Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Quick Beatdown of Relativism

Truth is relative; there is no universal truth. What’s “true” for me isn’t necessarily true for you.

There is a school of philosophy which posits the argument above. This school of philosophy, known as relativism, is both pervasive in modern society and destructive to it.
Relativism holds that viewpoints have no inherent objective truth or reality. Moral principles or ethics cannot be inherently true or real; they are subjective, and different individuals can hold different moral standards. In its extreme form, since we all experience the physical world through our own senses, and since our own senses disagree, even the physical world is not necessarily real. 
George Orwell, in his dystopian masterpiece 1984, directly challenged the philosophical concept of relativism through the words of his novel's hero, Winston Smith: “Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws to not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s center.”
Orwell's hero, through those words, rebelled against a totalitarian regime which altered all records to make them conform to what they said was reality. This regime also demanded that its citizens conform to their dictates of what reality was - during the novel, Smith was tormented by an agent of the government named O'Brien, who demanded that Smith state that two and two equal five. 
Like the totalitarians in 1984, relativists attack the very concept of unchanging truth, arguing that individuals simply make up their own truths from their own senses and personal experiences.
The philosophy of relativism, at first glance, lends itself to ridicule. One snarky response to the relativist statement beginning this post is the question “Is that statement true?” After all, if truth is relative, then surely I can disagree with a statement that others assert and claim it as true - and I would be justified.
But this does not suffice to answer hardcore relativists, who introduce the problem of language into their analysis. Since the word true means different things to different people, the statement can be paradoxical to one person but completely "true" to another person.
This rather cynical belief system (which taken to its logical conclusion precludes all human knowledge) has infected modernity like a plague. Morality, law, religion, human experience – all these are based on mutable tradition and societal custom, according to the relativist, and are not based in "truth."
Very few people are actually relativists, at least in the strictest sense of the term. Few believe that stones are not hard, water is not wet, etc. Most people believe in the inherent reality of the physical world.
But in modern society, there are many moral relativists who argue that good and evil are merely societal constructs, and that "good" and "evil" simply mean different things to different people. Morality is therefore mutable.
Somewhat ironically, moral relativism is often eschewed in practice, even by professed relativists. Very few people actually behave as though moral truth is relative - after all, humans do not all simply kill or steal willy-nilly. Society could not simply not function if everyone acted as if morality were purely relative - society has to agree to a moral code or else self-destruct.
But moral relativism runs rampant in modern society, where it creates interesting logical contradictions. Thus, we have a world where “fetal homicide laws” (in which the murder of a pregnant mother is a double homicide) coexists with legal abortion in all 50 states of America. We have a world where different religions are considered to be equally true. We live in a world where one religion is considered to be just as good as another - even though they make competing, contradictory claims about the nature of God.
Orthodox Catholicism precludes the very concept of relativism. Catholics believe that there is real good and real evil, and a clear distinction between the two. We believe in an absolute truth - and we call that absolute truth is God, the source of all truth and knowledge.

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