Can we come to know the truth? Or is everything relative? In short, can each one of us have his own truth?
Probably one of the first things that will make your intellectual edifice or your faith waver is relativism: the conception that refuses to admit absolute principles into the field of knowing and acting. Normally a young person begins his studies with a series of principles or truths that he accepts as absolutes, whether they be convictions of natural or supernatural order (the truths of faith) or truths of popular certainty. The value of these truths is precisely where an adverse educational institution will begin its attack. The first truth that they will steal from you is the conviction that there is truth and that you can come to know the truth.
With relativism each person has his own truth. Everyone comprehends things with his own personal vision based on his likes, his education or his interests. Not only is it difficult for those who think along these lines to come to an adequate understanding of what others think, but this also makes it impossible to come to any agreement, given that such an agreement would not, properly speaking, be a truth that is valid, objective and obligatory for all. Thus, they begin to overthrow religious principles, the moral criteria by which we are governed. The victim of this crushing attack drowns in an authentic “intellectual depression.”
Relativism is the fatal cancer that corrodes contemporary culture. Nevertheless, it is also the biggest fallacy that can pass through the human mind and cannot be accepted unless it deceives us by subtle sophisms. Relativism, within the limits of knowledge, denies the possibility of attaining universal and objective truths. Within the moral realm, it denies us the ability to arrive at knowledge of objective values and goods and so act accordingly. It does not allow for the affirmation that one type of behavior is evil for everyone or that another is always good. In daily life, those who fall into this error are all those who do not accept absolute truths. They are those who claim that “everyone has his own truth,” and who apply the label of “fundamentalism” to anyone who firmly upholds the truth of the faith. In our times, one of its most notable consequences is that the path has been paved for New Age ideas, the religion of relativism. “The ground [for the acceptance of New Age ideas] was well prepared by the growth and spread of relativism.”
Relativism adopts various forms:
1) Individualistic relativism teaches that each individual determines the truth of any assertion. Therefore, there will be (or there could be) as many truths as there are people. Something could be true for John and not for Joe, and both are valid truths: “their truth.” In an important Argentinean newspaper, I read the following assertion about a soccer game: “The game ended in a fair tie even though it also would have been fair if either team had won.” (May 2004) Three just cases in three contradictory situations! It was not the author of this unfortunate article who invented this tricky phrase, but Protagoras, whose thesis was “man is the measure of all things.” Plato described him saying, “as Protagoras tells us […] man is ‘the measure of all things,’ and that things are to me as they appear to me, and are to you as they appear to you.”From this idea it follows that there is not one truth but infinite truths, as many as there are people in the world. It is easy to realize that this is very widespread in our society. We hear it under the title of “point of view;” everyone has his own “points” of view. Thus, opinion has more value than truth. And not only does everyone have his truth, but everyone has the right to form his truth, even on issues of which he is almost entirely ignorant. This is why an athlete is asked his opinion not only about his sport but also about moral questions, about the pope, philosophy and history. The value of what he says is relative; it will be valuable only for him. From this point of view, which may be the most widespread, relativism is the greatest source of isolation among human beings: the ostracism of intelligences which remain exiled within the isolated confines of their master. With the acceptance of relativistic philosophy, there would be no room for teachers; there remains only an orienteer of opinion, or better, only those who would offer their opinion just in case another would like to make it his own. Curiously, this works for everything… except for those who teach relativism. Their assertions that everything is relative and that there are no objective truths is the most objective and universal affirmation they could make! Let those who doubt this, or timidly suggest the opposite, or who are of the opinion that there just might be an absolute, be warned! They immediately denounce him as the most dangerous fanatic, the fanatic who thinks there is such as thing as truth and who would die for it. “There is no objective truth”—this is the most objective of truths—says the relativist. In spite of the absurdity you will perceive at reading these lines, it will be even more surprising for you to know that this is held, not by an honest yet rural baker, but by a philosopher honored as the father of relativism, Auguste Comte. By the age of nineteen he had written: “Everything is relative; this is the only absolute principle.” Poor Comte, even in his old age he continued to say the same nonsense!
2) Cultural relativism rests upon the truth of historical culture. This was defended by Oswald Spengler in his well- known work The Decline of the West. Each culture—Chinese, Hindu, Egyptian, Babylonian, Greco-Roman, Arabic, American, Western—makes its own appraisal of what is real and has its own manner of understanding the cosmos, different from other cultures and non-exchangeable with any of them. No culture can hope that their appraisal be absolute or universally valid. It does not differ much from individual relativism; only in that it is less radical. In place of the individual, each culture or town is the fount of truth-opinion.
3) Sociological relativism was created and defended by Émile Durkheim; it makes what determines the truth of judgment dependent upon social groups. According to Durkheim, the social group pressures its members in an irresistible and unconscious way, imposing on them modes of conduct and criteria for judgment. This coercion is not felt when the individual accepts and fulfills the social norms, and therefore falls into the illusion of believing that it is he himself who spontaneously and voluntarily imposes them. The force of social pressure only exposes itself when such norms are broken. The individual receives his entire mental world from society. The ideological world would be a reflection of the society in which he lives; true and false, good and bad, beautiful and ugly—the whole axiological gamut—would be determined as such by the social group and the individual would limit himself to passively receiving them. They consider society as prior to man and to the person. The foundation is the same; the factor that determines the truth changes.
4) Racial relativism rests upon the truths of race. This form of relativism was defended in general by Nazism and in a particular manner by its theorist Alfred Rosenberg. All cultural manifestation would be determined by race, which should not be confused with the social group, given that one society itself can be made up of many different races. Philosophy, science, religion, art would be the expressions of a race, which molds its vital force in them. Race would be the creating principle and the conditioning element of all cultural production, which would have to be valued positively, if it deals with a superior race, or negatively, in the case of inferior races. Thus, there would be no single truth, since there is not only one race; there would be one Aryan truth, another Slav, another Jewish, etc.
5) Political relativism is one of the most widespread forms of relativism in our society. This relativism, as its name suggests, makes the truth depend on political commitments, be it on the majority vote or agreements between political parties or on other ways of achieving agreement (consensus). This is why if we are all in agreement that abortion is legal; abortion will actually be legal and therefore ‘good.’ If we are all in agreement about permitting prostitution, it will no longer be an offense or even a sin. If the majority has voted to teach error, it will cease being an error and become a truth.
This relativism, steeped into the core of our culture, produces grave harm, beginning by threatening human liberty. John Paul II wrote: “This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself. Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds. Everyone wishes to assert himself independently of others and intends to make his own interests prevail. Still, in the face of other people’s analogous interests, some kind of compromise must be found, if one wants a society in which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each individual. In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life. This is what is happening also at political and governmental levels: the original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people—even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the ‘right’ ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The State is no longer the ‘common home’ where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State, arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part.”
What is the fundamental criticism of relativism? Or better yet, formulating it in a more interesting way: is it true that there is no truth? I am not formulating it incorrectly; we do not have to ask ourselves if there is “objective truth,” given that truth and objective truth are really equivalent concepts. Truth is the conformity of our mind to things; for either there is objective truth (conformed to reality) and therefore valid for all intelligent beings or there is simply no truth but opinions that are diverse valuations about things. Is there, then, objective truth? We have already said that “the most essential criticism that can be formulated against relativism, in addition to those of an extrinsic character, like the demonstration from universal evidence of an absolute, is that all relativism implies an intrinsic contradiction. In maintaining that no judgment enjoys the property of being true in an absolute sense and that all truth is relative, an unavoidable consequence arises: the judgment, ‘all truth is relative,’ cannot have the character of absolute validity, which destroys relativism with its own weapons. If, given certain factors or conditions, we admit as true that every truth is relative, then with a different given factor we will have to admit as true that every truth is absolute, which is a contradiction with the fundamental thesis of relativism. Besides this general inconsistency of relativism, the criticism of relativism would be similar to the one of skepticism and subjectivism.”
Moreover, the existence of the truth (truth as something objective and universal, invariable and superior to any human opinion) is guaranteed by common sense. Common sense is such that—basing ourselves in objective truths—we get married, sow seeds, board a boat or a plane, buy and sell, and let ourselves get killed defending our country and people we love. Because there is no doubt that there is objective truth, we repeat sayings which contain objective truths cultivated by popular philosophy: “he who does not look forward, falls behind;” “looks are deceiving;” “don’t count your chickens before the eggs are hatched;” “the early bird gets the worm;” “like father, like son;” etc. Would it not seem that we believe in the objective value of things and of the truths that they express? Who would marry if fidelity meant one thing for me and another for you? Who would get on a boat if he were not sure of the principle that the boat can float? Or who would board a plane based only on the opinion of the pilot that his plane is capable of staying in the air?
We not only have popular certainty about the existence and objective value of truth, but scientific certainty about those things. The truth exists and that cannot be denied. Among others, St. Thomas Aquinas says that he who denies the existence of truth implicitly affirms that truth exists, since if the truth did not exist it would be true that it would not exist; and if something is true, it is necessary that truth exists. It seems to be a tongue twister, but it is a syllogism… a perfect one. Our intelligence is capable of reasoning and of comprehending the being of things or reality. We know about the being of things, we learn it through sound philosophy and recognize it through experience, in spite of professing ourselves to be the most stubborn subjective philosophers. The most blatant denier of our ability to know the absolute of things is capable of moving heaven and earth in order to receive his salary. (How does he know that something is his? And what if the boss thinks he does not have to pay him?) Tread carefully, opinions will not matter nor will each one have his own truth with regards to touching a man’s wife or his goods. Furthermore, if a thief says he has his truth and that he likes my car more than his and therefore decides to take it for himself, how will I respond as the miserable relativist? “Sir, if this is the way you see thing, here are the keys. I’m sorry for having thought badly about you.”
A relativist can teach relativism for his whole life fully convinced of its truth (which would be contrary to relativism). But what if he were to go to a “relativist” restaurant and when he ordered chicken they brought him cat, because the owner of a restaurant, from his point of view, thought that cat was the same as chicken. Not only could he see his whole system overturned in a few seconds, but also spend the rest of his “relative” life in prison for trying to kill the owner of a restaurant. Every relativist is necessarily inconsequential in real life.
It is difficult to make a relativist understand his error (not to demonstrate his error but to make him accept it). This is because relativism is a form of foolishness, and this foolishness is not only a sin but also the punishment which falls on those who do not love the truth. It can only be done, however, by teaching him in the one way he will understand: by asking for my money back. If he tells me that what he teaches is only valuable for him, and it is very likely that I have another opinion, which he will neither share nor contradict, then it would be better for him to return my money and have me go home. I can learn my opinion by myself!
Fr. Miguel A. Fuentes, IVE
Translator’s Note: This article is an excerpt from the author’s work Stolen Truths which can be found in its entirety here.
For Further Reading
- Balmes, James. Criterion. New York: P. O’Shea, 1875.
- Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995.
- Maritain, Jacques. Introduction to Philosophy. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.
- Pieper, Josef. In Defense of Philosophy: Classical wisdom stands up to modern challenges. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.
- ———. Leisure: The Basis of Culture. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.
- ———. Living the Truth: The Truth of All Things and Reality and the Good. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989.
Available in Spanish
- Aliotta, Antonio. “Relativismo.” In vol. V of Enciclopedia Filosófica, 2nd ed. Florence: Sansoni, 1967.
- Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald. El Sentido Común. Madrid: Palabra, 1980.
- Gutiérrez, J. Barrio. “Relativismo: I. Filosofía.” In Gran Enciclopedia Rialp. Madrid: Ediciones Rialp, 1991.
- Orozco-Delclós, Antonio. La Libertad en el Pensamiento, Madrid: Rialp, 1977.
- Velazco, Miguel Ángel. Los Derechos de la Verdad. Madrid: MC, 1994
 PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR CULTURE AND PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE, “Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian reflection on the ‘New Age,’” 2003, §1.3, cf. §2.3.1, www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_20 030203_new-age_en.html (accessed May 17, 2014).
 Cf. J. BARRIO GUTIÉRREZ, “Relativismo: I. Filosofía,” in Gran Enciclopedia Rialp (Madrid: Ediciones Rialp, 1991), editorial translation.
 PROTAGORAS, quoted in SEXTUS EMPIRICUS, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, trans. R. G. Bury (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933), 131, book I, ch. xxxii, no. 216.
 PLATO, Cratylus in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 103, no. 385.
 GERTRUD LENZER, ed., Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings (Piscataway, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2009), 4.
 Cf. GUTIÉRREZ, “Relativismo: I. Filosofía,” editorial translation.
 Cf. Ibid.
 ST. JOHN PAUL II, Evangelium Vitae (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1995), no. 20.
 Cf. GUTIÉRREZ, “Relativismo: I. Filosofía,” editorial translation.
 Taught, among other places, in ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, Summa Theologica (Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1981), I, Q. 2, Art. 1, ad. 3.