Truth is Truth?
The Reality of Objective Truth
It was Pontius Pilate who asked the question during the trial of Jesus: "What is truth?" That same question is still being asked more than 2000 years later. There are some that would say that there is no objective truth. By that I mean something that is true of all people in all areas at all times. Objective truth is objective because it comes from someone or something outside of ourselves. The fact that stealing and murder are wrong is not something that is wrong only because a particular society or culture has deemed it so at this point in history. It has always been true for all societies in all ages whether they believe it or not. And if a certain society should decide that stealing is right as long as you don't get caught, for instance, that doesn't make stealing right. I think most of us would agree that it is still wrong.
However, if you say that there is no objective truth, but only subjective, then a society can adopt whatever morals they choose. This is the case because subjective truth comes from what you perceive to be true in your mind, not from an outside Truth-Giver.
I. Examples of a Subjective Outlook
1. The Sawi People
To illustrate the subjective viewpoint, I can think of at least two examples. There was a tribe of cannibal headhunters who lived in Western New Guinea, Indonesia. The Sawi people lived for centuries warring with other Sawi in neighboring villages. To them ordinary murder was nothing. It was a way of life. And to them, treachery was the highest good. To be what was known as a "legend maker", you had to create a scenario where you pretend to make peace with your enemy. Then when the enemy lets his guard down, the true "legend maker" would kill him.
It is quite interesting that these people didn't have any word for God or any real concept of Him. They did believe in disinterested or malevolent demons and spirits of the dead.
When a missionary named Don Richardson talked to them about Christ, the Sawi people became excited when they heard about Judas' betrayal and regarded him as the hero of the story or the Super Sawi. Richardson felt that he had failed and decided to leave because his presence kept bringing the Sawi enemies dangerously close together and precipitated more warfare.
The Sawi people didn't want Richardson to leave because he was their source for modern medicine and steel axes, so they told him they would make peace. Richardson was skeptical because of their idealizing of treachery and wondered what guarantee he had that they would actually keep their bargain. He soon found out when the villagers started to exchange infants between them. An infant given to another village was known as a "Tarop Tim" or a peace child. As long as the peace child lived, peace was guaranteed. Murder was honorable among the Sawi but killing a peace child was considered a despicable act.
This was the key that Richardson used to introduce the gospel to the Sawi. He presented Jesus as God's peace child who will never die and therefore guarantees everlasting peace. Many Sawi were saved because of this and a church was formed.
Now if you are a relativist, you would have to see the Sawi practice of cannibalism and treachery as good because their society saw it as good. It may not be what our society would choose, but their society lived for hundreds of years like this with no problem. By this I mean it was not a problem unless you happened to be one of those persons tricked, killed and eaten. If you say it wasn't good then you have to admit that there is an objective standard out there to which all mankind must adhere.
2. Hitler and the Nazis
Another example is more close to home because we fought a World War over it. Hitler's Nazi Germany, during World War II, wanted to take over the world. In the process, the Nazi regime killed 6 million Jews in what has become known as the Holocaust, and a total of 11 million people. Hitler used, as his basis for truth, the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest. He saw the German nation as a superior or stronger people. And he saw the rest of the world as weaker, and more inferior. His master race, he believed, was destined to survive.
Besides Darwin, Hitler was influenced heavily by Friedrich Nietzsche who stated:
"Since there is no God to will what is good, we must will our own good. And since there is no eternal value, we must will the eternal recurrences of the same state of affairs."
Hitler adopted Nietzsche's view and incorporated it into his own view. The rest is a horrible history lesson in subjective values. Here are a few words from Adolf Hitler himself:
"The stronger must dominate and not mate with the weaker which would signify sacrifice of its own higher nature. Only the born weakling can look upon this principle as cruel, and if he does so it is merely because he is of a feebler nature and narrower mind; for if such a law did not direct the process of evolution then the higher development of organic life would not be conceivable at all.... If nature does not wish that weaker individuals should mate with stronger, she wishes even less that a superior race should intermingle with an inferior one; because in such case all her efforts, throughout hundreds of thousands of years to establish an evolutionary higher stage of being, may thus be rendered futile." (Taken from "Mein Kompf" by Adolf Hitler)
At the Nuremberg trials, the Nazi leaders were tried for crimes against humanity. In order to do this the people who tried them had to see an objective moral standard to which every human being must bow. Adolf Hitler and the other Nazi leaders did that which was morally evil, despite what they believed about superior races.
Although most people would not see what Hitler did to be morally correct, some of these same people have no problem in saying that morality is subjective. By pronouncing judgment on the Nazis, they are going against the very premise that they claim.
II. Objective Truth is Undeniable
Maybe it has crossed your mind that to claim that all truth is relative is self-contradictory. If all truth is relative, then what you yourself are saying about truth is relative. You cannot be absolutely sure about something if there are no absolutes. And yet we make claims all the time to know things. I believe that I exist, for instance. No matter how many people tell me that I don't exist, my thoughts tell me these people are not accurate. It doesn't square with reality to say I don't exist.
Also, what if I were to tell you that I believe that I can fly? I don't mean with a plane. I mean I can just flap my arms and fly. You would rightly think I am crazy. It is impossible for human beings to fly. Their bodies are not designed for it. But since I subjectively believe the "truth" that I can fly, I go to the top of a tall building and jump off, flapping my arms as hard as I can. You can guess the result. I fall to the ground because gravity pulls me down, and I kill myself. The truth is, I cannot fly no matter how much I believe it to be true.
Another thing to think about is the fact that if truth is merely subjective, then you and I could believe two entirely different things and we would both be right. If I told you that God exists and you told me that God didn't exist, for instance, we would both be right. To me God exists, I believe it to be true with all my heart. But the atheist says emphatically that he knows that it is true that God doesn't exist. The truth is, it is absurd to believe that we are both right. But relativism or subjective truth demands it.
In a world full of relative truth, no one is ever wrong. There is no objective standard to judge the rightness or wrongness of something. That is very convenient. I no longer have to answer to anyone for my beliefs. As long as it is right for me, it doesn't matter if everyone else in the whole world believed I was wrong, I would still be right.
And the relativist has another dilemma. He must say that relativism applies to everyone and not just himself. The minute he says that he is stating an absolute and ceases to be a relativist. Are you seeing a pattern of contradiction here? If so it is because relativism is self-contradictory. The only rational conclusion is to say that there is objective truth out there that applies to everyone universally.
III. Truth and Morality Demand a Source
It is not a hard stretch to jump from the idea of truth being relative to the belief that morality is relative as well. Morality is based on what you hold to be true about good and evil, or right and wrong. If there is moral relativism, then my morality is no better or worse than a person who is a mass murderer. Morality becomes an individual choice, like the style of clothing a person likes to wear. Some may like to wear suits and ties all the time, and some may like to wear jeans and a T shirt. There is really nothing wrong with either choice. It's an individual decision. But do any of us really believe that there are no real moral standards? If one person chooses to make a living by stealing from others, while another gets a job and works hard to provide for his or her family, can we really say that neither choice is bad? Indeed everything in our beings screams that the latter choice is far superior to the former.
I think Socrates said it best: "A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true." That is what it boils down to ultimately. The relativist must admit that morality is an illusion, a mere product of his mind. And no society has a moral higher ground. Some atheists would say that we have evolved and as we evolved we have also evolved a higher sense of morality. But this cannot be if morality is relative. There can be no higher sense of morality, only a different sense or understanding of it. A higher sense implies that there is an objective sense of morals that we are ultimately trying to attain.
Ravi Zacharias on Truth and Relativism
If subjective morality is self-defeating, and I believe that all we've said here shows that it is, then morality has to ultimately emanate from some other source than humanity. There is a lot of evidence for the existence of God and objective morality is certainly one of them. A society where everyone does what is right in their own eyes ends up in chaos because each person answers to no one but themselves. American society is reaping the results of this as we see more and more people living like there are no consequences to their actions. Families are breaking up. Children are killing children. Children are having children of their own. Drugs kill thousands of people each year.
I could go on, but you get the picture. As a Christian, I believe that the God of the Bible is the ultimate truth and giver of truth. Jesus said: "I am the way, the truth, and the life..." But no matter what we may believe, we need to all stop acting as if truth is something we choose. Truth is truth, not because we choose it, but simply because it corresponds to reality. If there is ultimate truth, then we all need to find it. Because living in a world of relative morality will destroy us.
© 2011 Jeff Shirley