“A kind of cultural relativism exists today, evident in the conceptualization and defense of an ethical pluralism, which sanctions the decadence and disintegration of reason and the principles of the natural moral law. Furthermore, it is not unusual to hear the opinion expressed in the public sphere that such ethical pluralism is the very condition for democracy. As a result, citizens claim complete autonomy with regard to their moral choices, and lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends, as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value.

At the same time, the value of tolerance is disingenuously invoked when a large number of citizens, Catholics among them, are asked not to base their contribution to society and political life – through the legitimate means available to everyone in a democracy – on their particular understanding of the human person and the common good. The history of the twentieth century demonstrates that those citizens were right who recognized the falsehood of relativism, and with it, the notion that there is no moral law rooted in the nature of the human person, which must govern our understanding of man, the common good and the state.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life, promulgated by Saint John Paul II. in 2002)

In 2005, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger celebrated a mass “For the election of the Roman Pontiff,” just a day before his own papal election. During the homily he condemned the “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive.” This was not a unique occurrence; opposition to relativism was one of Ratzinger’s favorite theological themes throughout his time as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1982–2005) and as Pope Benedict XVI. (2005-2013). As with bioethical questions such as the inadmissibility of abortion or euthanasia, relativism is not primarily a religious problem. Relativism has serious moral consequences, but it is originally a philosophical theory (epistemological and ethical) and can be addressed in the domains of epistemology and ethics.

Cognitive relativism

Cognitive relativism is the idea that human thinking is unable to know reality as it is. In other words, human reason is incapable of achieving objective truths. By contrast, ordinary human thinking does not really care about epistemological verification of its own objectivity. Practical reason seamlessly assumes that we recognize reality as it is. For example, none of us practically doubts that the things we use in everyday life exist objectively outside of ourselves. This uncomplicated common-sense attitude, however, comes under severe criticism by relativists whenever we encounter more complicated considerations that go beyond the boundaries of immediate experience and that can potentially imply ethical obligations. For example, when we want to explain to a relativist that our lives do not end with our biological deaths, we usually hear objections such as: “How can you know that?” if not directly: “How can you know anything?”

This relativist opposition is not limited to casual discussions. Many academics assert that thanks to the scientific progress of recent centuries we can sober up from naive historical claims to absolute truths. Advocates of such restraint — of limiting our cognitive ambitions — are convinced that they are just exercising highly critical thinking when they deny our ability to recognize reality as it is. On the surface, the relativistic worldview might look attractive. Acknowledging that we can always be wrong seems like an expression of educated humility. Such intellectual modesty sharply contrasts with seemingly prideful claims to certain knowledge of objective truths that are absolutely valid for everybody and under any circumstances.

We must apply the relativist idea to itself in order to check whether it is meaningful. Relativists say that nothing in our thinking is objectively true. They however implicitly present this assertion as objectively true. They do not speak about some purely subjective imagination on their part. Even if they hypothetically tried to twist their assertion in this way, they would just render it generally inapplicable and therefore philosophically irrelevant. Instead, relativists obviously make a generic assertion on cognitive abilities of all people as they objectively exist and present their assertion as objectively valid under any circumstances. And they also implicitly present it as true simply by presenting it.

This implies that the relativist idea is objectively true, but it must also not be objectively true in the same sense and at the same time. And that is a clear self-contradiction. Cognitive relativism is presented as objectively true because of its implicit claims to truthfulness and objective validity and also as something that cannot be objectively true because of its explicit content. That is why cognitive relativism is logically untenable. A self-contradictory assertion cannot be true under any circumstances because it just semantically annihilates itself. It ends up with no logical meaning whatsoever. Falsehood of cognitive relativism is therefore one of the truths that we recognize objectively, certainly, absolutely, and definitively.

Ethical relativism

Ethical relativism is a slightly more nuanced version of relativism. Unlike cognitive relativists, ethical relativists do not say that human thinking is altogether incapable of achieving any objective truths. Ethical relativists deny only the ability of human reason to recognize an objective moral law that is inherent to human nature and therefore (by definition) binds every human being.

Ethical relativists usually refine this theory by dividing all propositions into two categories: statements of fact and value judgements. Statements of fact are empirically verifiable and value judgements are not. They assert that human reason ascertains objective truths only in questions of fact, and value judgements are subjective. Similar to cognitive relativism, ethical relativism is presented as virtuous. Some political ideologies even consider it to be a necessary precondition of peaceful political coexistence of people with different worldviews. When people observe ethical relativism, imposing their own values on others via political means is forbidden.

Similar to cognitive relativism, we can evaluate whether it is possible to apply ethical relativism to itself without its logical self-destruction. Once again, the notion that value judgements are subjective is presented as objectively true. Ethical relativists also speak about real people (and their value judgements) as if they objectively exist. They also implicitly claim that their assertions are true, because otherwise they would not assert them.

Given these observations, we can conclude that it is impossible to empirically verify the proposition that value judgements are subjective. This is because ethical relativism specifically addresses non-empirical problems, which means relativists cannot even pretend to back their propositions with any empirical evidence. This means that their proposition cannot be a question of fact. It is thus inevitably a value judgment according to their own definition. From that we can already see that ethical relativism suffers from the same defect as cognitive relativism. Ethical relativism is claimed to be objectively true because it is implicitly presented as such. It cannot be objectively true because according to its own logic it is a value judgment and, according to ethical relativism, value judgements are subjective. Ethical relativism also semantically annihilates itself because of this internal contradiction between its explicit and implicit meaning.

Practical relativism

The practical consequence of both kinds of theoretical relativism is that their inevitable logical inconsistency completely distorts the recognition of reality, leading to hypocritical behavior. Practical applications of relativism involve the same inconsistencies as relativism on the theoretical level manifests itself in practical applications of relativism. Relativists regularly invoke unlimited respect to opinions and lifestyles of other people. In reality, it is impossible to truly respect opinions and lifestyles of non-relativists without relinquishing relativism. Rejecting discrimination between true and false opinions means condemning the opinions of those who insist that one of the opinions is true. Relativists always present their own relativistic opinions as true, at least implicitly they are also condemning opposing positions.

Relativists simply deny to others what they do not hesitate to enjoy for themselves. On a practical level, this hypocrisy unfortunately also affects people who do not formally subscribe to any kind of relativism. Many people are attached to the ethical double standards that relativism provides. Practical relativists simply divorce their theoretical knowledge from their practical reasoning. As with theoretical relativists who contradict themselves on a theoretical level, practical relativists agree with certain theories but contradict them in their practical judgments. Practical relativism is therefore no less self-contradictory than theoretical relativism.

Pope Francis described the problem of practical relativism in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, in 2013. He wrote, “Pastoral workers can thus fall into a relativism which, whatever their particular style of spirituality or way of thinking, proves even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism. It has to do with the deepest and most important decisions that shape their way of life. This practical relativism consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist” (EG 80).

Relativism is not a product of critical thinking, nor is it a suitable way to achieve peaceful political coexistence. It opposes critical thinking because it is trivially self-contradictory. Furthermore, it rejects any respect for human freedom because, according to its own logic, relativism can neither recognize human freedom as something objectively true and respectable, nor can it objectively differentiate between respect and disrespect (and reject disrespect). On a practical level, relativism is dangerously corrosive because no human with a fallen nature is completely immune to it. We must recognize this danger so that it will not undermine and destroy our spiritual lives.

Image: Adobe Stock. By Dianne McFadden

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Anthony Steinhauser was born in Czech Republic. He has PhD in Computer security and Masters at Law. Currently he lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a software engineer. Among his interests are dogmatic theology, epistemology, moral theology, and philosophy of God.

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