On its surface, relativism sounds relaxed and easygoing. Only when we think through the implications of relativism and apply them rigorously to life do we see the hidden dangers of being so accommodating. As Alister McGrath writes,
It is utterly wrongheaded to say that something is true for you but not for me. For example, what if I think fascism is true and you think liberal democracy is equally true? Should the fascists repression be tolerated by the believer in liberal democracy? If not, on what grounds? Why not permit Stalinism or Satanism or Nazism? Without criteria to determine truth, this relativism fails miserably.1
Most of us dont want to live in that world. Relativism, however, isnt merely emotionally
offensive. It doesnt hang together logically
. As a worldview, it cannot be sustained.
At the beginning of his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul gives some advice to his son in the faith Titus, who is ministering to the people of Crete. Titus is facing a fair amount of hostile ideas. As if to say, What did you expect? Paul quotes Epimenides, a Cretan. He tells Titus, Even one of their own prophets has said, Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons. Most Bible readers catch the irony of the statement. If all Cretans are liars, then can Epimenides himself really be trusted?
The statement of Epimenides and relativism suffer from the same flaw. Epimenides claims to speak truth about the people of Crete. Yet he contradicts his truthfulness by calling himself a liar. Why believe Epimenides? Relativism claims to speak truth about at least one thingnamely, that truth can be true for you but not for me. Yet it contradicts itself by claiming nothing is really true or false. Why believe the relativist if he has no truth to utter?
The claims of relativists are like saying, I cant speak a word of English or All generalizations are false. Our most basic reply to the relativist is that his statements are self-contradictory. They self-destruct. They are self-undermining. The relativist actually falsifies his own system by his self-referential statements like Everyones beliefs are true or false only relative to himself.2 If claims are only true to the speaker, then his claims are only true to himself. It is difficult to see why his claims should matter to us.3
To be consistent, the relativist must say, Nothing is objectively trueincluding my own relativistic position. So you are free to accept my view or reject it. Of course, usually when the relativist says, Everything is relative, he expects his hearers to believe his statement and adjust their lives accordingly. And he expects his statement concerns all statements except his own! Of course, the relativist doesnt likely believe that his relativistic position is simply true for himself. Thus, the relativist commits a second errorthe self-excepting fallacy, claiming a statement holds true for everyone but himself.4 Oddly, the relativist is unwilling to relativize his relativism. And he is also unwilling to generalize his relativism since he makes himself an exception.
Its fair to point out to the relativist that statements like Thats true for you, but not for me are not only self-contradictory but guilty of this self-excepting fallacy. While this statement often shuts the door on further conversation, it need not. An appropriate response to such a relativistic statement might be this: You obviously assume the universal validity of the statement Something could be true for one person but not for another, but you imply that it is applicable to everyones beliefs but your own. But if you are being consistentif your statement is only true for you, then I see no reason to think it applies to me.
Relativism misses on a crucial test of internal consistency. Something can be true for one person but false for another fails to meet its own criterion for truth. Think about it: While a worldview can be internally consistent or logical yet still be false, no worldview can be true if it contradicts itself.
Deflating Thats True for You, But Not for Me
- If my belief is only true for me, why isnt your belief only true for you? Arent you saying you want me to believe the same thing you do?
- You say no belief is true for everyone, but you want everyone to believe what you do. Youre making universal claims that relativism is true and absolutism is false.
- You cant in the same breath say, Nothing is universally true and My view is universally true. Relativism falsifies itself. It claims there is one position that is truerelativism!
- Youre applying your view to everyone but yourself. You expect others to believe your views (the self-excepting fallacy).
1. "Challenge," 367-8. [Back to text]
2. Note that not all self-referential statements are false (e.g., ''This sentence consists of six words''). The problem comes when they are self-referentially defeating. [Back to text]
3. The relativist could attempt to evade the self-contradictory argument by claiming that all statements about ultimate reality are true relative to presuppositions of the speaker's own culture. He could limit the scope of his claim by asserting that his statement is not about the intrinsic nature of ultimate reality. But then the relativist can be challenged to provide a reason for limiting his claim to such statements about reality. (I owe this point to Larry Lacy.) [Back to text]
4. Maurice Mandelbaum, ''Subjective, Objective, and Conceptual Relativisms,'' 405. [Back to text]
''True For You, But Not For Me'' by Paul Copan
Copyright © 1998, Paul Copan
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.