What’s Wrong with Relativism?

For at least two decades I have understood and taught that the main problem with relativism is that it is false. Further, relativism isn’t just false, it is also illogical, irrational, self-defeating and incoherent.

But I’ve come to realize that’s not the main problem with relativism. 

Let me briefly illustrate my former approach. Consider Statement A: “All truth is relative.” Sometimes you hear it like this: “Well, that’s just your opinion,” with the implicit sense that all truth claims are just different people’s perspectives.

Is Statement A absolutely true or just true for you?

If Statement A is absolutely true, then it is false. And if it just true for the person who said it, well, it is still false.

Is it just your opinion that what I’ve said is merely my own opinion? Or do you have the authority to declare the truth about my beliefs?

The intellectual problems with this kind of relativism are so obvious, in fact, that I’ve often been puzzled why anyone would believe it. 

Still, this isn’t a straw man. When I was in campus ministry, I had a conversation along these lines — hopefully in a respectful, kind, and genuinely loving manner — with dozens and dozens of students. Even a lazy relativism needs a thoughtful response. 

But I’ve come to realize that the main problem with relativism isn’t intellectual. If anything, I feel embarrassed for how long it took me to realize this. 

Here’s the real issue with relativism, for most people: it is a convenient posture that helps us justify doing whatever we want to do. It often serves as an escape route from serious reflection on our moral commitments. 

So let’s say that we convince such a person to not be a relativist but to embrace the reality of absolute truth. That’s a good thing! It’s progress. Well done.

But if they still want a convenient way of justifying whatever it is they want to do, they’ll bring that heart attitude to their acceptance of absolute truth. 

After the conversation ends, there’s an equally selfish person who is ready to accept whatever selection of absolute truths that will conveniently align with what they already wanted to do. 

If the heart hasn’t changed, then “each person decides what’s moral for themselves” can easily morph nto, “It is absolutely true that adults can enjoy any kind of sex as long as they consent to it.” And if you disagree with that absolute truth, what are you? It is the transition from the live-and-let-live attitude to the posture where, say, those who affirm Biblical ethics are generally understood to be bigots. 

The other problem with responding to relativism as a purely intellectual issue is that it lets us off the hook. Perched in the impregnable castle of absolute truth, we can relax as we casually dismantle the challenge of relativism. But that approach misses the heart issues that we face.

We need to admit that we are also selfish and proud. We misuse absolute truth in order to benefit ourselves at the expense of others. We judge those who hold to relativistic beliefs while remaining blind to how lightly we follow the requirements of absolute truth.

This is an equally absurd position: because I believe in absolute truth, I live accordingly? No way. Your heart and my heart will find a way to justify our sin — whatever we believe or say we believe about the truth. And that’s absolutely true.

Of course there’s a place for an intellectual discussion about relativism. The problem isn’t that we reasonably engage with relativism, but that in the process, we often neglect to deal with our hearts.

Giving Credit:

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash