“You have your truth, I have mine”

Relativism may be a comfortable creed, but it is intellectually lazy.
Richard Umbers | Aug 20 2010 | comment  

If taking your dog for a walk is your idea of Sunday worship then Vermont’s Dog Chapel is for you. It has stained glass windows dedicated to various dogs as saints. Pilgrims can attach a photo to the walls of their deceased canine as a memorial of happier times. Here is a place where anyone can wear a collar and believe whatever they want just so long as they don’t believe it too strongly. The vibe of the Chapel is captured on the sign outside: “Welcome all creeds, all breeds, no dogmas allowed.”

Dog Chapel resonates with the warp and woof of our times, even though scepticism greets the truth claims by any church, whether it be Catholic, Protestant or Scientologist. Indeed, the mere attempt to present objective values about life or death, rather than just stating mere facts, is seen as religious fanaticism. It could be an attempt to take control of my thoughts, freedom and wallet, people fear.

Rather than roll over and play dead before authority our society prefers the relativist claim that “you have your truth and I have mine”. Confrontation is avoided by watering down thought and making it so mushy that no one would ever impose his beliefs. But when is a relativist ever wrong? How would one know?

Think of the dolphin music in a secular funeral parlour. It sounds meaningful but it doesn’t pin you down to any specific life view or course of action. Think of Tina Turner’s Buddhism and karma-lite without any of the down-sides of reincarnation (like blaming the congenitally disabled for sins committed in a previous life). If that sounds too mind-bending, you can always squelch me with “well, that’s your opinion”.

Some statements can open up interesting discussions. “That’s your opinion” is not one of them. Anyway, no one really believes in “that’s your opinion”. We all think that female genital mutilation in the Sudan, racism in Arizona, the stoning of women in Iran, or child molestation in Australia’s Northern Territory are wrong however acceptable they may be in the local culture.

Here’s where the wheels really begin to wobble on the cart of relativism. We live in a society in which we are free to go whatever we want but we never find out where we should begin or where we should end up. Our freedom is like a complicated toy without the instruction manual. Pope Benedict XVI, the implacable foe of moral relativism, has often mused that we cannot make the world better unless we know what is good and what is not good for the world. Relativism leads to intellectual complacency and social apathy.

“But that’s just your opinion.” Yes, it is and I’m happy to debate it. The answer, I propose, to the problem of disagreement and differing perspectives is not to weaken thought, not to retreat into indifference and disengagement, but rather to do mental exercise and sharpen our critical thinking capacities.

We should work towards fostering an environment and culture where concern for truth precedes personal comfort. We should be humble about our truth claims but humility means telling the truth. It means saying you are good at something when indeed you are.

We can know the principles of non-contradiction and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject. If failures to arrive at the truth have been caused through bias or sloppy thinking, that is no reason to abandon the search for truth. It is reason to redouble our efforts to cultivate the intellectual virtues of fairness and coherence.

Let’s encourage reflection and self-examination. What are my reasons for belief? Do they stand up to rigorous analysis? Our truth claims need to be made without swagger; we need to propose more than impose; but we should not let relativists impose silence upon us. The truth hurts but it also heals.

Not to connect our perspectives with reality is to go delusional. It would be symptomatic of a society that had gone to the dogs.

Richard Umbers teaches philosophy in Sydney

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