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Arguments in Favor of Relativism (Part 1)

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Our in-house-philosopher, Karlo Broussard, author of Prepare the Way: Overcoming Obstacles to God, the Gospel, and the Church, joins us for a three-part conversation about relativism. What are the arguments in its favor, and are they convincing?

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Prepare the Way: Overcoming Obstacles to God, the Gospel and the Church
Meeting the Protestant Challenge
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Cy Kellett: Do the modern moral relativists have a point? Let’s look at the arguments.

Cy Kellett: Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and we begin three in-depth conversations with Karlo Broussard this week. Karlo is an Apologist here at Catholic Answers, the author of Prepare the Way: Overcoming Obstacles to God, the Gospel, and the Church. I often refer to him as Master Broussard, because he is a master of philosophy.

Karlo Broussard: I don’t know about that, my friend, but I’m working on it.

Cy Kellett: I don’t actually often refer to you as that, that’s my new thing. Today, and over the next three conversations, or over these three conversations that we will have, we talk about—well, I suppose one way to think of it is, it’s getting harder and harder to reason in the modern world. Really, the definition of insanity, I suppose, is losing your reason, and losing that sense of reason, and reasonableness, and even the connection to reality of it reason gives us.

Cy Kellett: Why is that happening? Why is it harder and harder to reason with people? Is it harder even for us to work through reasonable arguments ourselves to come to reasonable conclusions about things like politics, and morals, and religion and even the natural world? Well, underneath much of that is an assumption of relativism, this idea that truth is either not there, it’s not a real thing, or that it’s so elusive you really can’t have contact with it. Is that fair enough to say, all of that, Karlo?

Karlo Broussard: Amen, yeah. We have this underlying assumption of relativism that sort of driving a lot of the cultural ideas that we encounter in conversations with people. Cultural sayings that we often hear and encounter that, in some way, are associated with relativism. What I’m hoping to do over the next three segments here in conversation with you is to try to tease out and distinguish the relationships that the various cultural sayings have with relativism, and the different arguments that are put forward for relativism or certain arguments that are put forward that might not be used specifically for relativism, like to prove that it is true, but certain arguments that are made that have relativism as its assumption. That’s what I hope to do.

Cy Kellett: Fair enough. Instead of railing against relativism, which I’m perfectly happy to do, we’ll try looking at the actual arguments in favor of relativism. We’ll take a look and see what they are. So you gave me a variety of categories of arguments in favor of relativism, and category one among those is arguments for relativism, global or moral. What does that mean? What are we talking about when we’re talking about the category, arguments that are directly for relativism, either global or moral relativism?

Karlo Broussard: Yeah, so global relativism just simply means there is no absolute truth in general, regardless of what we’re talking about.

Cy Kellett: It just doesn’t exist.

Karlo Broussard: Morality, religion, and history-

Cy Kellett: There is no absolute truth.

Karlo Broussard: That’s right.

Cy Kellett: All right.

Karlo Broussard: Moral relativism would refer to there are no absolute moral truths. It’s a form or a version of what philosophers call local or partial relativism. It acknowledges that there are some absolute truths-

Cy Kellett: Like “I believe in science, I just don’t believe in morality,” something like that?

Karlo Broussard: That’s right. Correct. Yeah.

Cy Kellett: Okay, fair enough.

Karlo Broussard: And arguments for relativism are arguments that someone might give, or reasons one might give to think that there is no absolute truth (global), or there is no absolute moral truth (moral relativism).

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: And there are a couple of arguments that I think it’s important for us to try and address. The “differing beliefs” argument: “There is no absolute truth because everybody believes so many different things. People believe so many different things, there cannot possibly be any absolute truth; for if there were absolute truth, then everybody would believe it.” Right?

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: So from the different beliefs, many will reason to the conclusion there is no absolute truth. That’s one.

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Karlo Broussard: And then the other one that I think is important is the “cultural conditioning” argument. It’s the assertion that, “Well, listen, everything that we believe is just conditioned by our culture. We are taught by the society that we live in to think in certain ways, and to behave in certain ways, and so because of this overwhelming influence of culture in the way we think and the way we live, there is no absolute truth.” So those are arguments for relativism, arguments that are put forward to prove that relativism is true, whether global or moral. Now, that category is distinct from other categories of arguments. These other two categories of arguments don’t seek out to prove that relativism is true, but they have relativism as an assumption.

Cy Kellett: So these are actual arguments, these first in category one. Category two are what you call “arguments to stop interference.”

Karlo Broussard: That’s category two, and the idea is just—because somebody could acknowledge absolute truth and just say, “Hey, listen. Keep to yourself, stop interfering with everybody.” So one is the “Thou shall not judge” argument. Right?

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: You shouldn’t go around judging people’s beliefs to be right or wrong. “Who am I to judge? We’re not in a position to go around judging people’s beliefs to be right or wrong, right?”

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Karlo Broussard: So it’s an appeal to intellectual humility, right? Because if you go around telling people their beliefs are wrong and don’t conform to reality, well, then, you’re being arrogant doing that.

Cy Kellett: Yes.

Karlo Broussard: So that’s related to relativism. I think relativism is an underlying assumption there, although not articulated in an explicit form. And then another one would be the “Thou shall not impose” argument. That’s to say, “You shouldn’t impose, we shouldn’t go around imposing, our beliefs on others. We should just let them believe whatever they want. You don’t need to go around telling him he’s wrong or something and that his belief doesn’t conform to reality.” So notice how these two arguments—and I’m just using that label “argument,” they are not technically arguments, but—these cultural sayings are moral imperatives. These are assertions of how we ought to behave.

Cy Kellett: “A good person would do these things.”

Karlo Broussard: That’s right, but what these are ordered to is not necessarily to prove that relativism is true, but to simply stop interference with other people’s beliefs, and their opinions, and their lives as well. And so these are some of the moral imperatives of the culture that we’ll address as well.

Cy Kellett: Then, category three is “arguments for shutting down rational discussion.” Now, these are different from the arguments to stop interference?

Karlo Broussard: Yeah, it’s a very … I’ve actually struggled with how to articulate and categorize the difference here. I’ll admit and concede that it’s not quite that clear, because you could just lop them all together. But I think these are more so … I mean, think about it, “You shouldn’t go around judging people’s beliefs. Who are we to do that? We need to be humble and not be arrogant or whatever.” So it’s not necessarily mean-spirited, it’s just saying-

Cy Kellett: No, it’s a declaration of a moral imperative. This is how you should-

Karlo Broussard: Just don’t interfere with somebody.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: That’s right. “Don’t impose. Don’t impose your beliefs on other people,” right?

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: That could be taken as mean-spirited, but it could also be taken just in a way that, no, it’s not necessarily being mean-spirited. But these, I think, are definitely mean-spirited arguments and that is like, for example, the “hate speech” argument. You know, to say that someone’s belief is false or someone’s behavior is immoral, “Well, that’s hate speech, man. You are being a hater in saying that person’s behavior is immoral or that person’s belief is wrong.” The “bigotry” argument. “Well, to say someone’s belief is false or someone’s behavior is immoral, that’s bigotry, man. You’re being a bigot for not accepting that person’s belief or way of life and their lifestyle.”

Karlo Broussard: Or the “intolerance” argument. “To say someone’s belief is false or to say someone’s behavior is immoral, you’re being intolerant. Why aren’t you tolerating that person’s belief or that person’s lifestyle? You are being intolerant, that’s mean. You are being mean-spirited.” Then, finally, the “judgmental” argument. It’s not necessarily judging a belief to be wrong, but this idea is “You’re being judgmental. You are being mean-spirited in saying somebody’s belief is wrong or somebody’s behavior is immoral.” It’s not necessarily making an active judgment of the mind, you’re simply being mean-spirited and judging that person.

Karlo Broussard: You often hear this whenever you try to critique somebody’s behavior, they’ll say, “Well, don’t judge me. You don’t know me,” as if we are judging their soul, and saying they’re going to go to hell, and being mean-spirited, and stuff. So very close to the other forms-

Cy Kellett: But more accusatory.

Karlo Broussard: But more accusatory, it has more of the character of “You’re just being mean, so stop it!”

Cy Kellett: All right, so let’s tackle category one, then. We know we’ve got these three different categories of ways that people push relativism.

Karlo Broussard: Right.

Cy Kellett: Not always arguing for it, but definitely pushing it on us.

Karlo Broussard: That’s right. There associated with relativism. They’re coming with the relativism package, so to speak.

Cy Kellett: First category is, in fact, arguments that people make. You said the first argument is the “differing beliefs” argument. “Look, Karlo, there’s just so many people, they believe so many different things, there is no absolute truth. There can’t be, otherwise this state of affairs wouldn’t exist.”

Karlo Broussard: Yeah, so what I do in my book, Cy, Prepare the Way: Overcoming Obstacles to God, the Gospel, and the Church is, I coach you in strategies on how to tease out the logic in this argument that says there is no absolute truth because people differ in their beliefs. Let’s tease out that argument, that logic, and apply it to something else. Take the shape of the earth. Many people in the past, and even people today, are disagreeing, have differing opinions or beliefs about the shape of the earth. Does it follow from that, that there is no truth about the shape of the earth?

Cy Kellett: No.

Karlo Broussard: No.

Cy Kellett: It does not.

Karlo Broussard: It does not.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: We can sort of see the absurdity of that logic. “Well, there is no objective truth because people differ in their beliefs.” Well, if that’s the case, then we’d have to say there’s no objective truth about the shape of the earth, because people have different beliefs about the shape of the earth.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: But, that’s absurd. Here’s another example: we’re on a long desert road, we’re traveling in the car, and it’s super, super hot, an Arizona desert. You forgot the water, Cy, so I’m extremely thirsty. I look ahead, I see water up ahead on the road, I say, “Hallelujah. Praise God, there’s water. God has taken care of us,” and, Cy, you burst my bubble and say, “Karlo, no, that’s not water, brother. I think that’s just a mirage.”

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: We have a differing opinion about this state of thing, this matter of fact of what’s going on. Have a different belief and opinion about something. Does it follow from this difference of opinion that there is no truth about what’s on the road up ahead of us, whether it’s a mirage or water? No, there’s a truth about the matter regardless of our disagreement. There is a truth about the shape of the earth regardless if people disagree or have different beliefs about it. So just because people differ in their beliefs, that does not mean that there is no truth about what they are disagreeing on. Okay?

Cy Kellett: Yes, right.

Karlo Broussard: What we call this in philosophy is a non sequitur fallacy, that is, that the conclusion just doesn’t follow from the premise. Okay?

Cy Kellett: There could literally be 7 billion different views about God, if there’s 7 billion people on the earth, and they could all differ—this is not the case, but—they could all differ, and that doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of God.

Karlo Broussard: Whether or not He exists.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, right.

Karlo Broussard: Now, would it make it difficult in order to come to know the truth about the matter? Yes, the more disagreement you have, the harder it is, right, sometimes, to come to know. Although, some philosophers would say, “Actually, it would make it easier because whenever you have a variety of different positions, you’re able to sift out the wheat from the chaff.” You’re able to draw distinctions and able to know more clearly what’s true and what’s not true. So disagreement actually belongs to the very enterprise of philosophy itself, because you cannot really know the truth of something unless you see it contrasted with what it’s not. You see?

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Karlo Broussard: Here’s another point and another way we can respond to this idea, Cy, and that is to say that it is not the case that there is no absolute truth, it’s not the only explanation for why people have differing beliefs. There is an alternative explanation, namely: somebody can simply be mistaken.

Cy Kellett: Yes, right.

Karlo Broussard: This is why the conclusion, “no absolute truth,” doesn’t follow from the premise, “people differ in their beliefs,” because there is another explanation for why people might be differing in their beliefs. Somebody might just be mistaken.

Cy Kellett: Error.

Karlo Broussard: That’s right, error, yeah. This leads me to the last way I would respond, then we can move onto the next argument; and that is—it gets back to what I was saying earlier–some disagreements necessarily presuppose an objective truth. Okay?

Cy Kellett: Some …

Karlo Broussard: Some disagreements, some differing beliefs-

Cy Kellett: Oh, right.

Karlo Broussard: … necessarily assume or take for granted that there is an objective truth about the matter. You might even say this: some different beliefs prove that there has to be an objective truth about the matter.

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Karlo Broussard: And this is where the principle of noncontradiction comes in. Take two contradictory beliefs: “God exists,” “God doesn’t exist.”

Cy Kellett: Yes.

Karlo Broussard: Those are two contradictory beliefs. They both cannot be true, because something cannot both be and not be in the same respect, same place and time, right?

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Karlo Broussard: They both can’t be true, they both can’t be false. One has to be true, the other has to be false. Now, we may not know which one is true and the other is false, but we know that one is true and the other is false, because these are two contradictory propositions and something cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. So notice how these two differing beliefs necessarily tell us, or prove, or presuppose that there is an objective truth about the matter.

Cy Kellett: Right. If I may, before we move on, just a quick question, because I think, sometimes, if you say “differing beliefs does not mean that there is no objective reality,” but then people maybe have the idea that—it’s said, “How are you going to make a distinction between things?” For example, let’s just say the argument of, “Look, you look at something, you say that’s either green or that’s blue, but there’s a certain point where green and blue get so close to each other, I’ll put the line in a different place than you will.” They’ll say “Because they blend like that, there really is no difference between green and blue.”

Karlo Broussard: Very good point. This highlights the fact that something we can affirm, I would even affirm and say that not all questions are easily solved when we’re trying to know truth.

Cy Kellett: I gotcha. Okay.

Karlo Broussard: Okay?

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Karlo Broussard: Some are more clear than others. God exists or he doesn’t exist. But, some questions about reality do pose difficulties where when you have a variety of opinions, it’s not clear which one actually conforms to reality.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: So in no way do we deny that aspect, that differing opinions would lead one to have difficulty in discerning the truth of the matter; but that’s different than saying “Because of the differing beliefs, there is no truth about the matter.” You see the difference?

Cy Kellett: It’s just hard to get to it, yeah. Okay.

Karlo Broussard: In philosophy, we would distinguish it between the first scenario that I drew out: it’s an epistemological problem. Epistemology is the study of how we know things.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: It’s that we can’t know now what the truth is, even though the truth is there. The relativism position, that some argued from different beliefs, is saying that it’s not just that we can’t know the truth that’s there, it’s saying “There is no truth that’s there for us to even know, because it’s all relative.”

Cy Kellett: Got it.

Karlo Broussard: There is an essential difference between the two.

Cy Kellett: Do you think there might be a little bit of laziness underneath some of this of our cultural relativism? We just don’t want to do the hard work?

Karlo Broussard: I think you hit the nail on the head. Not for all. I mean, there’s some hard-working intellectuals out there who are pursuing truth, even though they get it wrong sometimes in our view of reality. But I think most often, a lot of people, it’s just a cop out. They’re not willing to do the hard work in rational intellectual inquiry and so they’ll just say, “Well, there is no truth.” But you see, here’s what’s interesting, Cy.

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Karlo Broussard: God has a solution to that problem. He gave us His son Jesus Christ and revealed himself.

Cy Kellett: Oh, I see what you mean.

Karlo Broussard: Which St. Thomas Aquinas articulates is the purpose—one of the reasons why God reveals Himself to mankind is because the pursuit in acquiring knowledge about reality is difficult.

Cy Kellett: And not everybody has time or the-

Karlo Broussard: Not everybody has the time nor the intellectual chops in order to arrive at conclusions about reality, so God reveals Himself through the prophets of old and through His son Jesus Christ to help folks who can’t engage in that intellectual inquiry to even come to know truths that we can know by the natural light of human reason, but for these people who don’t have the intellectual chops, or the leisure time, or for whatever reason, they can know it through God’s revelation. So for the people who don’t want to engage in intellectual inquiry, God has a solution for them.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, Jesus will get you there.

Karlo Broussard: Jesus will get you there. Amen.

Cy Kellett: All right, so the other argument was not that there’s just so many people believe so many different things, but it was the idea that, “Look, we are conditioned by cultural conditions to believe certain things.”

Karlo Broussard: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: “This is just your culture that makes you think this way, Karlo. A different culture, they think a different way.”

Karlo Broussard: Yeah, so there’s a few ways that we could respond to that. First of all, just because someone is conditioned or even manipulated—and the manipulation has a malicious intent to it–just because somebody is conditioned or even manipulated to believe X, that doesn’t mean X is not objectively true. I got this line of reasoning from philosopher Ed Feser in his article on relativism at his blog, and I think it’s a great example. For example, we might be in a bar or something and it might be pouring down raining outside. Okay?

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Karlo Broussard: For whatever reason, I manipulate you, I brainwash you into thinking it’s pouring down raining outside and it’s unsafe for you to drive home. The reason why I did that is because I want you to stay and buy a bunch of rounds for us in the bar.

Cy Kellett: Okay, yeah.

Karlo Broussard: So I brainwash you, I manipulate you into thinking that the weather conditions are making it unsafe to drive home, for you to stay.

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Karlo Broussard: Does it follow from that that it’s not pouring down raining outside? That the weather conditions are not unsafe?

Cy Kellett: No, it does not.

Karlo Broussard: No, even though I’ve manipulated you into believing “unsafe weather conditions,” “unsafe weather conditions” are still true.

Cy Kellett: Yes. Yeah, right.

Karlo Broussard: So just because you have some belief that’s conditioned or manipulated, it doesn’t follow that belief is not objectively true. Okay?

Cy Kellett: I can think of a religious example of this, the Aztecs telling people that you had to take out the hearts of people to keep the sun coming up. That doesn’t mean that the sun’s not going to keep coming up.

Karlo Broussard: There you go, amen.

Cy Kellett: It’s a manipulation, and that really was manipulative.

Karlo Broussard: Yeah, amen. That’s just one heady, philosophical objection. Here’s another one, though, and I think this one is more concrete: it’s self-defeating.

Cy Kellett: The cultural argument?

Karlo Broussard: That’s right.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Karlo Broussard: If you say, “Karlo, everything that we believe is culturally conditioned.” Well, guess what, Cy? Including your belief that everything is culturally conditioned.

Cy Kellett: Okay. Yeah, now I’ve-

Karlo Broussard: So it’s possible, Cy, that you are thinking is culturally conditioned as well. So it’s not objectively true that everything we believe is culturally conditioned.

Cy Kellett: Oh my goodness, now I’m stuck.

Karlo Broussard: Now you’re stuck, because now you cannot assert your own belief to be objectively true; in which case, well, I guess I don’t really need to pay any attention to it, right? Because it’s only culturally conditioned and that might just happen to be different than somebody else’s belief that’s culturally conditioned. It’s self refuting. It undermines itself. Finally, I would say, here’s a third response. I don’t know if you had something to say, but let me just get this one out.

Karlo Broussard: This argument can’t account for the fact that there were and are social reformers. Notice the argument says “Everything we believe is culturally conditioned,” as if we’re restricted to believe only what our society dictates for us to believe. But it’s the obvious fact that there were and are people who rise up above the societal norms and what the culture believes. I’m just thinking of Martin Luther King Jr., right?

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Karlo Broussard: At his time, within the culture, that form of slavery was permitted. Slavery was considered to be a good. Now, if it were true that everything we believe is culturally conditioned, well then, Martin Luther King Jr. would’ve been culturally conditioned to believe that slavery is good.

Cy Kellett: Oh, I see. Even from the time of slavery, no one—it wouldn’t have occurred to them to argue for the civil rights of black people in America.

Karlo Broussard: That’s right. He was able to rise up over and above that cultural norm; thus, proving that what he believed was not culturally conditioned.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, right.

Karlo Broussard: Because he was going against what the culture was saying is permitted and morally permissible.

Cy Kellett: So the very fact that cultural conditions can improve, and an insightful person like Martin Luther King Jr. can come along and improve them shows that it’s not all just culturally conditioned.

Karlo Broussard: That’s correct.

Cy Kellett: I got it. All right. Okay. So there’s two more of these. We are discussing with Karlo Broussard the arguments in favor of relativism. In fact, these two, the “differing beliefs” and the “cultural conditioning” argument, are the only ones that are actual arguments. The others are points that are made to support an assumption that’s already there of relativism.

Karlo Broussard: That’s right, so these arguments are specifically to try and show that relativism is true, whether global or moral, despite the fact of the incoherence that’s embedded in the assertion that global relativism is true. But the other types of arguments that I think we’re going to address in other segments-

Cy Kellett: That’s what I was going to say, in the next two segments we’ll get to the category that says–these are not arguments in support of, they’re not direct philosophical arguments, but they’re arguments in the sense that, one, “Stop interfering.” Those are the “stop interference” arguments and then the arguments that just to try to shut down rational discussion.

Karlo Broussard: That’s right.

Cy Kellett: Mostly with the mean-spirited language.

Karlo Broussard: Mean-spirited language. And those types of arguments, I would say, are simply put forward, maybe not to prove relativism is true, but at least in favor of adopting or embracing a relativistic worldview or a way of living that’s consistent with relativism.

Cy Kellett: Right. Fair enough. We’ll get to the “stop interfering” arguments next time on Catholic Answers Focus. Thanks for joining us this time on Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host. As you know, Karlo Broussard is our guest and if you like what you hear on Catholic Answers Focus, will you please share with your friends that we do this each week and send them over to CatholicAnswersLive.com. They can sign up for radio club and then they’ll know when these Catholic Answers Focus episodes come out. See you next time.


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