In my last blog on relativism, I covered three different types of relativism and explained what they were. You can check that one out here.
Now that I’ve covered the types of relativism, you might recognize a few relativistic arguments that you’ve heard in conversations with friends, families, or even just chatting in line at a store. Relativism is a pretty common way of thought, but there are a few reasons why relativism doesn’t really work out.
First of all, relativism is chock-full of self-defeating statements. Self-defeating statements are ones that set standards or make claims, and don’t live up to their own standards and claims. If I said to you, “I can’t speak one word of English”, that would be a self-defeating claim. Clearly, I can speak a word of English because I just said 7 English words in that sentence. The claim proves itself to be wrong. One common relativist claim you might hear is “There is no such thing as truth!” But isn’t that a truth claim? So you could respond by saying, “Is that statement absolutely true?”, and the flaw in the argument would be clear. A similar statement you might hear is “Nobody can know what truth is!” Then, you could ask, “How do you know that is true?” A third really common statement that is self-defeating statement usually says something like “You shouldn’t be so intolerant of others!” or “It’s really wrong of you to be judgmental.” The first one you could respond to by saying, “Are you being intolerant of my view?” The second is similar because you could say “Are you being judgmental of my view?” Sometimes, we easily overlook self-defeating statements, and just take them. However, upon closer examination, these statements are everywhere in relativism, and they logically cannot stand.
The second flaw in relativism ties in with the first flaw. A relativist cannot say why anything is wrong. If there are no truths and absolutes, and everything is just preference and opinion, then we wouldn’t be able to tell anyone that they’re wrong. Why have a justice system? Criminals are just doing what they think is best. And there would be no difference between good things and bad things because it’s all up to the individual. You would have to say that there’s no difference between charity work and murder because they are both good according to the people doing the action.Clearly, though, we can see problems with unethical behavior and we are pleased with ethical behavior. We can make a distinction between good and bad, but relativism can’t say that anything is right or wrong.
If a relativist has a problem with self-defeating statements, and can’t say why anything is wrong, then, when relativists make judgments about other people’s actions, they have to contradict their own views. Without fail, like all people do, relativists have to make moral judgments. If you say I’m wrong for calling someone something rude, you’re making a moral judgement. If you say a person shouldn’t steal something from you, you’re making a moral judgement. Relativists simply cannot avoid contradicting their own beliefs in their speech and actions.
The last flaw in relativism is that it isn’t neutral. It pushes things like shunning the idea of overarching truths, and argues that there are no absolutes. The underlying assumption in relativism is that people who believe that truths can be absolute are wrong.
Relativism is common, but it just can’t stand on its own. Logically, it beats itself up. Without even realizing it, we are exposed to relativist ideas all the time, and in the next and final part of this series, we’ll look at some good examples of relativistic thought.
More nifty reading recommendations! If you want to learn more about the flaws in relativism, here are some good sources that I used today, and some that I didn’t that are just really good.