Relativism has become all the rage these days. Relativism is the idea that what is true for you might be different from what is true for me. The extreme end of relativism says that there is no absolute truth. This idea is really only held by philosophers and some college professors. For most people relativism works like this: All of us see the world through the lens of our personal history, personality, and prejudices, therefore it is nearly impossible to understand anything objectively. This means that my understanding may be different from your understanding regarding a particular topic, my beliefs may be different yours, I may have different preferences than you, but both our ideas are just as legitimate. The truth is out there. We just have a hard time coming to it objectively for the reasons mentioned above.
We see relativism in action when people say things like, “That might work for you, but it doesn’t work for me,” or “Maybe it is true for you, but I see it differently.”
For centuries our ancestors viewed the accumulation of knowledge as the ultimate quest. If we can gather enough knowledge, then we can know and do anything. It was accepted that there is one truth and it is the responsibility of human society to find this truth. This is the basis of the Enlightenment.
Today, most of western society is in the process of rejecting Enlightenment thinking. We have seen the failure of this foundationalist thinking. We are beginning to accept that knowledge will not solve our problems. We see that society is far too complex for us to fully understand. We know that human beings can never escape their biases enough to have true objective understanding. This swing away from Enlightenment has landed us squarely in the world of relativism.
Relativism has some real problems though. The main problem is that it has no answers. The heart of relativism says whatever you prefer is what is best for you. There is no meaning in life. There is no higher purpose. There is no hope.
I think many of us feel this hopelessness in the world around us. It permeates everything. It causes people to live only for themselves; only for what makes them happy. It causes people to give up on a better life. It causes people to not care for the world around them.
While relativism has innate problems, it also has characteristics that every one of us need to embrace. I propose that we live a “humble relativism.” We each need to accept that we do not (and never will) have all the answers, but we will still search for them. We must understand that what is best for me may not be what is best for you, and I should try to understand your way. We need to live with the flexibility that the things that I now accept as true could one day be proved false, but in the meantime I should stand firmly on my beliefs. We should respect every person in whatever lifestyle and belief system they have, but still challenge others to understand more fully why they believe the things they do.
Let’s embrace a little bit of relativism, but not too much. Humble relativism.