Objective Truth versus Relativism

Posted on December 4, 2013 by Robert Ringer Comments (30)

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As the social civil wars in America continue over such issues as abortion, gay marriage, redistribution of wealth, racism, immigration, and universal healthcare, one wonders how both sides in these hotly contested debates can be so convinced that they have objective truth on their side.

In fact, it raises the question of whether there really is such a thing as objective, or absolute, truth.  To be absolute, a truth would have to be based on indisputable fact.  Millions of people believe that such truths exist, but millions of others believe it is axiomatic that everything in life — indeed, everything in the universe — is relative.  Some even argue that the very claim that something is a fact is subjective.

Of course, if God exists, then He lays down the rules, and one would have a pretty strong argument that His rules are the objective truth.  On the other hand, if there is no God, one could make a strong argument for the philosophy of relativism.  But would the absence of a Creator really justify defaulting to relativism?

The idea that everything is relative — e.g., right and wrong, moral and immoral, good and evil — implies that everyone’s opinion is equally valid.  The relativist insists that nothing is certain because right and wrong is determined by the circumstances of the moment, and no two sets of circumstances are exactly the same.  In other words, everything is subjectively interpreted through the eyes of the beholder.

It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who popularized relativism in the eighteenth century, and his views were given an explosive rebirth by the anything-goes generation of the 1960s.   Timothy Leary’s  mantra, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” said it all.  Translation:  Life is B.S., nothing matters in the long run, so do whatever makes you feel good right now.

Where God comes into play is that if a person does not believe He exists, he can feel free to make choices based on his desires at any given moment and the circumstances that exist in that moment.  And since no one can definitely prove the existence of God, relativists appear to have a sound case.

After all, who has the omniscience to know for certain whether something is “right” or “wrong?”  Even the belief in relativism — the claim that we cannot know anything with absolute certainty — is subjective.

But, not so fast.  Here’s what’s interesting about the matchup between objective truth and relativism:  The vast majority of civilized people (emphasize, civilized) — whether they be religionists, nonreligious believers in a Creator, or atheists — believe in the basic Judeo-Christian tenets.  (I define an uncivilized person as someone who believes it is justifiable to use force to impose his concept of right and wrong — often masked behind such euphemistic terms as “social justice” and “the greater good” — on others.)

Do you know any civilized person who doesn’t believe that honoring one’s father and mother is the right thing to do?  Or that it’s wrong to lie?  Or steal?  Or engage in adultery?  Or commit murder?

While these rules are included in the Ten Commandments that billions of people believe came directly from God, I’ve never known an atheist who didn’t believe in them as well.  Meaning that, at the end of the day, all civilized people are pretty much on the same page morally.

Which is why I believe that Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, had it right when he said that if there is a God, he doubted that He would punish those who were ignorant of His existence.  What would be the point of punishing ignorance, especially if the “ignorant” person lived his life in accordance with the Ten Commandments?

Taking it to its extreme, what if a person of great character and integrity had never even heard of the Ten Commandments — say, a Cro-Magnon man from thirty thousand years ago?  Would he not be morally superior to a 21st century person who goes to church, knows the Ten Commandments by heart, and talks about them incessantly, but is a thief, a liar, and an adulterer?

I agree with C. S. Lewis’s observation that in most cases where people disagree, even heatedly, they almost never disagree on the concept of right and wrong.  Arguments usually are a result of two people disagreeing — albeit often unconsciously — about which one is guilty of committing a wrong.

Person #1:  “You lied!”

Person #2:  “No, you lied!”

The hypothetical argument above is not about whether lying is right or wrong, but which party is guilty of lying.  One could be an atheist and the other a staunch believer in a Higher Power, yet they are in agreement that lying is wrong.

Thus, I would argue that debating objective truth versus relativism is an unnecessary exercise.  All civilized people know right from wrong without having to refer to scripture, the Constitution, or any other written words.  I thought about this when I read the following e-mail I recently received from a reader:

“I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.  Instead, I do what I hate.  How do I win and have congruence in my thoughts and actions?”

The challenge this reader is trying to cope with is the same one that each of us faces on a daily basis.  In the vast majority of situations, most of us (probably even a majority of those who believe they are relativists) know objective right from objective wrong.  The challenge lies in having the self-discipline and moral strength to do what we know, in our heart of hearts, is right.

Easy to talk about, but not always so easy to do — even for the most virtuous among us.

Robert Ringer

+Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

30 responses to “Objective Truth versus Relativism”

  1. Ben says:

    Like your reader, the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:17-19 (ESV) wrote "So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing." Living according to the virtue we hold is a difficult thing.

  2. Murray Suid says:

    Robert, how does scientific truth fit in here–or at least facts that scientists collect and share? I seem to recall that when Galileo observed the moons of Jupiter–creating an astronomical fact that The Church felt was incompatible with its teachings–the priests refused to look through Galileo's telescope. They trusted their belief system rather than their "lying eyes." So while perhaps Galileo and the priests would agree upon the10 Commandments and other moral statements, they had a big disagreement about the heavens. And the Churchmen were prepared to kill Galileo for his observations.

    • Ian says:

      It's important not to confuse the notion of "God" with "The Church" in this context. In Galileo's time The Church was tantamount to a political power structure in the business of social control. Religion, as a spiritual and philosophical concept has no issue with scientific discovery. Science is the means by which we incrementally seek to understand the reality of the intelligent creator of the cosmos.

    • Kevin says:

      Murray, I think that the Galileo issue was less about the relationship between science and religion, but rather the product of Galileo's unfortunate approach to church politics. Kepler, a committed Christian, had already come to posit a heliocentric universe, without the associated problems that Galileo encountered. The problem was as much to do with the fact that Galileo was challenging the prevailing Aristotelian model which had prevailed for many centuries.

  3. Kelly Kell says:

    I've got to comment on this because your statement "I define an uncivilized person as someone who believes it is justifiable to use force to impose his concept of right and wrong — often masked behind such euphemistic terms as “social justice” and “the greater good” — on other" makes us all uncivilized. Every nation through history has used violence to enforce law, social order and payment of taxes on the subjects and we all submit to it. Try not paying your tax and see how long you remain a free man not subject to violence. If you do not consider having your property seized and your body incarcerated then we have very different ideas about what constitutes force.

    At first glance, this has little to do with making choices based on what you know to be right and wrong, but I live in a nation that preaches that we should take care of the vulnerable, then prescribes the definition of the vulnerable to be basically people who don't really want to work. The definition of right and wrong is taught to us from the time we are young and changes constantly based on the social ideals of the state which exists purely to serve itself. A man, and indeed a woman, must at some stage cast aside what society preaches and grasp firmly on to what they know in their heart is right. This is not so difficult as you say because we all know what is right and what is wrong. What makes it hard is that we live in a society that calls night day and day night, and uses violence to enforce it's views.

  4. Scott theczech says:

    No one "owns" or has exclusive right-of-way to Truth. All any of us can do is point it out when discovered for all to see and test.

  5. Paul Anthony says:

    Sure, lying cheating and stealing are obvious. But right or wrong in many situations is not so easily determined. A recent example: Vancouver just passed a law prohibiting doorknobs. Henceforth, all homes and offices will have levers instead of round twist-knobs. Levers are easier to manipulate for the elderly or for anyone who has their hands full. They think they did the 'right' thing by making this law. But levers are also easy for children and pets to operate. How will parents keep their children safe?
    Sometimes right and wrong really are subjective. The proof is in the consequences.

  6. God is irrelevant. If you are being "good" to avoid the wrath of an angry god, then you are also being "good" not for the sake of improving yourself but to escape punishment. Any god who would eternally punish his creations for not being able to live up to his expectations is a monster and much to be avoided.

    • John E. Gabor says:

      You contradict yourself. The fact that you can feel that way and speak that way is evidence that God gives us free will. Within that free will, we determine our own eternity.

      • God gives nothing of the sort. We all have free will but that does not imply or prove in any way a divine being. Consider: if there is no god, how does that imply that free will does not exist? Free will does not rely on a god or other mythical being.

        • Kevin says:

          If there's no God, then you've no objective basis for positing free will. If there is no God, then you are merely a very small physical component in a much larger closed physical system, dominated by physical forces. The best you can say (if indeed there is such a thing as 'you', because without God the whole basis for understanding objective reality is now suddenly suspect) is that it 'feels' as if you have free will, but that might simply be your perception – since, as a physical component of a much larger physical reality, then you are entirely at the whim of deterministic forces.

          You need an objective Creator God to create you in his image so that you have the capacity to interact objectively with a larger physical reality – otherwise, as far as you are concerned, you are simply plugged into the Matrix, dreaming your dreams.

  7. Todd says:

    The Christian knows that death is an evil intruder in this world. It came into the world because of man's sin. All men have sinned and are estranged from the God who made them. If you need proof of this; go through the 10 commandments and see if you have obeyed them all…all thorough your life. If you have broken even just one, even just once, you are guilty. Have you ever lied? Have you ever stolen anything, ever? Have you ever looked with lust, even just once. Have you ever used God's name in vain, even just once? You see, you are guilty. And that's why we die. Sin brought death into the world…and death is our one great nemesis. The Bible tell us that after death, there is the judgment, where we must give an account for all we have done. What will be your excuse? What will you bargain for yourself? This was the point of Christ's sacrifice. He stepped in to die for us, as the substitutionary atoning sacrifice. But we must turn from our sin, and trust in what Christ did, turning ourselves over to Him, completely. Once we do this, our debt has been paid in full…and we have abundant eternal life in Him…and full joy. Then, He works in us to avoid sin and free us. Christ said that He is the way, and the truth, and the life. Imagine anyone saying that he, himself, is the truth! Not that he has the truth…but that he is the truth. Christ also said, he had the power to forgive sin and that he existed without beginning. ("Abraham longed to see my day, he saw it and was glad" is just one example.) So, turn from your sin, trust in Christ, read the Bible, beginning with the gospel of John…and learn the truth…absolutely.

    • Todd, you are being illogical. The 10 commandments prove nothing save that a group of people long ago came up with laws that they favored. The laws themselves have no bearing on the proof of a supernatural being. Here is a simple test; the Gospel of Narbonne which states: " I am the Lord, thy God, perfect in every way and all knowing and all powerful. If you doubt this or lack the slightest bit of faith in anything I utter, no matter how stupid it seems to you, I shall smite the fizz out of you now and forever. But I shall appoint angels to protect thee although you may be slain by idolators anyway." Now, Todd, you see clearly the I, the Narbonne, am your god. And I can prove it. Just consult the Gospel of Narbonne above. See? It is written! Case closed.
      Keep track of your own "sin", I will keep track of mine and I am willing to bear responsibility for my errors on my own as I am a functioning adult. I don't need or desire a "saviour" or messiah. By the by, Todd, if you lied to me, I wouldn't kill you for it. Is your god a sociopath or something?

  8. Debbie Ayton says:

    I feel the very fact that God does exsist makes relativism relevant because as Jesus said ‘we are just like God’ so we can create our own reality. And as quantum physics determines there is nothing real because everything is energy and what’s ‘out there’ is just a reflection of our mind. ‘There is no right or wrong there is only judgement which makes it so’

    • Angelo says:

      I note some conceptual confusion by the persons who states that “nothing is real because everything is energy” regarding quantum physics. I’ll let the observation go at that because discussing the subject in a forum will take up more space and time than what is available.

    • Debbie, energy is very real. Stick your finger in a light socket and you will see.

    • american real says:

      Really, Debbi? I'd think more carefully about what you have stated. "There is no right or wrong…" really? Can you answer my question about rape and murder, then? Rape is OK and murder, too, if the person who carries out those actions thinks so? What is your answer?

  9. Helen says:

    St. Paul: I do what I hate, and I hate what I do. How many amongst us?????

  10. NoSpin says:

    "Objective Truth versus Relativism"
    The issue as far as the Christian Bible is concerned is NOT determining good from evil. [Relativity, the viewpoint changes according to self interest]

    This was the serpent's ploy to snag mankind away from the LIFE of God [Genesis3]
    The issue as far as the God of the Bible is concerned is that incredible as it may seem, Good and Evil are totally vs God's way which is His LIFE! [As exemplified by the River of Life and the Tree of Life].
    This Biblical view conflicts utterly with man's perception of social justice etc. But LIFE is the foundation and core of Biblical truth as received from the Creator.

    Unfortunately 99.99999999999999999% of the human race believes the issue is the social triumph of Good over Evil by human knowledge, willpower or opinion. Lapses in either by anyone can create subsequent social chaos. [Politicians leaders eg]. No such social conflict exists in the physical plant and animal realms only integrated harmony down to the nano level.

    Actually Genesis 3 reveals that it is only LIFE that prevails and that LIFE is totally against Good and/or Evil. Jesus came that e might have LIFE not the chaos resulting from everyone determining for themselves and implementing Good instead of Evil.

    Romans 7 says the good that I would I find I cannot but I default to evil despite my best efforts. In this Paul despaired, regarding himself a wretched man until he discovered LIFE in Christ in Romans .

    All man made LAW concerns choosing and implementing Good over Evil.
    God's way is choosing His abundant LIFE which contains/provides an inherent enabling and motivation to implement His will.

    A society based purely on knowing knowing and implementing Good and repudiating Evil will inevitably end in social hell because of SIN. LAWs are restrictive and punishing but outside of the Life of the Biblical Creator they are a necessary evil.

    God's enemy Satan seduced the original pair to Good and Evil despite God's dire warning that such a choice would inevitably end in [Physical and Social] death.

    The absence of God's indwelling Life is a massive problem for mankind [all sons of Adam] Because of the Cross of Christ we can today revise our choice from the "knowledge" of the approx 99.99999999% to receive Life from Him in whose image and likeness we were made, or we can remain with the default status quo with consequences that lead not to Divine approval or the Divine Kingdom of social harmony and joy but to the misery of social chaos of the rejected Adam.

  11. JoAnn Martin says:

    NoSpin, can you expand on what you mean by His Abundant Life, and Life through Christ as you are referring to it here. I truly am interested in your response. Thank you

  12. Robby Bonter says:

    Honoring one's parents, while a nice tribute, can be taken too far, such as going along with their position on the social, religious and political issues of the day, "to keep the peace." Parents can be control-freaks when it comes to laying out the life-course for their children and dictating what their life-affirming "values" should be.

    Many children, as young adults, possess an ingrained fear of going against their parents wishes. I knew a young man who was a brilliant baseball pitcher in prep school, heavily-scouted by multiple major league teams. His father threatened to kick him out of the family and cut off his access to his mother unless he stayed home and helped the father run the family business. The young man dutifully bypassed signing a professional baseball contract, accordingly.

    Ask yourself, did your parents try to interfere with your marriage plans by "disapproving" of your intended spouse and by threatening to cut off your inheritance? Did your parents threaten you with sanctions over religious, social or political issues differences? Did your parents push you along paths in life you had no aptitude for or interest in, such as making you take violin or ballet lessons to try to inhibit your natural assertiveness and athleticism? Were you given a "junior" appendage to your name as an extension of your father's domineering will and vanity?

    In sum, while some parents are supportive and encouraging of the development of individuality in their children, many, it seems, are selfish, dictatorial, and self-serving, where it comes to seeing their children as an extension of their own overblown, fragile egos.

    All too often parents are when it comes to filling their children with guilt, shame, and "family obligation" propaganda, foremost. I say the institution of parenthood is over-rated, so that young people owe it to themselves to get out into the world and find out who they are, more than any obligation they have to perpetuate their parents hard line control tactics. This is how one can best serve oneself and society.

  13. Doc says:

    Relativism can be disproved by a simple test. Gravity. Gravity is a fact. If you think gravity is relative then try stepping off a 50 story building and see if you can float. There are many other absolute truths and facts that can not be disputed but ignorant people try all the time. We give them the Darwin Awards.

  14. Richard Lee Van says:

    Jesus probably turned over in his tomb when reflecting on what has been done in his name! LOL

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    The caribbean and also latin america. If you are a directv individualDIRECTV Now Login Official AccountYou could rapidly enroll to this service and start obtaining gain from this facility.

  16. Richard Lee Van says:

    I trust the thinking of Viktor Frankl any time and every time over Bible Thumpers who couldn't think their way out of a paper bag! I wasn't even a teenager yet and I already question some of the nonsense our preacher spewed! I couldn't ask my mother questions because she attended church only to show off her new clothes and her handsome little boy. It was a long and productive process before I finally broke with prescriptive religion. I figure God gave me a good mind and it has been my job to use it!

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