Relatively Speaking

Calvin and Hobbes rock. That is all.Since I’ve spent most of the last decade enrolled in liberal arts classes of one sort of another, I’ve had a chance to hear some pretty obnoxious theories. Of those theories, very few manage to tick me off more than relativism.

Relativism is the theory that, since everyone has different views on everything, nothing can really be considered true. It’s often applied to morality, which I will discuss later. Another common way I’ve heard people use it is to discuss facts themselves. For example, people at one time believed that the sun revolved around the Earth, rather than the other way around. Most people would just say those people had their facts wrong. Someone arguing from the relativist perspective would instead say that the sun did revolve around the Earth – to those who believed it, at least.

That right there is the inherent thing about relativism that ticks me off. It’s basically a philosophy that spawned from the whole notion that there are no wrong answers. That’s fine when you’re talking about opinions. For example, no one can say objectively that a new movie is good or bad; it’s up to the individual viewer to determine what he likes or dislikes. But when you’re dealing with facts, there is a right and wrong. Believing that the Earth is the center of the universe was believing in the wrong answer, no matter how fervently people embraced that notion. Similarly, in George Orwell’s novel 1984, the populace embraces the notion that 2+2=5. Even if the whole world believes that, it doesn’t make it true. Put two objects together with two other objects, and you’ll always have four objects, not five.

Relativists also make the argument that we can’t possibly know the facts, since even the things we regard as facts could be wrong. Years from now, someone might disprove the theory of evolution or find out that the moon really is made from green cheese. That doesn’t mean we can’t know the facts; it just means that we can believe the wrong facts. If I go through my whole life believing that I’m bulletproof, it doesn’t mean that’s true in any way. When someone shoots me, I’ll still die. This fact was proven very well in the Boxer Rebellion, when the Chinese group known as the Boxers believed they could block bullets with their fists. They weren’t right in any way. When someone shot at them, they died, pure and simple. Belief doesn’t dictate the facts, and believing something that was never true only means you were wrong, not that the facts changed.

Most forms of relativism can be explained away – if you can actually get the relativist to listen to you without spouting bullshit for a few minutes. Things get tougher when you get into moral relativism. Moral relativism takes the notion of relativism, but applies it to ethics. Since every culture has a different notion of what’s right and what’s wrong, the moral relativist argues that there is no universal right and wrong, and that anything you believe to be good is good. Simply speaking, that’s the biggest load of crap there is.

The whole theory of moral relativism is basically a dodge for people who are too cowardly to either tell someone they’re a bad person or who are too afraid that they might be bad people. And because there are so many different religions, cultures, and philosophies out there, it’s tempting just to say, “You’re all right! Nothing’s wrong, everybody’s happy and shiny!” But, like it or not, that’s not the case. There are some things that are just plain good or just plain bad.

I think the relativist stance comes from the fact that there are so many moral gray areas in our society. Sometimes, you don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. File sharing is a good example; there’s ample evidence and arguments on both sides of the fence to suggest that it doesn’t harm anyone or that it’s causing the degradation of the music industry (really, I think bad music is causing the degradation of the music industry, but that’s another argument for another time). Maybe file sharing’s good. Maybe it’s bad. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. The moral relativist says there’s no way of knowing one way or the other, so it’s up to you to decide whether it’s right or wrong. However, there definitely is an answer somewhere there. Either file sharing hurts people’s livelihoods, or it doesn’t. Just because neither side of the argument has proven the matter definitively doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. We just don’t know it for sure.

The biggest problem with moral relativism is when it’s taken to extremes. People get so afraid to apply some sort of universal ethics that they accept everything as right as long as someone believes it’s okay. Slavery? Sure, that was fine because colonial Americans said it was. Genocide? Well, the folks behind the Spanish Inquisition thought it was a pretty good idea, so it must have been right in some way, at least. Timothy McVeigh’s bombings in Oklahoma City? He thought he was doing the right thing, so I guess he was, right? Talking to moral relativists in my various philosophy or religion classes represents the only time I’ve heard someone honestly try to defend the Crusades, the near-extermination of the American Indian, and the lynching of Matthew Sheppard. No matter how outrageous the crime, there are actually people who defend it.

Like it or not, there are certain things that are black and white, good and bad. Crimes like genocide and rape are never, ever okay. But some people still hold to the notion that they can somehow be okay to certain people, regardless of the moral reprehensibility of the crime. It’s essentially the, “Judge not lest ye be judged” thing taken to the extreme. Calling someone else a bad person leaves you open to be judged by others as well. If someone breaks into a building and steals a DVD player, I call them a thief. They might in turn call me a thief for downloading movies and mp3s from file sharing programs. And you know what? They might be right. I personally don’t believe that file sharing is necessarily an immoral act, but there’s the chance I could be wrong. That doesn’t mean that I’m right until I change my mind; that means I believe a notion that could later be disproven. It also means that that the hypothetical thief is still a thief. He just robbed some poor old lady of her DVD player, and that’s not okay. I don’t care if he believes in some sort of idiotic community wealth system; I’m still gonna call the cops and get his communist ass thrown in the slammer.

Somewhere in my ramblings, I have a point. That point is that relativism is pure bullshit. It’s a theory made up by cowards who are too afraid to examine their own actions, or by wusses who don’t want to step on anyone’s feelings by pointing out that yes, there are wrong answers. An individual person thinks and does a lot of things in his lifetime. Some of those things are right, some are not. Some are good, some are bad. Accept that you can be wrong about things, and don’t cling to the shield of relativism. All relativism shows is that some people really are too cowardly to actually take a stance, be it right or wrong.


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