Relativism is one of the major philosophies of our day, but I think that it has been successful largely because people don’t think that hard about what it is before accepting it.
For example, how many people even know what relativism means? I doubt that a majority of Americans would be familiar with it. It is a philosophy that is very subtle, since many people seem to go along with it without realizing.
Relativism is the philosophy that the truth (most commonly this means morality) changes depending on the person and situation, instead of it being the same at all times.
Reading it like that, it seems pretty wishy washy, right? So what would make someone practice a belief like that? Relativism is a philosophy that seems to allow you to be more compassionate, since if you practice it, you will not seem to be as judgmental, as you will be fine with other people doing whatever they want as long as it doesn’t affect you.
This seems like a perfectly good standard at first glance, doesn’t it? But it runs into a couple of problems.
First, say two people both practiced (moral) relativism. The first believes that all cats should be killed, while the second believes that cats should be protected. There is a clear contradiction here, they both can’t possibly be right, can they? The value of cats can’t vary by whoever is judging them, that wouldn’t make any sense! Relativism leads to contradictions in what is considered to be the truth, which makes it impractical.
The second major problem with relativism is that it denies inherent truths, like moral truths and natural laws. A refresher: natural laws, according to Jacques Maritain, are
“an order or a disposition which human reason can discern and according to which the human will must act in order to attune itself to the necessary ends of the human being. The unwritten law, or natural law, is nothing more than that.”
Someone who practices relativism could easily justify things as horrible as murder, which of course violates natural law. In the mind of a relativist, “I believe what I believe is the truth, so nobody can say anything about it.”
This extreme situation usually doesn’t happen because relativists nowadays still tend to hold a couple of absolute truths, like the dignity of life of an able bodied person who has been born.
The fact that relativists still hold a few things back in their “do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t affect me” philosophy is very telling. This shows us that they do in fact desire an absolute guarantee of their own well being, claiming that that is an absolute truth or moral code. So it’s weak sauce relativism, since it is only relativism to a certain point. This shows us that people want to get away with doing little bad things but don’t want to be affected by the really bad things. Relativism is convenient when it comes to taking the easy way out, but it is inconvenient when forming a coherent moral code that is just for all.
Moral absolutism, on the other hand, claims that there is a moral code that does not differ depending on what the general public or any individual thinks. Even though the Nazis supported the mistreatment and murder of the Jews, the worth of the Jews was not based on what the Nazis thought of them. The worth of the Jews was in their inherent rights as human beings. The worth of African Americans was not in the eyes of the American government but also in their inherent rights as human beings. These inherent rights of people do not change based on what country they are in, what year it is, what the public opinion is, or anything. They are inherent to who people are. In the same way, lying or murder are never morally right.