Relativism! it can't be this simple


#1

“There is no objective truth.” - this statement is in itself an objective truth.

That’s the common refutation against relativism, but honestly - it can’t be that simple. If it were, everyone with half a brain would be Catholic, and I know a lot of smart people who aren’t.

Will someone feed my brain? Please?


#2

It really is that simple. People are just SO set in their ways that they can’t accept it. They either can’t wrap their brains around it, or what is more common, and what I have seen happen many times, especially to people I have spoken myself:

A person is told that, and they realize it is correct. However, it means they have to give up so many of the things they believe in, or are attached to (like premarital sex for instance), so they put up a psychological wall to it. They do EXACTLY what God so often talks about: they harden their hearts. In other words, they KNOW they are wrong but deny it anyways because they don’t want to give in or give up what they believe. Usually, they then become very angry and storm off or stop the conversation or something of that sort.


#3

[quote=cardenio]“There is no objective truth.” - this statement is in itself an objective truth.

That’s the common refutation against relativism, but honestly - it can’t be that simple. If it were, everyone with half a brain would be Catholic, and I know a lot of smart people who aren’t.

Will someone feed my brain? Please?
[/quote]

Cardenio,

Yes, it really is that simple. If I may split a hair with you, the statement “There is no objective truth” pretends to be a statement of objective truth, but it is objectively false.

Actually, a lot of Protestants will agree with you that there is such a thing as objective truth.

  • Liberian

#4

[quote=cardenio]“There is no objective truth.” - this statement is in itself an objective truth.

That’s the common refutation against relativism, but honestly - it can’t be that simple. If it were, everyone with half a brain would be Catholic, and I know a lot of smart people who aren’t.

Will someone feed my brain? Please?
[/quote]

Disorder in the heart begets disorder in the mind…


#5

[quote=cardenio]“There is no objective truth.” - this statement is in itself an objective truth.

That’s the common refutation against relativism, but honestly - it can’t be that simple. If it were, everyone with half a brain would be Catholic, and I know a lot of smart people who aren’t.

Will someone feed my brain? Please?
[/quote]

1. To be Christian in any form has nothing to do with intelligence, and everything to do with grace; people are Christians because of God’s mercy to them, not because they are intellectually brilliant. A high degree of intelligence can be as great an obstacle to faith as the Bible or the Church. (IMO, Christ is the only reason to be Catholic.)

  1. “Relativism” is one of those words that is becoming meaningless as a result of misuse.

  2. What is often called relativism, is often nothing worse than a refusal to rush to judgement - how we judge things, does not depend on fixed criteria alone, but on a number of variables as well. Those attacked as “relativists”, can, and often do, reply by calling their critics “dogmatists” :slight_smile:

  3. Besides, relativism is not an absolute quality - it implies a relation to something; relativism is a transitive condition. What is that “something” ? That, will depend upon precisely what one is discussing. :slight_smile:

  4. The objectivity of truth, is itself relative to - that is, it is dependent upon - what is said to be true. A true assertion can cease to be true: for example, it used to be true to say that death was the penalty for heresy. True statements can become theologically suspect, if they are made centuries before dogmatic definitions which articulate propositions which are incompatible with them: the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas on the conception of the BVM would be unsound, as far as its letter goes, if maintained after the definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. If objectivity means ignoring historical change and difference, then it is a bad thing for historical study. To understand St.Thomas’s thinking, one reads him in his context - one does not skip 580 years to 1854; if only because the definition has nothing to say about his development as a theologian. As it is not about him, this is to be expected.

There are problems with over-emphasising objectivity, for example, it is apt to be taken for granted, as needing no discussion, that objectivity must necessarily always be a good thing; if confessors, for instance, tried to be “objective” in the way some people appear to desire, every penitent would be given the same penance - no matter how inappropriate this might be. Confessors have to allow for the subjectivity of the other Christian’s “personal equation”; as well as for the objective features in penitential practice. Objectivity is not the only good - it ceases to be good, indeed, if it is the only thing to be considered. Objectivity does not mean that “one size fits all”. ##


#6

Peter Kreeft has an interesting non-technical book on the subject, A Refutation of Moral Relativism that goes through several of the arguments.

There are ways people try to resopnd to defend “There is no objective truth.” First, one can say they are not making a claim but only reporting that they have not found an objective truth and are not aware of anyone else finding an objective truth. This is a more agnostic approach that avoids a direct contradiction by making the claim descriptive and not prescriptive.

Second, one might say they only mean that there is no objective truth for us–that since our experience is subjective (hence all of our knowledge must be subjective to be our knowledge) we could never have an objective truth as a bit of knowledge even if it existed (Kierkegaard made some comments about the subjectivity of truth that people twist to support this).

I don’t much care for those, but people have tried to aviod the problem those ways and others. There are also more technical ways that people have used to avoid the contradiction–so the claim of a self-referential contradiction is not a slam dunk for every one.

David


#7

I think a mildly sophisticated relativist could say positively: “there is only one objective truth, and this is it; all other statements are tentative or speaker dependent.” Some relativistic philosophers are quite sophisticated, so its not at all a simple problem.

The real upshot of moral relativism is the claim that an action is wrong or right only relative to a given person’s or group’s judgment. The claim that there are objective moral standards that apply to all people at all times is understood to be an empirical claim, that is, something tested and discovered by anthropologists. As a matter of fact, they claim, there is no action that is always and everywhere considered wrong or right. Societies (culturally and historically) have varied greatly about what they consider right and wrong. *

I think the best way to illustrate that what is right or wrong does not depend on the audience is to point out some time when they were wronged. No one is a moral relativist in their own case. If you’ve been robbed, you don’t think “this was bad from my perspective, but the robber achieved something great! Good for him!” Also, truly horrendous, sensless evils are hard to view relativistically. The rape, torture and murder of an innocent 4 y.o girl is not good or neutral from any perspective. It is almost just as horrific to say that the murderer satisfied his desires, so it was good for him. But this is what a thorough-going moral relativist would have to say. There are really, truly horrific moral evils in the world. And everyone, deep down, recognizes that.

But all this shows is that those who espouse moral relativism are not totally consistent, and thorough-going in their relativism. But if you can get them to grant some non-trivial absolutes, it makes sense, then, to try to figure out the rest of the moral law, and argue on the basis of shared assumptions of absolutes. This where the real work needs to be done – but you have to get over the first hurdle of moral relativism.*


#8

I’ve found that those who most lament “relativism” are themselves quite relativistic about things they profess to be absolute. Therefore it is not really “absolutism” per se they hold up, but an absolutely desperate clinging on to a written law, or a graven image of God as it were. This is because the transformational aspects of Catholicism are not taught. We learn all these rules, but then try to apply them with this attempt at objectivity, which is really a denial of Christ’s message of love and forgiveness.

A limited mind will call something absolute that isn’t. It is from a limited mindset that they know no higher truth.

The only real “absolute” theological principle that Christ showed us is completely impossible to measure in another, that is to love God and to love ones neighbor as oneself. All other written laws are subject to that overriding principle. That means all the other written laws are relativistic in that regard. When people forget love and get legalistic we get stuff like Terry Shaivo where we cannot legally kill a person in a humane way but we can do it by torture because it preserves the “absolute” written letter of the law. The law brings condemnation and death; the spirit gives life.

Moreover, mortal sin can never be objectively determined by one person in another. The cliche “love the sinner, hate the sin” which I don’t believe is an official teaching anyway, is deceptive and presumptuous. If we have judged the “sin” as mortal then we have judged the sinner because for a sin to be mortal there have to be some assumptions about that person’s state of knowledge and attitude…

Alan


#9

[quote=aridite]I think a mildly sophisticated relativist could say positively: “there is only one objective truth, and this is it; all other statements are tentative or speaker dependent.” Some relativistic philosophers are quite sophisticated, so its not at all a simple problem.

[/quote]

This is a cute word game, but not particularly useful. I would add, though, that they are listener dependent at least as much as speaker dependent. Depending on the context, “I love you” could be construed – perhaps correctly – as an insult or put down.

I think the best way to illustrate that what is right or wrong does not depend on the audience is to point out some time when they were wronged. No one is a moral relativist in their own case. If you’ve been robbed, you don’t think “this was bad from my perspective, but the robber achieved something great! Good for him!” Also, truly horrendous, sensless evils are hard to view relativistically. The rape, torture and murder of an innocent 4 y.o girl is not good or neutral from any perspective. It is almost just as horrific to say that the murderer satisfied his desires, so it was good for him. But this is what a thorough-going moral relativist would have to say. There are really, truly horrific moral evils in the world. And everyone, deep down, recognizes that.

To say it was “good for the murderer” because the murderer got what it wanted completely misses the point.

The point is that the Church herself has very complicated issues about moral culpability. Christ said, “forgive them for they know not what they do” right after they just hammered an innocent man to the Cross. To say we must not forgive them or fail to judge them is to make Christ’s words relativistic and presumes we may condemn a person for whom Christ died.

If you say that this crime was “absolutely” a mortal sin, then you would presume to read the other person’s mind and heart, because the criteria for mortal sin are themselves subjective and based on the mental state of the alleged sinner.

But all this shows is that those who espouse moral relativism are not totally consistent, and thorough-going in their relativism.

No it doesn’t. Certainly they are not consistent in many ways, but you haven’t shown it. Typically I find that those who are anti-relativism are quite relativistic in their own view. They are every bit as relativistic in their own limited world. They just consider rules more important than the state of the art because they are easier to apply mathematical formulae to our accusation to cloak them in a facade of objectivity.

But if you can get them to grant some non-trivial absolutes, it makes sense, then, to try to figure out the rest of the moral law, and argue on the basis of shared assumptions of absolutes. This where the real work needs to be done – but you have to get over the first hurdle of moral relativism.

You also have to get over the honesty gap that it is not about absolutism at all, but in an understanding of the truth that transcends a static, written code. Christ tried to explain the Good News but many think He just came to “tighten up” the laws a bit, which is really a crazy view that a carnal mind craves because it wants to turn everything into a formula.

If you are not prepared to discuss what is love and what is the possible state of the heart of another sinner, then you are not using the entire truth when trying to cram them into a behavioristically observable view of sin. This view still has not died out, regardless of Christ’s attempts to make it go away as a mere surface observation.

What others often call “absolute” is really just a simplification, trying to remove the “love” stuff and put it back to good old fashioned rules and regulations and surface observations. Really it is a code word for “judgment.” We want to be able to keep our orders simple, “if this guy moves a muscle then shoot him” type mentality. Clean, simple, no arguing. It depends only on “objective” criteria such as whether the person moves, instead of “subjective” such as whether the person moved to attack or just reacted to the pain of a sudden muscle spasm. Again, this shows how attempting to “absolutize” that which is intrinsically incomplete in its truth is really just a way to try to judge sinfulness of future acts that haven’t been committed yet, by using surface observations. Convenient thinking for incompletely formed minds and hearts. “Be ye transformed.”

Alan


#10

The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behaviour prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments. As we have seen, Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments . . . You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness” (Mt 19: 17-18).

Veritatis Splendor

newadvent.org/library/docs_jp02vs.htm


#11

[quote=AlanFromWichita]This is a cute word game, but not particularly useful. I would add, though, that they are listener dependent at least as much as speaker dependent.
[/quote]

I agree. I think the relativist can use a word game to deflect the self-refenential objection. That is why I don’t think this objection is especially useful. The problem of relativism isn’t all that easily dismissed. The issue of context is just what gives relativism its force. It makes some sense, but like all errors, it exagerates part of the truth at the expense of other parts.

[quote=AlanFromWichita]To say it was “good for the murderer” because the murderer got what it wanted completely misses the point.

The point is that the Church herself has very complicated issues about moral culpability. Christ said, “forgive them for they know not what they do” right after they just hammered an innocent man to the Cross. To say we must not forgive them or fail to judge them is to make Christ’s words relativistic and presumes we may condemn a person for whom Christ died.

If you say that this crime was “absolutely” a mortal sin, then you would presume to read the other person’s mind and heart, because the criteria for mortal sin are themselves subjective and based on the mental state of the alleged sinner.
[/quote]

The Church does have a sophisticated method of determining moral culpability. She distinguishes between the action itself (matter), the intention for which it is done (form) and the circumstances in which it is done. Each of these aspects have a moral character, and if any are deficient (morally bad) then the person’s act as a whole is deficient (morally bad). [Though the person is still to be loved.] It is even more complicated, in that, when determining the action itself, the knowledge of the actor figures in, so that if an actor does not realize that his action is materially wrong (he is invincibly ignorant), he is not culpable. But this subjective judgment about the moral character of the action is different from the intention, which is also subjective.

So, you’re right, subjectivity is really important in assessing the moral worth of a person’s total acting, and a real determination can only be made between God and that person in the stark honesty of his conscience. Since we don’t have access to the subjective elements, charity demands we withhold judment about things like subjective knowledge and intention.

But the Church also insists that actions themselves have a moral character. Some things are always morally wrong no matter what intention a person has when doing them or what the circumstances. Adultery is a classic example; murder, the intentional killing of an innocent person, is another (but this tends to get a bit confused). This is what moral relativists deny. MR’s reduce everything to intention – an action is good always and only insofar as I have a good intention for doing it. MR’s claim that there are no intrinsically immoral actions. Adultery may be acceptible with the right intention or required in the right circumstance.

My point is that the rape and intentional killing of a 4 y.o. girls is always objectively a bad action, whatever the subjective intention/knowledge/mental state of her murderer. Everyone, even MRs, recognize this. Nailing an innocent man to a cross and in order to torture him to death is always a bad thing, even if it is done for an apparently good intention (Caiaphas: that the nation be saved) – and even though the greatest good came from it. It was because the crucifixion was sinful (and included all of our sins) that Jesus could forgive us by it (Father forgive them …). If ignorance was the main issue (…they know not what they do) Jesus would have been excusing his torturers since a person who is invincibly ignorant is not culpable.

[quote=AlanFromWichita]What others often call “absolute” is really just a simplification, trying to remove the “love” stuff and put it back to good old fashioned rules and regulations and surface observations. Really it is a code word for “judgment.”
[/quote]

Maybe. I don’t know what others’ intentions are when they uphold the objectivity of sinful acts. Perhaps they are being judgmental. I can’t say. I am just speaking to the moral character of actions themselves (matter), not the intention or an actor’s knowledge of that objective moral character. MRs seem to say that there is no such thing as sin (objectively), and unless and until they see that there is sin, and they themselves, like I myself, have committed many of them, there is no chance of being transformed, i.e. repenting and being forgiven.


#12

Dear fix,

I think those are good points. The guy wanted to know how he should act, and I think Christ pretty much told him that he already knows that. The guy seemed like a good enough guy, but I don’t know if he was really looking for transformation of the heart, or just another task he can chalk up and easily see.

Now he just needs to let go of ties to his worldly junk I guess. That’s what I think when I hear about him having to lose his many possessions. He has no idea what greater prize he would have gotten if he’d gotten rid of the junk and kept the good works too. His could not really be dedicated toward serviing things that last if it meant letting go of things that rust and moth destroy.

I’m an expert at this – a lifelong junk collector. Junk traps a person.

Alan


#13

Someone mentioned Peter Kreeft’s book above. You can also download some MP3 articles giving his argument against moral relativism:

peterkreeft.com/audio/05_relativism.htm


#14

If someone keeps telling you enough times that trees are blue you will begin to believe it without question.

That is the game of relatavism. Repeat the lie often enough and it will become cultural.


#15

[quote=cardenio]*“There is no objective truth.” - this statement is in itself an objective truth. *That’s the common refutation against relativism, but honestly - it can’t be that simple.Will someone feed my brain? Please?
[/quote]

You are right. The fight against relativism started many centuries ago. Socrates against the Sophists. You know the outcome: Socrates was executed because his teaching of truth. Drinking the hemlock, he left us his last lesson: Truth is the only reason of our lives. Truth is not an optional extra. Truth is our duty. Relativism means the defeat of human dignity.


#16

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