The internet is full of articles and videos about what relativism is, so I’m not going to pretend to be writing anything new or profound in this short essay. All I am going to try to do is at least pique some interest: thinking about this is way more important than totally getting it, especially since there is so much out there, good and bad, to feed your curiosity. So I will first give an explanation of what relativism is, and then I’ll propose three reasons why I think relativism fails.


What is Relativism?

If I asked you if St Mary’s Cathedral in Cape Town is a big building, the answer would depend on what we compare St Mary’s to. Compared to the Chapel at Schoenstatt in Constantia or to the average McDonalds outlet, St Mary’s is huge, but compared to the International Convention Centre or Cape Town Stadium, St Mary’s is actually quite small. It would seem from this that if I asked you that question, the answer would depend on what St Mary’s is compared with. Another way of saying this is in the question St Marys relative to what?  If I ask you if St Mary’s Cathedral is a big building, the answer would be it depends: relative to a McDonalds, St Marys is a big building; relative to Cape Town Stadium, St Marys is a small building.


The point is that St Mary’s is not a big building in itself. Whether or not it is a big building depends on something outside of itself like a McDonald’s or Cape Town Stadium. Relativism works in a similar way. Relativism is the idea that all truth (moral, knowledge, beauty, etc) depends on what the question is relative to: culture, religion, personal views and opinions, etc. In terms of moral truth, for example, relativism is the idea that there are no absolute moral truths, and that all moral questions are relative to the person asking the question; it depends on something outside of itself. If we ask whether sex outside of marriage is immoral, the relativist will answer something like “if you think that it is immoral, then it’s immoral for you; if I think it is not immoral, then it is not immoral for me”. It depends on the person and his views. Relativists also like to “agree to disagree”, because when you agree to disagree, it means there is no absolute answer to the question, the answer is relative to each person and so the only way out of this discussion is to agree to disagree, because “we’re both right”, even if we believe opposite things.


We see this so often and everywhere in the world, in many different forms, some more subtle than others. It seems quite lets all hold hands and sing kumbaya-esque, so what’s wrong with this approach?


Its Self-Defeating

The first and probably most basic problem with relativism is that it is self-destructive. Relativism says that all truth is relative to the person asking the question. But if this is true, then the principle of relativism (“all truth is relative to the person asking the question”) must be one of those truths, which means that relativism is only true if the person asking the question thinks it’s true. If the next person thinks relativism is false, then according to relativism the principle of relativism is false. In this way, relativism is false, even in terms of relativism.


Some Things are Kinda Obvious

The second problem with relativism is that if all truth is relative to the person asking the question, then it must be possible for anything to be true, good or beautiful, even if only hypothetically; even if nobody actually believes it’s true, good or beautiful. With grey areas which don’t have any obvious bad results, this doesn’t seem like a problem. For example, we could probably say that if two consenting, psychologically mature adults who love each other want to get married, this should be allowed, even if the two individuals in question are of the same sex. It is tempting to say, in such situations, that the decision of whether or not it is moral for these two individuals to get married should be left to the two individuals concerned; whether or not it is moral is relative to the persons asking the question.


But if we look at other more clear cut situations, it doesn’t make sense to say that the decision about whether or not something is moral depends on the person asking the question. Picture this: during the Holocaust, Nazi soldiers would line hundreds of Jewish families up on an open piece of land and make the men dig trenches. Once the trenches were dug, the soldiers would shoot into the crowd of families. Some of the children who survived the shooting were not shot so that they could toss the corpses of their parents into the trenches and so that the soldiers could save bullets. And once the corpses were in the trenches, the surviving children were thrown into the trenches, alive, and buried with the deceased.


Is it really the case that the actions of those soldiers are immoral only because persons judge it to be immoral? What if persons don’t judge it to be immoral? What if some person judged their actions to be moral? In fact, somebody did judge such actions to be moral: Adolf Hitler. According to relativism, the actions of those soldiers can be seen as morally good. And there are countless other examples of obviously bad actions that can never be judged to be morally good. Think about cold-blooded murder committed because somebody was dared to do it; or think about how Black people were treated under apartheid; or think about torturing animals on Guy Fawkes. Are these things morally bad really just because some people think they are bad? Is it possible for these things to be morally good? If somebody thinks these things are morally good, are they really morally good?


It seems kinda obvious to me that certain actions are morally bad no matter what people think.


And Some Things are Better than Others

The third problem with relativism is that if all truth is relative to the person asking the question, then things have no truth, beauty or goodness in themselves, because all truth, beauty and goodness in things come from people and their views and opinions. This applies in morality, but I want to make this point in examples from art. It is difficult to determine who is a more accomplished artist when comparing two artists like Bruno Mars and Justin Bieber, for example. The relativist will propose to resolve this difficulty by saying “all truth is relative to the person asking the question”, so if the person asking likes Bruno more than Bieber, then Bruno is better than Bieber. If the person asking the question is a Belieber, then Bieber is better than Bruno.


Well, what if someone comes along and says that the guy who wrote Ba Ba Black Sheep is as accomplished an artist as Bach who wrote Sleepers Awake? What if someone comes along and says the picture your cousin in kindergarten drew with a green crayon is as artistically accomplished as da Vinci who painted the Mona Lisa? The relativist will have to admit that all of these works of art are not beautiful in themselves, just like St Mary’s is not big in itself, and that they are only beautiful when and if persons think they are beautiful.


It seems obvious to me though that Michael Jackson’s art is much more beautiful than anything I could rustle up on my guitar. According to the relativist, it is possible for my one dimensional drawing of Table Mount to be as beautiful as the frescos in the Sistine Chapel: as long as somebody thinks so. This seems obviously false to me. And it makes relativism false too.



The problem with relativism, in my view, is the idea that things don’t have truth value in themselves: that they are only true, good or beautiful because persons think so. I think relativism is one of the deceptions of the modern age that shows us, as human beings, that there is this world out there, waiting to be discovered: it’s not only about what we think. Resisting the temptation to agree to disagree and realising that there are answers to the great questions we have about life is an important step to reclaim our status as wonderers, which is what makes us human beings such a special bunch.


About the AuthorProfile Wade

Wade Seale

If, on my death-bed, I ended up as one-part Jack Sparrow, one-part Benedict XVI and one-part Steve Jobs, I would think I’ve lived a life. I am most interested in the philosophical side of theology and the theological side of philosophy, with a few other swashbuckling distractions. I play a little rhythm guitar in one or two bands and am an amateur cook. From time to time I visit the gym, but have no particular goals of losing weight or building muscle: I figure a few minutes on a treadmill is better than watching Top Gear reruns. I’ve lived in Cape Town all my life and plan to move to Malaga, Spain soon to pursue a PhD.