Shades of Grey: The Cardinal Mistake of Relativism

Contemporary discourse in the West, both public and private (though I would wager more so in the former sphere) is incorrigibly relativistic. This is the case particularly with respect to moral discourse, but a spirit of relativism seems to underpin almost all of our debate. Instead of speaking about what is true or right, we increasingly talk of how things seem, how something makes us feel, and (most frustratingly of all), in response to genuine truth-claims made, we hear ‘that’s just your opinion.’ To say this is of course nothing new, and neither is what will follow in this post – however, what I am about to address is something that I think warrants further examination, given that it underlies a great deal of relativistic thinking.

When relativists are taken to task over the inconsistency of their beliefs, a common response is to point out that shades of grey exist in almost all the things we talk about, and that the existence of these ambiguities (whether it be in terms of the language employed or the alteration of meanings in changed contexts) somehow proves the case of relativism. The argument is broadly thus – we all interpret words and concepts differently, and consequently attribute different meanings to them, therefore this wide range of interpretations seen in everyday experience means there is no agreed meaning to be had at all, and everything is relative, a mere matter of taste or opinion. Consider the following, taken from an online commentary thread:

Put it this way – you don’t know what I mean by “love,” do you? Or all this would be easy and pointless. You don’t know what X means by love – you can only know what he tells you, and that won’t do. Words are “fuzzy.” It is clearly impossible to put concepts like “love,” “good,” or “bad,” into adequate words, and even if you try, you can never be sure the other person is grasping what you are trying to get at. I don’t know what you mean by “love,” – can’t, and never will. I’d have thought all this was obvious. Anyway, it is relative, whether you like it or not. It is measured in degrees, not necessarily specified.

The above example may seem rather extreme, but this sort of argument is unfortunately quite common. The existence of differences of opinion is very often treated, amongst relativists, as ‘evidence’ that opinion is all there is, that objective truths do not exist, and words can basically mean anything we like. The problem with this line of reasoning is that its conclusion denies the premise that in fact creates the so-called evidence in the first place – the reason that there are shades of grey in our discourse is because there is such a thing as black and white. If this were not so, there would be no dilemma, nothing to argue about – we presuppose that there is such a thing as the good in order to be able to have any moral discourse at all, and that there is such a thing as meaning, in order to have any discussion whatsoever.

The relativist is thus making the double-error of mistaking particular ethical positions for objective morality in general (or different philosophies of life for objective truth in general), and of mistaking the resulting differences that occur within discourses between people with different moral and philosophical commitments for proof that the differences are all we have. The truth however is that people who argue for the existence of objective truth and morals are not claiming for the absolute veracity of their position (though of course that may well be claimed as well) but that such a thing as Goodness or Truth really exists. The undeniable fact that words are often ‘fuzzy’ and that people sometimes mean different things whilst using the same terminology only testifies to the fact that subjects are subjective.

It tells us very little about what is the case objectively though, and moreover, we unconsciously assume that there are such things as objective values, whether we like to admit it or not. We do not exist in a moral or ideological vacuum, but take certain things as presuppositions for the way we talk about reality. A case in point is the question of what is good, or the right thing to do – we may differ about what particular things are good or not, but if we genuinely did not believe there was such a thing as Good (and by implication Bad) then we could not even begin the discussion. If words like ‘good’, ‘justice’ and ‘love’ really had no meaning at all, we simply could not talk to one another.

It is because we assume a shared platform of meaning that we are able to communicate with one another – to suggest otherwise, and to say that occasional misunderstandings, differences of opinion and the multivalency of words is evidence of a lack of shared meaning and negation of objective values is patently nonsense, and in the most literal sense of that word – there would be no sense to what we do or say if this contention were found to be true. Here also we hit upon another problem with the relativist position of course, for if its claims were found to be true, then relativism wouldn’t be – the relativist has to accept at least one thing as being objectively true, and that is that relativism is a true theory; but this is of course a contradiction.

All I’ve written above can be summarised by the colour analogy already mentioned – we cannot have grey if there is not such a thing as black and white. We presuppose the existence of an objective world of values in order to discourse meaningfully, and outside of this presupposed sphere we can say nothing – any attempt to do so is simply to take one aspect of that world and arbitrarily select it to the neglect of the rest. In his celebrated treatise The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis considers the attempts to do this, and shows clearly the impossibility of such a manoeuvre, which underpins all ethical systems that deny an objective moral realm (which he refers to as ‘the Tao’ for the sake of brevity and convenience):

All the practical principles behind the Innovator’s case for posterity, or society, or the species, are there from time immemorial in the Tao. But they are nowhere else. Unless you accept these without question as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever. You cannot reach them as conclusions: they are premises…

…The Innovator attacks traditional values (the Tao) in defence of what he at first supposes to be (in some special sense) “rational” or “biological” values. But as we have seen, all the values which he uses for attacking the Tao, and even claims to be substituting for it, are themselves derived from the Tao. If he had really started from scratch, from right outside the human tradition of value, no jugglery could have advanced him an inch towards the conception that a man should die for the community or work for posterity. If the Tao falls, his own conceptions of value fall with it. Not one of them can claim any authority other than that of the Tao. Only by such shreds of the Tao as he has inherited is he enabled even to attack it…

…This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected…

…If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves.

The Abolition of Man (1986), pp.27-30, Fount Paperbacks.

            Thus we see that relativism is not only a self-contradictory position, but also, strictly speaking, an impossible one. It must be recognised that the terms of engagement for any sort of discourse, moral or otherwise, presuppose the existence of certain concepts and ideals which are objectively true or false, regardless of our feelings about them. If we decide to select one of these ideals or values and use it to form the basis of an attack on objective values in general (which we cannot but help doing, as we have no other resources for making criticisms of any real force) then we are not being consistent, and in fact are doing violence to reality.

Speaking of doing violence to reality, in his treatise Lewis also goes on to point out another, darker, consequence of the wholesale adoption of relativism by a society or culture. For it is not only the case that this way of thinking is parasitic and incoherent, but if we, as a society, decide that there is no such thing as objective truth, right and wrong, and everything really is opinion, then the only means left for deciding whose opinion is to be listened to is by way of power.

Whoever has the most power or influence will dictate what is in the best interests of the rest of us, and seeing that their position simply is opinion and nothing more, the only way of validating its position as the ‘right’ opinion (given that now, no such thing as right and wrong exists, and no appeal can be made to a transcendent, objective source of value) is to silence all other opinions. This can be done with violence, as was the case in Stalinist Russia or it can be done by a soft despotism, as we are increasingly seeing in the West today – opinions which do not fit the currently accepted view of things are forced out of public life by legislation and cultural stigmatism. The dictatorship of relativism Pope Benedict spoke of is not a far-off prophecy; it is happening already. To remedy this situation (at least in part), we need to remind our relativist friends which two colours are required to make the shades of grey they are so fond of.

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10 thoughts on “Shades of Grey: The Cardinal Mistake of Relativism

  1. Very well laid out and argued Michael! (And of course I recognised and remember the comment you quote. 😉 )

    I can’t see how our “relativist friend(s)” could wriggle out of this one….. Oh but wait, yes, they will naturally use “relativism” to do so. 😆

    • Thank you Kathleen, and I am glad you recognised the quote 🙂 It did seem to me to be a classic example of what I wanted to write about, although I have to admit that unfortunately this is far from the worst case I’ve come across! Based on that experience, I have no doubt that wriggling will continue to be done for some time. But of course, we are the narrow minded ones who won’t listen to reason 🙂

    • P.S. Though I have to admit that this is the worst case (in the sense that it is the most unabashed statement of the relativist position) I’ve come across at the commentary thread in question 🙂 Much worse cases in general though, if you can imagine!

      • Oh yes Michael – I certainly can.
        But never mind, we’ll just continue to “fight the good fight” for Truth, and hope and pray that ‘relativists’ (some of them at least) will one day see their erroneous ideas for what they really are! 🙂

        • Yes, we must continue to do so indeed. There are some people who will see the error of their ways, and it might often be the most extreme cases, as it is easier to see error when it is taken to its logical conclusions. I worry more about those who are relativist in a casual, unthinking or dispassionate way, as many don’t actually seem to care enough about the question of Truth to change one way or another. In fact, I have met people like this who, when I had pointed out the inconsistency of their position, pretty much shrugged their shoulders!

          Then there are the cases where it is a clear matter of the will – of not wanting there to be Truth. I think I told you a while ago about someone on a commentary thread re that whole Dawkin/Down’s Syndrome debacle, and they were just utterly unresponsive to reason – no matter how many times I tried to engage in rational debate, I just got mud hurled at me (that I was an irrational believer in something with no evidence whatsoever, that my claiming morality is objective somehow meant I thought that I personally was morally perfect, that I was living in the bronze age, etc). These people, I think, have a better chance of being converted to the Truth because of the manifest absurdity of their position; but first their wills must be converted, and that is something that only the Holy Spirit can do.

          • Oh Michael – that ad hominem attack sounds really nasty! This is often what we are opening ourselves up to when we defend Christian (primarily Catholic) principles among those who are void of them. It is a typical ‘stick’ they use to beat us with – that we see ourselves as morally superior, prudes, etc. It is hurtful… not only because it is untrue, but because knowing well the value of the virtue of humility as we do, these accusations cut most deeply into our desire to NOT see ourselves as “holier than thou”. Offering up these insults without getting riled is the best we can do I suppose; Our Lord knows our hearts, not these people who attack us.

            However you make a very good point that a relativist who willingly resists the Truth is paradoxically preferable to one who simply doesn’t care one way or the other, who “shrugs his shoulders” and walks away. These people cannot work up either the energy or the interest in looking in to see why their relativism simply does not make sense or hold up when properly looked into.
            It is this lukewarmness that most offends God (according to the revelations given to St. Faustina, Divine Mercy apostle.)

            • P.S. Just to clarify my last paragraph: someone who is willing to at least try to argue rationally in defense of his relativist position, just MIGHT (if he is a basically honest person) be moved to change his mind. A person who is uninterested in searching for Truth could not be bothered to even give it the time of day to think about it.

            • Those sort of attacks can be quite nasty yes, but I think that they (especially the ones which accuse of being ‘holier than thou’) are also a good sign, in the sense that the person making the accusations is clearly so ruffled by the attack on their ARGUMENT that they feel they have to attack the PERSON of the other. Also, whenever people start making this particular accusation (the holier than thou one), I can’t help feeling that it’s disproportionate nature points to their guilt about something (this is very often the case when arguing with people about abortion, or sexual morality, for example).

              The reference you make to Saint Faustina is very appropriate – what she records Our Lord having said about the lukewarm is really heart-rendering, as it shows (elaborating on Revelation 3) that it is this sort of unbelief which Our Lord felt the pain of most during His Passion.

              I also agree fully with the clarification you added – as long as someone is a.) interested in the Truth, and b.) someone who recognises the importance of reason in practice (even though they might deny its objectivity in theory!), they can be shown the inconsistencies in their argument, and whilst this might not have an impact straight away, their concern for Truth will not let it lose hold in the end.

  2. This was an excellent piece and I enjoyed it very much. As I was reading it a quote from Chesterton came to mind: “If truth is relative, to what is it relative?”

    • Thank you! I am certainly glad that you think so, and that you enjoyed it. Thanks also for the quote from Chesterton – I have to admit that I haven’t heard that one before, but it is very appropriate, and, as is usually the case with GKC, hits the nail firmly on the head!

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