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Arguments in Favor of Relativism (Part 2)

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 gives you the right to interfere in other people’s moral choices?

Book Karlo or Cy to speak at your parish or next event.


Want more from Karlo Broussard?

Prepare the Way: Overcoming Obstacles to God, the Gospel and the Church
Why God Still Matters
The Bible Blueprint for the Priesthood
The Bible Blueprint for the Mass


Cy Kellett: What gives you the right to interfere in another person’s moral choices? Believe it or not, there’s an answer to that.

Cy Kellett: Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host, and we are in the midst of a three-part series with Karlo Broussard, apologist here at Catholic Answers, and the author of Prepare the Way: Overcoming Obstacles to God, the Gospel, and the Church.

Cy Kellett: Last week we talked about, what should we say, explicit arguments in favor of relativism. We continue with the various types of arguments in favor of relativism this week, where these are less explicit, Karlo, is that a good way to say it? I’m struggling for the language.

Karlo Broussard: Yeah, it is a bit difficult, I will acknowledge that, of trying to decipher or categorize. But the previous arguments were arguments for relativism saying “These are reasons why relativism is true.”

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: The sorts of arguments that we want to address in this segment and in segment three are arguments that are simply put forward in favor of relativism, arguments that are put forward as reasons why we probably maybe should embrace sort of a relativistic way of thinking and live in accord with it. Maybe not necessarily proving it to be true, but just reasons that are given why we shouldn’t be embracing our view of absolutism

Cy Kellett: They’re trying to convince us that relativism is more reasonable …

Karlo Broussard: That’s right.

Cy Kellett: … without necessarily proving it.

Karlo Broussard: Correct.

Cy Kellett: Fair enough. Okay, so category two is what you call the “stop interference” arguments, or the “no interference” arguments. What are these?

Karlo Broussard: Yeah, just arguments to try to get people to stop from interfering with other peoples’ beliefs or their lifestyle. That is to say, to stop them from making judgements about whether or not that person’s belief is false and whether or not that person’s lifestyle is wrong. You see? “Just leave them be, mind your own business, stop interfering with everybody,” type of thing.

Karlo Broussard: Because in as much as you go around making truth claims about truth in general, speculative truth, or practical truth, right, you’re sort of in a way interfering with people’s way of thinking and way of living. And so these arguments are put forward in order to try to get you to stop that. That’s why I simply labeled them “interfering arguments,” because they seem to be a big different than the third category of arguments that we’re going to look at in segment, the “mean-spirited arguments.”

Cy Kellett: Among the arguments, the “stop interference” or the “no interference” arguments is the first one, the “Thou shalt not judge” argument. What is it?

Karlo Broussard: Yeah, the idea what we shouldn’t go around interfering with people’s lives by judging their beliefs and behaviors because we’re not in a position to make such judgements; and if we do, then we’re being arrogant, is sort of the driving assumption there. It’s the idea, it’s an appeal to intellectual humility, like, “Who am I to judge his belief to be false?” Or “Who am I to say that that lifestyle is wrong? We shouldn’t go around making these sorts of judgements that his belief is false and his lifestyle is immoral.” Okay?

Karlo Broussard: So how do we respond? Well, first of all, if a relativist is trying to put this forward, well then it’s self-defeating because it’s putting forward at least one absolute truth, namely: “We ought not to go around judging people’s belief to be false and people’s lifestyles to be immoral.”

Karlo Broussard: But I think somebody could be in a position where they’re not a relativist. They’re not saying they’re no absolute truth or something, but just simply saying, “Listen, Cy. Who are you to be making these judgements about people’s beliefs and behaviors.” Right?

Karlo Broussard: And so here’s how we respond, secondly, is that it’s inconsistent in asserting the principle. Because in as much as you, Cy, say that I can’t judge other people’s beliefs, right, you’re actually making a judgment that I ought not to judge other people’s beliefs.

Cy Kellett: Right, right. Okay.

Karlo Broussard: And so you’re doing the very thing that you’re saying I shouldn’t do: judge other people’s beliefs to be wrong. And moreover, in as much as you’re judging my belief–because I believe we can make judgements–in as much as you’re judging my belief that we can make judgments about people’s beliefs to be wrong, well then you’re being arrogant. Right? If you say I’m arrogant for saying other people’s beliefs are wrong, right, and I’m not having true humility, if you say that, you’re making a truth claim. You’re saying “It is true that I shouldn’t go around judging other people’s beliefs to be wrong.” Well, if that’s the case, according to your own principle, you would be just as arrogant as you’re saying I’m being for making judgments about people’s beliefs and behaviors. You would be guilty of the lack of humility …

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: … just as much as you’re saying I’m lacking humility.

Cy Kellett: It’s kind of the ultimate case of “Do as I say, not as I do” because what you’re doing is contradicting what you’re saying must be done.

Karlo Broussard: That’s right. And it’s akin to what we call in philosophy “a performative self-contradiction” which says, for example, I might say, “I am dead.” Right? Well, the act of making the statement undermines, falsifies, contradicts the content of the statement. Similarly, the person who makes this argument is saying, “It is true that you ought not to be making judgements that people’s beliefs are wrong.” Right? Well, in as much as you make that statement, you’re making a judgment. You would be making a judgment about my belief, and you’re saying I’m wrong. You’d be just as guilty of arrogance as you’re saying I’m guilty of arrogance.

Cy Kellett: Well, what about the second one, then. The second no-interference argument. The “Thou shall not impose” argument.

Karlo Broussard: Well, we have to–and here where questions come into play. I would simply ask you, “Okay, Cy. Well, what do you mean by impose?” You see? Do you physical coercion, like we shouldn’t physically coerce people into believing what we believe? And if that’s what you mean by impose, well then I would agree. People ought to be free to believe certain things about reality without the threat of physical coercion on condition that their beliefs don’t lead to actions–and they’re not acting out those beliefs–in ways that cause unnecessary harm to other human beings, right?

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: So even in saying that, we would agree that at least in some things, there are just forms of physical coercion. So here’s yet another distinction. There are some forms of physical coercion that are just.

Cy Kellett: Yes.

Karlo Broussard: You can’t go around killing innocent people. You can’t go around stealing people’s cars, and if you do, we’re going to physically coerce you. That’s a just form of physical coercion. But if you mean “We shouldn’t impose our views on others,” if you’re talking about physical coercion here, in an unjust way, well then I would agree with you.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: You ought to be able to hold to your opinion without the threat of physical coercion, and this is assuming that you’re not doing unjust things to other people with that belief and with that way of acting.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so that’s about physical coercion, then.

Karlo Broussard: Right.

Cy Kellett: That’s the not the only thing people mean when they say, “Thou shalt not impose.”

Karlo Broussard: That’s right. That’s right. So obviously you say “No, I don’t mean…” You might say “Well … if you say I mean physical coercion, then we would agree.” Okay?

Cy Kellett: All right.

Karlo Broussard: And then we can take that line of thought. But you might say, “No, by imposition I mean we shouldn’t share what we believe to be true and good with other people.” Well, if that’s the case, well then, once again, why are you imposing what you believe upon me? Why are you sharing with me what you believe about “Thou shall not impose?” You see? Once again it’s a double standard. You’re holding me to a standard, “Don’t share your beliefs with other people,” but yet you’re doing the very thing you say I can’t do. You’re sharing your belief with me that we shouldn’t go around imposing our beliefs on people. Right?

Cy Kellett: Right, right.

Karlo Broussard: So it’s inconsistent in the application of its principle. Secondly, I would say, “Listen, Cy. Truth doesn’t do violence to man.” Right? We are made for the truth. And in as much as we acquire the truth, achieve that which we’re made for, that’s going to perfect us as human beings. That’s going to allow us to experience happiness. It’s going to help us flourish as a human beings. So that’s a good thing, right?

Cy Kellett: Yes.

Karlo Broussard: Yeah. In as much as I share with you what I think to be the truth and the way things really are about the world, well then I am willing the good for you. I am trying to do something that’s good for you, that you may know the truth and thus experience the happiness that you’re called to experience as a human being. I view this way of thinking to be perfective of your nature as a human being.

Karlo Broussard: So sharing the truth doesn’t do violence to people, it actually is the willing of the good to the other person, which in essence, Cy, is an act of love.

Cy Kellett: Well here is one where I feel like we have a little bit of that “Where does green slide into blue” thing, because I can’t constantly be sharing the truth with other people.

Karlo Broussard: Right, right. We’re talking about general principles here, yeah.

Cy Kellett: So what is the person saying when they say, “Don’t impose?” Are they just talking about the way you talk about these things, or–what they are saying? That’s what I’m having trouble with.

Karlo Broussard: Well, that’s what we have to acquire knowledge of, right?

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Karlo Broussard: So we kind of hear this sound byte, cultural saying, “Don’t impose your beliefs on others.” Well, what do you mean “impose?” Physical coercion? Okay, well if that’s it, well, let’s talk about that. If you mean by “imposition” we shouldn’t share our belief with others. If that’s the case, well then let’s talk about that. Should we not share any belief? Well no, probably not that. Okay, so maybe what you mean by “imposition” is “Don’t be a jerk,” right?

Cy Kellett: Right.

Karlo Broussard: When you’re trying to share your belief with somebody, and if that’s the case, well then, yet again, we have common ground. I would agree that we must discern the proper, prudent, and charitable mode and manner in which we’re going to share the truth and what we think to be the way the world really is, right?

Karlo Broussard: So of course–you hit the nail on the head–we can’t just go around sharing our truth at everybody we meet in every circumstance.

Cy Kellett: Right. In the supermarket, “You’re a bad parent!”

Karlo Broussard: Yeah. Remember we’re rational human beings, right? We’re human beings, a rational animal, so we’ve got to use the intellect and exercise the virtue of prudence in order to discern the right circumstances and the right times and the right people, and we have to discern all of these things in order to know when’s the proper time to do this and the right mode and the right manner in which to do this. But that we ought to share the truth, that in and of itself, that’s a good thing, and that’s a true statement, right?

Cy Kellett: Yes.

Karlo Broussard: But how we’re going to share the truth and when we’re going to share the truth, well that gets a bit tricky, and there’s no silver bullet for answering those questions. That comes with the virtue of prudence, and as a Christian we’d say that comes with staying close to the Holy Spirit, right? Allowing the Holy Spirit in our lives to move us, to give light to our minds in order to know when’s the appropriate time to indeed share our beliefs with others because we recognize that these beliefs we hold dear as Catholics is the truth, and as Jesus said in John 8:32, “The truth will make you free.”

Cy Kellett: Amen. All right. Those are the arguments to stop interference. We continue with our three-part series, arguments in favor of relativism. We’ve covered the arguments for relativism. I don’t know why I’m struggling with that today. Arguments to stop interference. The third category is arguments for shutting down rational discussion. We’ll do that next time with Karlo Broussard on Catholic Answers Focus.

Cy Kellett: I am Cy Kellett. Karlo, as you know, has been our guest, and we do this every week. If you’d be willing to share with people we do this. Maybe you think they’d be interested in this kind of conversation, send them over to CatholicAnswersLive.com. They can sign up for radio club there, and they’ll get a weekly alert when there is another episode of Catholic Answers Focus available.

Cy Kellett: See ya next time when we finish up the arguments in favor of relativism.

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