Objective Truth versus Relativism

Posted on May 1, 2018 by Robert Ringer


As the social civil wars in America continue to heat up, one wonders how both sides in these hotly contested debates can be so convinced they have objective truth on their side.  Actually, 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, in itself, 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 an equally 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 are 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 at any given point in time.

It was 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 definitively 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 here’s what’s really interesting about the matchup between objective truth and relativism:  The vast majority of civilized people — 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 mother and father is the right thing to do?  Or that it’s wrong to lie?  Or steal?  Or commit murder?

While these rules are included in the Ten Commandments, which millions 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 moral page regardless of their religious beliefs.

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 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 liar, a leaker, and a master of “weasel moves”?  (Sorry, but I couldn’t resist.)

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 are usually a result of two people disagreeing — albeit often unconsciously — about which of them is guilty of wrongdoing.

In other words, the argument is not about whether lying is right or wrong, but which party is guilty of lying.  One person 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 — repeat, 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 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 so easy to do — even for the most virtuous among us.  Especially in our brave new world of perverse thought.

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. Guest says:

    Even the most virtuous among us…thousands of years ago St Paul wrote almost exactly the same words as your reader – that he knows what is right but finds himself doing what he hates even though he knows it is wrong. Your reader might have found that comforting to know – this is difficult even for saints.

    Doesn't help with the media spouting nonsense at us from all directions, both the Left and the Right. People waste a lot of time arguing about which extreme is more stupid, left extreme or right extreme, as if there's a prize for who is the least foolish among fools.

    • notpropagandized says:

      Aha! "News", we discover is not so interested in actual news as in the dramatization of news and the arguments that result in big ratings and ad sales. We are a society of money and mammon, not so much honor and integrity. The latter better arms us to resist doing what we hate. The former damages our character as we compromise righteousness.
      So, our media sows seeds of discord among the brethren, among the worst of sins.

  2. ftintin says:

    If you say everything is relative, you are stating an objective truth. Thus, the relativist is an absolutist.

  3. Bfenn says:

    This thinking puts us all squarely within the dilemma of our present Southern border situation. If we are to be godlike in our thinking, or right or wrong in allowing every person on earth entrance to our country with no discretion, (all comers). How can we / I / you justify turning this country into the next a_ _hole world community and justifiably explain to the next generation of "Americans" how we became such.

  4. Scott Theczech says:

    No one “owns” truth. The best we can do is to discover truth when and where we find it, point to it, and ask; do you see what I see, do you hear what I hear….? Truth just is and our mission as humans is to seek it and apply it.

  5. Rick G. says:

    A true Realist bases his philosophical beliefs on objective truth. Any deviation from objective truth and reality is unrealism, and hence a lie. This is what is causing so many irrational personal, social, political, and moral problems today. Just open your eyes and look around you to see it.

    • Jean says:

      With regard to personal, social and political problems, I agree with your premise. However, moral problems may not be so easy to relate to a lack of objective truth. It seems that the one truth embraced by the least moral people is: "Force is the most effective means of reaching a goal." Whether that goal is power or possessions, it's clear that a large swath of the population believes that the ends justify the means. Does that make the use of force in non-life threatening situations moral? And is that the society in which you would choose to live?

      • Jim Hallett says:

        Commit No Aggression is the foundational principle of any true libertarian, and to me, it is always a truth, whether or not anyone else gives it the title of "Absolute." Most everyone agrees with the Golden Rule, and yet most of the world violates it on a regular basis. Even those who have a strong religious foundation are guilty of trying to "force" their truth on others, rather than just living those principles. The whole world of governments and politics is immoral to begin with since it involves a monopoly on force and is based on theft, coercion, murder, and a whole lot of other obvious "sins!" For starters, just allowing others to pursue their happiness without violating others' pursuits would be a good start, and it is what motivated the Founders. However, now it has just devolved into an expanding list of "rights" and arguing who has the right to enforce their agenda. The answer is NO ONE!!! This is how a society crumbles when relativism becomes the dominant value.

  6. Duane says:

    The reader you mentioned is agreeing with Scripture, even if he/she is not aware of it. Interesting that the Bible speaks so clearly to the common human experience.

    Romans 7:15-21 New King James Version (NKJV)

    15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. 16 If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. 19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. 20 Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 21 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good.

  7. Tom says:

    without Gods holey word, there is no absolute truth. The majority may agree on what is true, but that far from makes it the absolute truth. In the world system, truth is dictated by the ruler and rulers of this world. As for the 10 commandments, atheists do not believe in them, that they were given by the God of Moses to Moses. They may or may not believe in1 or as many as 10 and may even add some of there own, depends on who they are listening to at any given time.

    • Rick G. says:

      But that 'truth' which is dictated, is it really the absolute, objective truth? History has shown that in most cases it is not. Just look back to see the "truth" dictated by national and international socialism, namely, Communism, Fascism, and Nazism, to name a few.. Such "truth" imposed on the unwilling masses left countless dead and enormous annihilation.

  8. William J. Laux says:

    As I learned many years ago, “spiritus quidem promptus est, caro autem infirma” — the sprit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. “I want to do the right thing, but…”

  9. Sean says:

    "There is no such thing as absolute truth"!! You can't use an absolute to prove absolutes don't exist. It's what is known as a "self detonating statement".

  10. Richard Lee Van Der says:

    Viktor Frankl is excellent! His fat book is THE DOCTOR AND THE SOUL. He susrvived The Camps by helping others. VF, an amazing human being!

  11. James says:

    …this is all so "very tiresome,"…just sayin.' A merri-go-round comes to mind…nothing new in this convo

  12. Robby Bonfire says:

    Robert –

    Who says atheists are "civilized people" who do not believe in lying, theft, murder, etc? Just check out the Bolshevik Revolution and the massive personal suffering and material extortion and expropriation of valuables and property perpetrated by the Lenin/Stalin/Mao totalitarian despots and tell me our present day heirs to the Marxist playbook are as spiritually, economically, and socially advanced as are the more prudent, decent, and ethical people among us?

    Me thinks you give the other side far too much credit, when, in fact these absolutist terror mongers among us are fanatical about reducing us non-believers in their ideological supremacy to ashes, soon enough.

    Know your enemy or perish in your ignorance of his savagery, starting with our inviting them, by the undocumented millions, to come to our nation and take up residence among us, on the specious notion that most of them have voting "Democrat" as their primary political and social motivation for invading our soil.

    • Bfenn says:

      HEAR, HEAR! Robby B.
      I wholeheartedly agree and wish to bow to your writing eloquence. I could only suggest whereas you have expounded.

      • Robby Bonfire says:

        Awfully kind of you to say that, sir, understanding this is Mr. Ringer's exceptionally fine column, not my own.

        Just for laughs, you should see the intense hostility I generate at the Philly Sixers blog where I post my iconoclastic opinions re the wretched blunderings of the home team's management team. "Popularity" is not everyone's goal in life, certainly not mine.

  13. NoSpin says:

    The Biblical Apostle Paul despairingly describes himself in Romans 7 as a "wretched man" because he could not keep God's law. Even those parts of which he strongly approved he found himself unable to consistently carry out. He fears estrangement from God.
    Paul despairingly ascribes his failure as due to "another" [stronger] presence – which is so persistent that it is described as certain to operate against his will as a law. This law is permanently resident in his physical body.
    In Romans 8 We find the solution. Paul thanks God for Jesus Christ and declares triumphantly "The Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death." It can be the same for us, the Holy Spirit enters [strictly by invitation] and indwells us legitimately displacing the usurping presence.
    After His entry, we are no longer our own, we belong to Him, .
    1 Corinthians 6:19,20 [As in a Biblical marriage]
    We are not forced, we decide to accept or reject God as the Holy Spirit.
    The God of Romans 8 continues His work of the cross by enabling and supervising the building up of the Body of Christ, [AKA New Jerusalem, AKA Tree of LIFE, AKA the Bride of Christ].
    No person is ALONE in this joyful corporate entity.
    The displacement of the "other LAW" is the ONLY way prescribed by the Bible to be reconciled to God.
    It was made possible by the solitary Christ enduring the cross. Freedom from the "other LAW" is God's desire for all mankind. God's glory is restored in any of mankind willing to participate.
    "It is not good that man should dwell alone"
    "Not good" is possibly the most powerful and chilling factual understatement that has ever been uttered. AKA "If …… Ye shall surely die!"
    Man's insatiable thirst for physical water is a metaphor for his insatiable desire for his spiritual Creator [in whose image he was made]. God is a River of water of Life for the socially thirsty. Rev 22:1 Rev 22:17
    Christ suffered rejection and endured alone to provide our oneness and cure man's perpetual division as he blunders through a social wilderness of darkness [death]
    Christ said "I thirst" from the cross, "I thirst", [to provide us with genuine oneness]. Matt 10:34-39 John 17:26
    Death is not relative nor is man's desire for collective comfort. These are most potent absolutes. Let Godless Rousseau debate these realities from the solitude of his grave.

  14. Hrlen Roberts says:

    "O how I hate the things I do and yet I do the things I hate". St. Paul

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