton wrote, “There is a thought which stops all thought.” That thought is the idea of relativism, and it marks the end of real political, philosophical, and religious discussion. Chesterton goes on to add, “and that is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”
Though I’ve spent most of my college years in a form of intellectual arrogance whereby my degree is superior to those liberal arts degrees for my subject’s practicality and ability to earn a decent job (which has some merit), I can’t help but soften that view due to the importance of philosophy in culture. The problem is that it takes quite some time for the culture to “catch up” to the academics; thus, it’s hard to foresee when and which philosophies will gain a significant fraction of culture.
In my view (and many others), the “West” began with the Greeks who largely recognized objective truth, formalized through logic and much new mathematics, save for counterexamples like Protagoras. I don’t think the West developed into its full character, however until Christianity merged Jewish morality with the logic of the Greeks. Of course, this is a huge oversimplification that doesn’t really describe the rise of Christianity (or the reason for its existence) in a meaningful way. Instead, this snapshot describes the defining features brought to Christianity by its two biggest influences (Judaism and Greek philosophy).
Nonetheless, Christianity has been the backbone of the West for at least the past 1500 years (since the Christian hold on Europe was not immediate). A core Christian philosophy is absolute truth defined by the contrast between good vs. evil, God vs. Satan. What happens to a civilization that abandons such a cornerstone philosophy?
I would guess, nothing good.
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4 thoughts on “The Origins and Impact of Relativism”
Very kind. Thank you!
You are very welcome! I read the other day that folk are now saying that 2plus2 is not necessarily 4 😉