The Erratic, Unstable, Whimsical, Uneven, Self-Refuting Nature of Relativism



Below is an excerpt from an article written by Dr. Stephen Bauer titled "Identity, Exclusivity, and Inclusivity." In this excerpt Dr. Bauer works with material from Francis Beckwith to demonstrate the fallacy behind religious and moral relativism. The content is so genius that I just had to share it. To read the artile in its entirety click here.

Identity, Exclusivity, and Inclusivity
(an excerpt) by Stephen Bauer, Phd.



Francis Beckwith states: “Many people see moral relativism as necessary for promoting tolerance, non-judgmentalism, and inclusiveness, for they think if one believes one’s moral position is correct and others’ incorrect, one is close-minded and intolerant. I will argue . . . that relativism itself cannot live up to its own reputation, for it is promoted by its proponents as the only correct view on morality. This is why relativists typically do not tolerate nonrelativist views, judge those as mistaken, and maintain that relativism is exclusively right.”12

Further, Beckwith observes that “the principle of tolerance is considered one of the key virtues of relativism.” He then reveals a paradox: “The moral relativist embraces the view that one should not judge other cultures and individuals, for to do so would be intolerant. . . . Ironically, the call to tolerance by relativists presupposes the existence of at least one nonrelative, universal, and objective norm: tolerance.”13

The fact that tolerance functions as an absolute moral value causes the relativist a problem. Thus, in another volume co-authored with Gregory Koukl, Beckwith levels the challenge that “if there are no objective moral rules, . . . there can be no rule that requires tolerance as a moral principle that applies equally to all.”14 Beckwith summarizes his complaints in three points. “First, the relativist says that if you believe in objective moral truth you are wrong. Hence relativism is judgmental. Second, it follows from this that relativism is excluding your beliefs from the realm of legitimate options. Thus relativism is exclusivist. And third, because relativism is exclusivist, all nonrelativists are automatically not members of the ‘correct thinking’ party. So relativism is partisan.”15

Beckwith concludes that the moral relativist is thus confronted with a dilemma: “Judging someone as wrong makes one intolerant, yet one must first think another is wrong in order to be tolerant.”16 Put another way, because relativism has an absolute moral standard—tolerance—while denying there are absolute moral standards and because tolerance acts judgmentally and intolerantly, Beckwith charges that “Ethical relativism is thus repudiated by itself.”17

In Shakespearian imagery, the moral relativist is “hoist[ed] with his own petard,” or, as expressed by Paul, “You who pass judgment on someone else, . . . are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Rom. 2:1). This paradox, however, can work in reverse as well.

Beckwith explores the obverse side of the tolerance paradox by arguing that to be tolerant of others in moral debate, one must first be an absolutist. Arguing from a major dictionary definition of tolerance, Beckwith asserts, “tolerance, then involved permitting or allowing a conduct or point of view you think is wrong while respecting the person in the process. Notice that we cannot tolerate others unless we disagree with them. We don’t tolerate people who share our views. Instead, tolerance is reserved for those we think are wrong.”18

In his other volume, Beckwith refines his point: “Tolerance presupposes a moral judgment of another’s viewpoint. That is to say, I can only be tolerant of those ideas that I think are mistaken. I am not tolerant of that with which I agree; I embrace it. And I am not tolerant of that for which I have no interest (e.g., European professional soccer); I merely have benign neglect for it. (That is, I don’t care one way or another.)”19


The problem, then, is this. To be tolerant, I must first believe something is right or wrong, but to believe something is right or wrong implies some kind of definite standard that reveals the rightness or wrongness of the issue in question. On the basis of Beckwith’s observations, it seems that the moral relativist is, in reality, a closet moral absolutist, making moral judgments of others’ views based on fixed standards of good and evil as defined by moral relativism.

It thus seems impossible to avoid espousing fixed, absolute moral standards in some form or other, and hence the reversal is now complete. In order to be tolerant, one must first have clear, defined standards to know whom to tolerate. Relativism along with its moral norm of tolerance together become entrenched, fixed markers of identity, thus creating boundaries with which to determine who is included in the ranks of the faithful and who is not.

Similarly, when a proposed moral norm like inclusiveness or tolerance becomes the litmus test of identity, such an issue becomes invested, not only with the absolute of a fixed standard, but also with a quasi-political nature that, like medieval church power, seeks to oppress or eliminate dissidence. A crusade mentality is easily inculcated, fostering a fundamental exclusion of contradictory views, relegating them to inferior status. Therefore, for inclusiveness to achieve its stated purpose, there must be some other basis of identity that allows us to recognize who is not part of our “fold” so that we can reach out inclusively. The paradox, then, is that we must have a clear, exclusive identity based in something other than inclusiveness, in order to be inclusive.


__________
12. Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 3.
13. Ibid., p. 11.
14. Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1998), p. 69.
15. Beckwith, Defending Life, op cit., pp. 13, 14, italics in original.
16. Beckwith, Relativism, op cit., p. 149.
17. Beckwith, Defending Life, op cit., p. 14, italics in original.
18. Beckwith, Relativism, op cit., p. 149.
19. Beckwith, Defending Life, op cit., p. 12.


The Facebook dialogue over this article was pretty interesting. Sadly, it is a bit of a cliff hanger, but still worth sharing!



  • Luke Gonzalez Took a few philosophy classes, and I have to say, this isn't technically true. A Relativist doesn't actually argue that there never can be an absolute truth, but rather, because humans are colored by their surroundings and because we cannot all perceive the same things in the same way (this is actually completely true even for Christians), therefore we cannot arrive at an objective truth because objective truth cannot be obtained through subjective understandings of the world (ie, everything we know as humans since human understanding is entirely subjective). 

    Therefore, there is a maxim within relativism and that's there's no way to obtain absolute truth as we're all subjective beings. Therefore, to a relativist, all truths are true because all truths are only fractions of the truth through subjective lenses. But, the only truth they can claim is entirely false is that a subjective human has obtained objective truth.

    TL;DR: Relativists are more complex than just saying "All truths are equal." They have a mental framework for their beliefs that does have a logical foundation that is based on modern science. As much as I would love to use an argument like this against Relativists, I know it would be lying because I am defining Relativist in the wrong way and then performing a straw man argument and therefore being intellectually unfaithful and, in my opinion, unchristian.
    19 hours ago · Unlike · 2
  • Andrew Ochoa @ Luke, Suggestion: Law of Rational Inference and Law of Non-contradiction.
    19 hours ago · Unlike · 1
  • Candice N Marcos Torres Great point Luke! I would counter this, however, by stating that it all depends on what kind of relativist we are talking about. For the sake of argument I will say there are 2 kinds of relativists (though there are more). The first is the cognitive relativist and the second is the pop-cultural relativist. The cognitive relativist is one who actually ponders the philosohy that drives him along with its implications. For this relativist I would agree that the above argument has its limitations. But by the time post-modern relativism makes its way down from the philosophers to the pop-culture it has been oversimplified in order to become a part of that pop-culture. This has to happen because 1) pop-culture is lazy, 2) pop-culture is fast-food, and 3) pop-culture is and has always been "dumb" (to borrow from William Lane Craig). So for the pop-cultural relativist "all truths are equal" tends to be the mantra and little thought and energy is placed into actually developing and understadning that mantra. So again, for a cognitive relativist this argument does indeed have its limitations (though i do beleive it can be strengthened by redefining relativism in cognitive terms). But for a pop-cultural relativist, yes, this argument works perfectly. And the reality is that the majority of relativists are so due to pop-culture, not philosophical epiphanies that they dedicate time to pondering, hence the argument would be helpful in dialoguing with the vast majority of relativists.
  • Candice N Marcos Torres I would concur, however, that a stronger argument built on the philosophical defenition of relativism (what you presented and what I have termed cognitive) would be an exellent resource to have in dialoguing with those whose embrace of relativism goes beyond pop-culture.
  • Nat Tan I do have a question - if a relativist argues that humans, being subjective beings can never obtain objective truth, wouldn't the common denominator between "cognitive" and "pop" relativists still be the fact that there can be no objective truth because we're all subjective?

    I would rather question the extent to which relativists, cognitive or pop by nature, apply this principle of relativism. Because if we take this principle literally, there would be no absolutes. Period. Take computer programming for example - there can be no subjectivity in the coding. The code is the code. If it's not written as it's supposed to, the program won't work. Mathematics isn't relative as well, unless one could argue that the answer to an equation that is solved is not absolute and that you could prove it.

    It doesn't make much sense that "everything is subjective/relative" because people are all subjective and have differing views. There has to be some dogma/maxim/axiom/absolute truth around.
    18 hours ago · Unlike · 1
  • Candice N Marcos Torres I agree Nat, though Im sure Luke may have more to offer in terms of variables lol. The main point of this article however is not so much absolute truth and relativism as it is the nature of tolerance. By its very nature tolerance demands that you believe you are right and the other person wrong. Thus, whether cognitive or cultural, tolerance presents a contradiction to relativistic philosophy
  • Nat Tan Agree about the article. The question however, was more about Luke's post which got me thinking. Lol
The Erratic, Unstable, Whimsical, Uneven, Self-Refuting Nature of Relativism The Erratic, Unstable, Whimsical, Uneven, Self-Refuting Nature of Relativism Reviewed by Pastor Marcos on July 30, 2014 Rating: 5

No comments

Please feel free to share your thoughts! Just remember to keep your comments friendly and relevant. Comments that are not risk being incinerated in cyber space. Happy typing! :D