Something that I’ve enjoyed doing for a long time is learning. I’m totally bought into that whole thing about how you’re never to old to learn something knew and how it’s fun to be a life-long learner. One way that I have found is best for me to learn about other people and what they believe is to talk to them. I know, such a novel concept, right? But in all seriousness, conversation is an underutilized learning tool.
Since my beliefs are a big part of my life, and have life-changing implications and consequences, I spend a lot of time talking to people about what they believe, too. Morality and truth come up a lot because those are two things that permeate every culture and affect our decisions every day. It seems like a no-brainer to me to ask people how they define truth and how they know what truth is. How do they set their standards? Are those standards absolute? Do they apply to every person in every situation? Do they have to appeal to anything higher than themselves?
Most common answers I get:
“Just because something is true for me doesn’t mean it’s true for you.”
“Truth is dependent on your culture and upbringing.”
“There are definitely things that are absolutely true in every circumstance, but I have no right to impose those truths on others.”
In some other blogs, I want to discuss these claims, what truth is, subjective and objective truth, and a bunch of other stuff because this is an important, but big discussion. Let’s start by defining relativism. Merriam-Webster defines relativism as “the belief that different things are true, right, etc. for different people at different times.” Another definition from Merriam-Webster is “a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them.” In other words, relativism is the idea that rights and wrongs are up for us to determine as individuals or by societies and cultures. There aren’t any overarching truths that are true in every scenario and because we determine, based on our upbringing, tastes, and perspectives, which vary, what is true. Those first two answers that I gave before that I commonly get give a good look at a relativist mindset. In the book entitled Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Koukl writes about three kinds of relativism: Society Does Relativism, Society Says Relativism, and I Say Relativism.
The claim of Society Does Relativism, also known as cultural or descriptive relativism, is that since people can’t agree on what is true, that means there is no truth to be found. Culture to culture, people seem to follow different standards or morality, so who has the right to claim that his culture has the right standard?
The second type of relativism, Society Says Relativism, says that every society/culture chooses what is right and wrong. This claim differs from Society Does Relativism because instead of saying that the lack of agreement means there is no truth, this claim says that there are multiple truths that vary from society to society. Morality, in the Society Says Relativism worldview, is determined by what is popular. If 49% of a culture believes one thing, and 51% of the culture believes an opposing thing is true, majority rules. Sorry, 49%.
Then we get to the last kind of Relativism, I Say Relativism. In this scenario,the individual gets to decide what is right and wrong. Since the individual has his own truth, you can’t impose your truth on him– your truth is probably just different (but true for you, even if your truth contradicts another person’s). If you’ve ever heard something like, “You don’t know me and my life! This is right for me!” or “You can’t tell me what to do, forcing your morals on me!”, then you’ve been exposed to I Say Relativism before.
I’m going to write about these more in depth in the future, and we’ll look at the flaws of relativism. First, though, I wanted to take a post to define terms, so we’re all on the same page.
Time for some nifty reading recommendations! If you think this topic is interesting, you want to read some stuff from some awesome apologists, or you just want some answers now and can’t wait till my next blog post, chapter 3 of Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (or just the entire book because it’s really good) and http://www.str.org are great starting places.