Very often we hear it said that when tackling thorny questions, two heads are better than one. As for considering the many facets of relativism, it might be difficult to find two heads better equipped for the job than those atop the torsos of Messieurs Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl. Beckwith is an author, a Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, and was a Catholic convert in 2007. Koukl is a Christian apologist, author, and radio talk show host. Beckwith and Koukl have co-authored a delightfully intelligent and readable volume titled Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (1998). This book could easily have been titled The Drunken Barbarian’s Road to Sobriety, since relativism is a philosophical principle that lacks the sobriety of logic while defending every man’s right to be content with his own ever- babbling nonsense.
“More than a hundred years ago G.K. Chesterton sounded the modern alarm against the rising tide of relativism with his famous quip: Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. Not something liquid. Something solid. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A definition is in order for the general reader. What exactly is relativism? It might serve our purpose by starting with what relativism is not. It is not absolute. Relativism denies the absolute certainty of anything. This applies both to the values of different individuals and different societies. It is, the relativists say, different individuals and different societies that make it so difficult to see any absolutes either among individuals or among societies. Let’s cite David Hume, that infamous skeptic of ever being able to shut your mouth on something solid.
The notion of morals implies some sentiment common to all mankind which recommends the same object to general approbation and makes every man or most men agree in the same opinion or same discussion concerning it. It also implies some sentiments so universal and comprehensive as to extend to all mankind.
Hume goes on to reject this sentiment common to all mankind, the universal oughtness of morals. It is from Hume (and indirectly from Descartes) that modern moral relativism has evolved. Another way to explain relativism is that it puts the personal “I” on the judgment seat for all things. The pronoun “I” in grammar is known as the subjective case. So this is why relativism is also called subjectivism. If I judge a thing to be true or false, right or wrong, the relativist insists that this is as far as anyone is obliged to go to get near the truth of any matter. That is raw relativism, or subjectivism. On the other hand, objectivism is opposed to subjectivism. Objectivism asserts rather that moral values can be known as objectively true and universal for all people.
The moral relativist argues that an act or thought is only good or bad if we think it to be good or bad. The moral objectivist protests that an act or thought is really good or bad, whether we think so or not. The moral relativist says we must not judge the rightness or wrongness of other peoples’ acts, nor the acts of other societies different from our own. However, the moral objectivist says this would amount to the suicide not only of morality, but of truth itself. As the Catholic objective moralist Jacques Maritain observed, The sole philosophy open to those who doubt the possibility of truth is absolute silence—even mental. Absolute silence is logically required because you could never shut your mouth on any solid or substantial truth
Fable of the Six Blind Men
Koukl and Beckwith cite an ancient Indian fable of six blind men who meet an elephant. Each of them touches different parts of the elephant. One of them, touching the elephant’s side, concludes that the elephant is like a wall. Another, touching the elephant’s trunk, concludes the elephant is like a snake. Yet another touches the elephant’s tusk, concluding he is sharp, like a spear. And so forth with the elephants other parts. The owner of the elephant, a certain Rajah, appears on the scene and chastises the six blind men for their ignorance. Then he explains to them that they see only the illusory (subjective) parts, and cannot see the real (objective) whole. The moral of the story is that all six blind men are like relativists who see only that part of the truth relative to their own experience, whereas the owner of the truth is the objectivist who is not blind to what the elephant really is.
Is a Fetus Really a Human?
The argument of relativism from blindness can be applied to morals as well. Suppose you are speaking with someone who knows nothing of biology and has been subjected to the politically correct notion that a fetus is not a human being. After all, you cannot see a fetus. Out of sight, out of mind. How human can it be? And therefore, you are told, abortion is not the taking of human life. Indeed, the blindness to the fact that a fetus is the start of a human being (every one of us has been a fetus) was exhibited even by the Supreme Court, supposedly a bastion of the search for objective truth and justice. The Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade included the statement that because a consensus did not exist among physicians, philosophers, and theologians as to when human life begins (remember the six blind men unable to agree what an elephant was) they had no obligation to rule that a fetus is a human being. (What else could it possibly be, an elephant?) What the Justices foolishly ruled was that they had not consulted what should have been the arbiter of so obvious a question (remember the Rajah), namely: their own common sense. The Justices allowed themselves to be ruled by their own chosen personal blindness. By the nature of their own profession both common sense and the human in the womb ought not to have been abandoned.
Who has not heard of the predictably comical quarreling among chefs as to whose creations are the best? Now here is a place where relativism can survive on its own merits. De gustibus non est disputandum. We are not all born with universal taste buds, with the exception of knowing that some things taste delicious and others taste horrible. However, this is a decidedly relative matter of no consequence. What is a matter of the greatest consequence is that we eat what is good for us and not what is bad. This is not a relative matter. Some things in the correct amount are universally good for all people. Some things in the incorrect amount are universally bad for all people. Protein in the correct amount will keep us healthy and strong. Foods with excessive amounts of sugar and fat will make us obese and diseased. Clean water in the right amount will help to keep us healthy. Whiskey, beer, or wine in the wrong amount will induce any number of illnesses. It is the relativist, not the objectivist, who excuses his drunkenness on the grounds that vodka tastes better than lemonade. Clearly, common sense is on the side of the objectivist.
In an age of political correctness all kinds of bizarre sexual activity are excused on the subjective grounds that it feels good, and “Who are you to judge?” Immediately one can see how this defense is built upon two absurd assumptions. (1) Surely not everything that feels good is good. No doubt it feels good for the sadist to torture his victims. The victims have a right to demand satisfaction. (2) And surely we all have the same right to judge, even the relativists who judge us for judging them.
Now there are many kinds of sexual behavior which do not pass the test of sexual propriety: these include incest, pedophilia, rape, etc. The laws of most nations from ancient times to the present have not allowed these sexual actions to go unpunished. Beckwith and Koukl spend three pages on homosexual sodomy, the practice of which has been censured by most societies from the dawn of human history, but at present is tolerated in the West as conduct appropriate for consenting adults. As Beckwith and Koukl point out: “In May 1996 the U.S. Supreme Court in Romer v Evans ruled that the state of Colorado could not prohibit the state or any of its jurisdictions from granting protected status to homosexuals.” The United States had come a long way from the policy of George Washington (who had drummed an officer out of the military who was convicted of sodomy) and Thomas Jefferson (who as Governor of Virginia had supported the criminal conviction of sodomites).
Then came the 2015 Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which declared same-sex marriage protected by the Constitution. Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the majority, invoked the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. But as Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out in his minority report, the Equal Protection Clause provides for different classes of people (minorities, women, etc.) not different types of behaviour. Justice Scalia remarked concerning Kennedy’s reliance upon the 14th Amendment: If, even as the price to be paid for the fifth vote I ever joined an opinion for the Court that began: ‘The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,’ I would hide my head in a bag. The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.
The point to make here is that one vote on the Supreme Court changed the universal and ancient tradition of opposite-sex marriage. No consideration was given to the fact that marriage always was an institution designed to protect the rights of parents and their children. No consideration was given to the fact that the stability of society at large has benefited from the protected rights of parents and their children (note the widespread collapse of social stability in the United States alone as a result of rampant divorce and fatherless children). The objective good of opposite-sex marriage is turned on its head as the subjective whim of sodomites is granted so-called objective legitimacy … and by the vote of one man (supposedly a Catholic) who is still free to hide his head in a bag.
A Philosophy Some Will Die For
No one can forget the notorious case of Dr. Jack Kevorkian who espoused and practiced physician-assisted suicide (he claimed to have assisted 130 suicides). Dr. Kevorkian was without religious principles and called himself an agnostic. The main principle he believed in was the autonomy of the personal “I.” Asked for his rationale for physician-assisted suicide, he said: It’s quite simple: Absolute personal autonomy. I’m an absolute autonomist. Do and say whatever you want to do and say at any time you want to do or say it, as long as you do not harm or threaten anyone else’s person or property. But Dr. Kevorkian in the absolute autonomy of his own soul decided he was justified in morphing the medical profession increasingly toward a killing machine. How long will it take for physician-assisted suicide to morph into a politically correct policy of disposing of the “useless” and the “unwanted”? Suicide has always been regarded as an indictment of life and a surrender to death. As Chesterton put it: The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself kills all men; as far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.
Beckwith and Koukl pose a thought experiment. A man is brought unconscious on a stretcher to the hospital. Physicians assume he has drugged himself. First they check his pockets for identification. In one pocket they find a note which reads in part: “If you find me before I die, please do not pump my stomach. I know exactly what I am doing. My girlfriend Rebecca has broken up with me and life no longer has any meaning.” The patient writes further that he will sue any physician who saves his life and thereby violates his 14th Amendment right to absolute autonomy. What is a physician to do? Let the patient die? In the patient’s demand we see again the paradox of relativism: that it cannot escape being absolute. Like the blind men who could not solve the true identity of the elephant, they cannot find any true solution to their own pain but the right to oblige someone else to end it.
Perhaps never in the history of the world has moral relativism been so dominant a philosophy as it is at present. And not likely ever in the history of the United States has suicide been so ubiquitous. The effect of suicide is never just on the person who commits it. Friends, relatives, and the community at large are diminished by the act, so Kevorkian’s claim that no threat or harm is done to anyone else is bogus. But again, the deed is done as a personal whim, unguided by insight into an alternate solution or by common sense. Suicide is endemic among all classes of people today: veterans (on average one every day); the elderly; the lonely; and deranged drug users. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among twelve-year old children in the U.S. and the leading cause of death among children aged 10-14 in Japan. When adults speak openly to each other of the need and right to commit suicide, what message does that send to our children who blindly reach out for the quickest solution to their misery on the ground that they have an absolute right to kill themselves?
It was no mere coincidence that David Hume, that fountainhead of modern moral relativism, was also an atheist. Deny God and you deny the Absolute. But since nature abhors a vacuum, another Absolute rules: namely, the Absolute Conviction that there are no absolute morals we need to worry about. The barbarian who has drunk his full measure of absolute relativism might well agree to have the old canard carved on his tombstone: “Grab what you can while you can, and the devil take the hindmost.”
A philosophy, it seems, that many have been crazed enough to died for.