Have you ever heard someone say, “True for you, but not for me”? How about, “You shouldn’t tell people what to do”? Of course you have! But did you know that those are signs that that person doesn’t think there is absolute moral truth? That’s relativism!
In other words, they think that there isn’t any truth that is true for everyone. Instead they think that truth is subjective(determined by personal feelings and beliefs, “I think it is this way, so it is this way for me.”) rather than objective(not determined by personal feelings and beliefs, “It is this way even if I don’t think it is this way.”). Relativism is very problematic, for a number of reasons, and we will explore a few of the reasons below.
One day, Absolute Andy and Relative Rita are playing at the park. Relative Rita sees a swing that she really wants to play with, but another child (we’ll call her Unfortunate Uma) is already on the swing. Rita shoves Uma off the swing and happily begins swinging!
Absolute Andy: Rita! Why did you take the swing from Uma? That was a really mean thing to do and it was wrong for you to take it. You should say you’re sorry!
Unfortunate Uma: *sniffle, sniffle, sob*
Relative Rita: *rolls her eyes* It is wrong for YOU to tell ME what I should and shouldn’t do! Just because you think it’s wrong doesn’t mean I have to. You shouldn’t tell me what to do!
Do you see what happened there? Rita told Andy 3 things. (1) She said that taking Uma’s swing wasn’t wrong because she didn’t think it was wrong, (2) she said that it was wrong for Andy to tell her it was wrong, and (3) she told Andy he shouldn’t tell her what to do! This is an example of moral relativism. Rita is saying that things aren’t objectively right or wrong unless she agrees that they are right or wrong. She says that if she doesn’t think shoving and stealing are wrong, then they really aren’t wrong for her to do. Let’s think about what Rita said.
Do you think it is okay to steal? Probably not. How about to punch someone for no reason? Of course not! If a person like Rita, who thinks that truth and right and wrong are subjective, in order to be consistent, they would have to say it is okay for people to punch other people for no reason at all! Does that sound like a good way to think? I sure hope not. In the same way, your friend can tell you all day that he thinks the sky is green, and he might even really believe that, but it doesn’t actually make the sky green, does it? That is a small example of a thing that is true whether you think it is or not. I’ll bet you can think of lots of things like that.
There is one more thing we should notice about the story. Did you catch that Rita said it was wrong for Andy to tell her stealing the swing was wrong? She told him not to tell her what to do! She was doing the very thing she was saying was wrong. Isn’t that a confusing way to think? A lot of the people you will talk to who say things like this haven’t thought carefully about what they believe. This kind of relativism is often just an excuse for them to behave however they want. They may say it’s wrong to stop people from doing things you think are wrong, but if you tell them “Alright, I am going to steal your iPod because I think it is OK,” and start to take it, I’ll bet they’ll try very hard to stop you(That’s just an example of a way to get them to think about what they are saying; obviously you shouldn’t ever steal anything).
Moral relativism is full of things called logical fallacies, and we will look at logical fallacies in a future article. It is important to know about moral relativism, because sometimes people say that Christians shouldn’t tell other people that things are wrong or true. You’ll hear “be tolerant of other beliefs,” but what they are usually really saying is “we don’t like what you believe, because it isn’t what we believe, so stop telling us about it.” Our God has told us truths that are true for everyone, and it is our job as His followers to defend that truth and share it with others. Even Jesus called himself “the way, the truth, and the life!” Truth is really important! For now, let’s see how Andy responds to Rita!
Relative Rita: It is wrong for you to tell me what to do!
Absolute Andy: May I ask you a question, Rita?
Relative Rita: Well, I guess. What?
Absolute Andy: If it is wrong for me to tell you that it was wrong to shove and steal from Uma, then why is it okay for YOU to tell ME that it is wrong to correct you?
Relative Rita: Uuh, I don’t know, I guess that doesn’t really make sense, but still, that doesn’t mean it was wrong for me to take this swing.
Absolute Andy: Hmm. I guess in that case I will just shove you off the swing and take it for myself. *Andy starts walking closer to Rita’s swing with his arms outstretched*
Relative Rita: No don’t!! That’s not fair!!!
Absolute Andy: Exactly! I wasn’t really going to shove you, but I wanted you to see that you’re being silly. Let’s go apologize to Uma.
More in-depth resources about Moral Relativism for parents and young adults: