Category: Relativism

Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs, customs, and ethics are relative to the individual within his own social context. In other words, “right” and “wrong” are culture-specific; what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another, and, since no universal standard of morality exists, no one has the right to judge another society’s customs.

Cultural relativism is widely accepted in modern anthropology. Cultural relativists believe that all cultures are worthy in their own right and are of equal value. Diversity of cultures, even those with conflicting moral beliefs, is not to be considered in terms of right and wrong or good and bad. Today’s anthropologist considers all cultures to be equally legitimate expressions of human existence, to be studied from a purely neutral perspective.

Cultural relativism is closely related to ethical relativism, which views truth as variable and not absolute. What constitutes right and wrong is determined solely by the individual or by society. Since truth is not objective, there can be no objective standard which applies to all cultures. No one can say if someone else is right or wrong; it is a matter of personal opinion, and no society can pass judgment on another society.

Cultural relativism sees nothing inherently wrong (and nothing inherently good) with any cultural expression. So, the ancient Mayan practices of self-mutilation and human sacrifice are neither good nor bad; they are simply cultural distinctives, akin to the American custom of shooting fireworks on the Fourth of July. Human sacrifice and fireworks—both are simply different products of separate socialization.

In January 2002, when President Bush referred to terrorist nations as an “axis of evil,” the cultural relativists were mortified. That any society would call another society “evil” is anathema to the relativist. The current movement to “understand” radical Islam—rather than to fight it—is a sign that relativism is making gains. The cultural relativist believes Westerners should not impose their ideas on the Islamic world, including the idea that the suicide bombing of civilians is evil. Islamic belief in the necessity of jihad is just as valid as any belief in Western civilization, the relativists assert, and America is as much to blame for the attacks of 9/11 as are the terrorists.

Cultural relativists are generally opposed to missionary work. When the Gospel penetrates hearts and changes lives, some cultural change always follows. For example, when Don and Carol Richardson evangelized the Sawi tribe of the Netherlands New Guinea in 1962, the Sawi changed: specifically, they gave up their long-held customs of cannibalism and immolating widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres. The cultural relativists may accuse the Richardsons of cultural imperialism, but most of the world would agree that ending cannibalism is a good thing. (For the complete story of the Sawis’ conversion as well as an exposition of cultural reform as it relates to missions, see: Don Richardson’s book Peace Child). (an interview with Don Richardson).

As Christians, we value all people, regardless of culture, because we recognize that all people are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). We also recognize that diversity of culture is a beautiful thing and differences in food, clothing, language, etc., should be preserved and appreciated. At the same time, we know that because of sin, not all beliefs and practices within a culture are godly or culturally beneficial. Truth is not subjective (John 17:17); truth is absolute, and there does exist a moral standard to which all people of every culture will be held accountable (Revelation 20:11-12).

Our goal as missionaries is not to westernize the world. Rather, it is to bring the good news of salvation in Christ to the world. The Gospel message will kindle social reform to the extent that any society whose practices are out of step with God’s moral standard will change—idolatry, polygamy, and slavery, for example, will come to an end as the Word of God prevails (see Acts 19). In amoral issues, missionaries seek to preserve and honor the culture of the people they serve.

Pragmatic ethics is one of the three main schools under the umbrella of ethical relativism. Ethical relativism teaches that right and wrong, good and bad, are relative to the situation, circumstances, or personal conviction. Cultural relativism is another school of relativism, but it is less an ethical framework than a tool for anthropologists to use to remind themselves that other cultures have different social mores. Moral relativism teaches that morality is merely the following of any ethical framework—one is as good as another. Pragmatic ethics takes a more aggressive approach, insisting that mankind is responsible for determining the best ethical system possible, which will be refined as new discoveries are made.

Pragmatic ethics is the philosophy of ethics most championed by atheists and evolutionists. It combines the worldview of materialism (the supernatural does not exist) with the methodology of science in an attempt to develop a code of behavior for mankind. “Pragmatic” refers to the belief that we should use what works and alter or discard what doesn’t. Pragmatic ethics does hold that absolute/universal truth exists. But it also teaches that the imperfect human intellect will never recognize truth; all we can do is endeavor to get as close as possible. Practically speaking, then, pragmatic ethics is relativistic.

The worldview of atheistic materialism directly relates to the theory of pragmatic relativism. If everything in the universe is physical and the supernatural does exist, then the spiritual has no effect on the physical world we experience. This means no God, but it also means no human soul, no afterlife, no thought, no feeling, and no consciousness. If we appear to feel or think something, it is merely a physiological reaction to stimuli.

The philosophical application of this is that humanity’s value, identity, and character have no innate worth and are not imbued by a Creator. We are simply physical beings interacting with the world. We are defined by the effect our actions have on other physical entities. Ethics takes on a great importance, then, since ethics is the standard by which we (should) interact with the world around us.

Although it isn’t widely known, one of the key beliefs of most scientists is fallibilism. Fallibilism is the stance that mankind is incapable of knowing when we have come upon the truth. The truth may exist, and we may even believe the truth, but we will never know for sure when or if we do. Yet it is still our duty to seek the truth. We do this is by guessing (hypothesizing), experimenting, and then seeing if our guess was correct.

Fallibilism applies to ethics, too. Truth about human behavior may exist—an absolute standard we are meant to follow. But we will never know if we have discovered that truth. And so our duty is to observe and contemplate which actions lead to the best results for humanity. With continued effort and experimentation, we might come closer to knowing how to live.

Pragmatic relativism doesn’t work for several reasons. First, it purports to strive toward truth while completely rejecting God. God is truth. He is the I AM—the essence of existence. Of course, mankind has done this since the Garden of Eden—searched for truth outside of God. The tragedy of pragmatic relativism is that it acknowledges many biblical truths (e.g., truth does exist, finite humans cannot fully understand truth, and mankind is responsible to live according to a truth we don’t know) while completely ignoring the fact that Truth came down and walked among us (John 1:1; 14:6). It’s like a lizard lying in a desert, willing to accept that light and heat are realities and knowing that his little lizard brain will never fully understand them, but refusing to believe that there is a sun.

Pragmatism gets some things right, like the fact that ethics and right behavior are directly related to truth. Psalm 15:2 speaks of the man who “walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart.” Scripture also agrees that mankind will never discover truth with our limited intellect (called a “darkened understanding” in Ephesians 4:18). John 14:16-17 teaches that truth only comes from God: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” And John 15:26 says we cannot understand the truth about God incarnate without the leading of the Spirit.

But the Bible differs from pragmatic relativism in that God teaches that mankind can know truth—with help. Absolute truth exists, and it is knowable. Psalm 51:6 says, “Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.” Proverbs 3:3 agrees: “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.” In addition, we are to worship in truth (John 4:24), discern truthfulness in our leaders (Matthew 7:15-20), and be characterized by truth (John 17:17; Ephesians 6:14).

Romans 1:18-32 explains why pragmatists refuse to acknowledge God’s truth. “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened…For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen” (vs. 21, 25). When men refuse the truth of God, whether that truth is a warning that forbidden fruit will bring certain death or God’s very existence, they reject God’s sovereignty over them. With God’s guidance flouted, something must take its place—”the creature” of verse 25. In the case of pragmatic relativists, that “creature” is mankind—the base, physical, material part of man. Not even the heart or soul of man, because that would be too close to God, but arms and legs and neural synapses. The search for truth is futile in their case; 2 Timothy 3:2, 7 says that people who seek truth apart from God are “lovers of self …always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Moral relativism is more easily understood in comparison to moral absolutism. Absolutism claims that morality relies on universal principles (natural law, conscience). Christian absolutists believe that God is the ultimate source of our common morality, and that it is, therefore, as unchanging as He is. Moral relativism asserts that morality is not based on any absolute standard. Rather, ethical “truths” depend on variables such as the situation, culture, one’s feelings, etc.

Several things can be said of the arguments for moral relativism which demonstrate their dubious nature. First, while many of the arguments used in the attempt to support relativism might sound good at first, there is a logical contradiction inherent in all of them because they all propose the “right” moral scheme—the one we all ought to follow. But this itself is absolutism. Second, even so-called relativists reject relativism in most cases. They would not say that a murderer or rapist is free from guilt so long as he did not violate his own standards.

Relativists may argue that different values among different cultures show that morals are relative to different people. But this argument confuses the actions of individuals (what they do) with absolute standards (whether they should do it). If culture determines right and wrong, how could we have judged the Nazis? After all, they were only following their culture’s morality. Only if murder is universally wrong were the Nazis wrong. The fact that they had “their morality” does not change that. Further, although many people have different practices of morality, they still share a common morality. For instance, abortionists and anti-abortionists agree that murder is wrong, but they disagree on whether abortion is murder. So, even here, absolute universal morality is shown to be true.

Some claim that changing situations make for changing morality—in different situations different acts are called for that might not be right in other situations. But there are three things by which we must judge an act: the situation, the act, and the intention. For example, we can convict someone of attempted murder (intent) even if they fail (act). So situations are part of the moral decision, for they set the context for choosing the specific moral act (the application of universal principles).

The main argument relativists appeal to is that of tolerance. They claim that telling someone their morality is wrong is intolerant, and relativism tolerates all views. But this is misleading. First of all, evil should never be tolerated. Should we tolerate a rapist’s view that women are objects of gratification to be abused? Second, it is self-defeating because relativists do not tolerate intolerance or absolutism. Third, relativism cannot explain why anyone should be tolerant in the first place. The very fact that we should tolerate people (even when we disagree) is based on the absolute moral rule that we should always treat people fairly—but that is absolutism again! In fact, without universal moral principles there can be no goodness.

The fact is that all people are born with a conscience, and we all instinctively know when we have been wronged or when we have wronged others. We act as though we expect others to recognize this as well. Even as children we knew the difference between “fair” and “unfair.” It takes bad philosophy to convince us that we are wrong and that moral relativism is true.