“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own sight.” (Judges 21:25)
This verse, which concludes the Book of Judges, is a fitting summary for the book as a whole. The Israelites continually rebel against God, only for a prophet to arise and lead them to repentance, only for them to relapse into sinful behavior again. It may well be a succinct description of our age as well. Moral relativism – the notion that there are no absolute right and wrongs, that you have your truth and I have mine – often is made to be the order of the day in our secular society. Yet I think deep down no one is truly a moral relativist.
Philosophers like to debate whether free will is real or an illusion. The 20th Century philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued that, whether or not free will is real, we all think and act as if it is. Our choice of words reveals this. We all use words like could and would and should, which imply that we have free will and have the capacity to make right or wrong choices.
Something similar occurs with relativism. Consider these two statements:
- There are no absolute truths.
- Racism is wrong.
These cannot both be true. If there are no absolute truths, we’re left in a position where racism might be bad for one person, but good for the next. Conversely, if we’re going to hold (as we should!) that racism is wrong, with no ifs, ands or buts, then we’re saying there are moral certainties, and there are absolute truths in this world.
I think most people, even if they use phrases like “your truth” and “my truth,” do in fact believe that some things are absolutely right and wrong, and absolutely true or false. And if we can agree that there are absolutes, we should consider, explore and discuss what those things are, and how we can build our society around them. (1)
Moral relativism, if followed to its logical end, can only lead to chaos and conflict. If there is no truth, then might makes right. This was how the ancient world operated; Pilate (“What is truth?” – John 18:38) is its spokesperson. (2)
Society does not benefit from an orthodoxy that hides behind relativism when it is confronted with truths it doesn’t like.
The Church has held firmly that there are absolute truths for two millennia; that we can only know the truth through Jesus Christ, the source of all truth; and that (as the Lord tells us) “the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
- As a number of commentators have pointed out, relativism is built on a logical fallacy. “There are no absolute truths” is a statement that posits an absolute truth.
- Bishop Robert Barron has made this critique of relativism in many forums. His Word on Fire is an excellent resource in defending the faith. Tom Holland’s book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Changed the World” describes in some detail how radically Christ’s ethos of love and forgiveness departed from the viewpoint of the ancient world, where the strong dominated the weak as a matter of course.
Image: Ecce Homo (Behold, the man) by Caravaggio (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).