Basic Philosophy: Relativism and Absolutism
And how truthiness affects it all.
In 2005, the world changed forever. After the word “truthiness” aired on a comedy television show, the American Dialect Society and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary awarded this catchy word the title “Word of the Year.” Defined as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true,” truthiness unintentionally revived the ancient philosophies of relativism and absolutism. My goal is to state the definition of and the obstacles faced by both relativism and absolutism so that you can identify which viewpoint your beliefs most reflect. Although everyone will have views that stem from both philosophies, it is important to determine which is more prominent in your life.
Let’s start first by discussing absolutism. According to the New World Encyclopedia, absolutism began with Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy that ethics can be understood by the human mind. Moral absolutism simply means that ethical issues are not relative to an individual’s circumstances, but remain clearly defined regardless of the implications. Knowledge of these values can come from a variety of sources. The greatest obstacle that an absolutist faces is the question, “Where do these ethical truths come from?” For a theist, it is simple – they come from God. For others, they just point to the human conscience or various other complicated explanations as the source. Because the absolutist claims to know truth, they are able to make judgments about what is right and wrong. Therefore, these people are often seen as arrogant and judgmental by those who disagree. Nevertheless, an absolutist believes that truth is able to be defined and can therefore be legislated and enforced. A person who believes ethics should not vary depending on things such as culture or religious upbringing, would take a clear stand on a moral issue. For example, an absolutist would not only claim that homosexuality is either clearly wrong or clearly acceptable, but also state that their particular position is applicable to everyone.
Now that you know a bit about absolution, let’s discuss relativism. Between these two philosophies, relativism aligns with “truthiness” most. Relativism is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as 1. a theory that knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing and 2. a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals or groups holding them. Simply stated, relativism says that morality is based on a number of things such as personal conviction, cultural characteristics, majority opinion, differing religious beliefs, or even scientific theories, all of which can change often. Therefore, ethical truths would vary as well. Ryan Dobson wrote in his book titled “Be Intolerant” that relativism was born out of people rejecting the moral absolutes of the Enlightenment period of the 1700s. Many people felt the leaders in Christianity held extremely intolerant beliefs and wanted a way to embrace everyone’s traditions, values, and experiences; therefore, a relative view on morals and ethics became the alternative. Relativism is most appealing because of its sensitivity – it accepts others’ beliefs, refuses to judge, and insists that no belief is best. Some relativists believe that because they cannot know truth, they have to be tolerant of all other beliefs. A common phrase of a relativist is, “Who am I to judge?” The greatest obstacle for a relativist is explaining how legislation should occur when right and wrong is either unknown or different depending on each person’s beliefs. Continuing with the previous illustration of homosexuality, a relativist will believe this choice is right or wrong for them but, at the same time, will insist that imposing their view on others is being too judgmental.
In conclusion, the meaning of truthiness and its influence will continue to rise. While this may seem insignificant or irrelevant, ethics affect every area of life. When made aware of where morals come from, we can expect this to emerge especially in our legislation, economy, education, and justice system. These truths also appear in our personal relationships, work ethic, worldview, and when trying to understand moral issues or choices. Finally, and most importantly, with this knowledge we cancommunicate differing ideas in an understanding and peaceful way.
Which philosophy does your beliefs most reflect?
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