Relativism On The Rocks


Let me set the scene for you.

Me and a friend are shooting some skeeball outside of the school… wait, wrong story… we were in a bar.  After a few rousing rounds of skee (that’s what the pros call it), we sat at the bar with some whiskey and beer and compared war injuries while discussing the merits of Keynesian economics.  Or we might have been talking ’bout how bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks.  Probably the bitches.

Anyway, in walks this girl and she sits next to me.  For whatever reason, I decided to chat her up.  I blame the whiskey.

She was traveling through the Northwest, visiting from PA.  We had a thorough conversation about our individual years of traveling and the similar stops along the way.  After a few minutes, my friend excused himself (what else was he going to do?) and took off, leaving me with my new acquaintance.  We continued our conversation through another drink or two, then I decided to show her around the city.

We walked from Belltown, where we met, to downtown where we sat down at another bar and had a couple of martinis.  So far, so good.  We’re getting into life stories, enjoying our drinks and the freedom of a city that only born travelers can truly experience.

From downtown we saunter on up in the direction of the Space Needle and saddle up to another bar for a $3.50 whiskey shot w/can of beer special.  It was called a ‘special’ because that whiskey and beer was retarded.  Ugh.

So anyway, this is where things turn sour.  You had to know it was going to sour at some point.  This is me.

I’m honestly not sure how the topic got broached, but all of a sudden I’m in the middle of a heated argument with this relative stranger about whether or not we have any right to impose morality on another person or group.  She is claiming that we have no right to tell people how to live, and she goes so far as to say that we shouldn’t have even stopped the Nazis from killing the Jews because that was us inflicting our views on them.  I mean, she wouldn’t kill Jews, but she doesn’t feel it’s her (or anyone’s) place to tell someone else not to.

She’s getting angry, starting to yell and I’m staring at her like she’s crazy and egging her own with my patent pending Super-Condescending Tone (that’s right ladies, I’m single).

I’m six sheets to the wind at this point, so I can’t exactly say how it came to end, but I do recall at one point she exasperatedly stood up and went to the bathroom.  Then she never came back.  Or I left before she came back.  It’s a little foggy.

But seriously, Relativism? 

Relativism!?

Relativism as a philosophy is a blatant reaction against Absolutism, and it has its surface charms.  Live and let live.  Let it be.  Don’t touch me and I won’t touch you.  If you don’t think about it too long, Relativism seems like a very appealing way to live.

As an atheist, there are people that would probably assume I’m a relativist.  After all, I don’t believe in a God or a central moral authority, so shouldn’t I by default believe in Relativism?  My drinking cohort even suggested that me trying to impose morality on others was the same thing that religion was doing to me as a child, and didn’t I hate that?

First of all,  I didn’t stop believing in God or Christianity because of its morality.  I stopped believing in it because it didn’t make any sense and reality doesn’t align with its teachings.  People love to assume I’m an atheist because I was hurt by religion or because I’m angry at God.  Neither is true.  Faith is empty to me, plain and simple.

And secondly, just because I don’t believe in the absolutism of religious morality doesn’t mean I don’t have a moral center.  In many ways, my ethical code is more absolute than that of religious people, because I don’t believe that praying for forgiveness justifies my ‘sins’.  I act morally because it’s right, based on a logical understanding that our evolution as a species requires cohesive coexistence.

The Golden Rule exists in every major philosophy for a reason.  It makes sense.

There are some things I do or accept that others would call immoral, and there are things that I think are immoral that others do not.  Morality is a complicated subject and it’s unlikely we’ll ever all agree on a universal rule.  But, that doesn’t mean we need to say, ‘Fuck it, do whatever you want.’

Murdering someone is clearly immoral.  Whether you think so because God told you or because you understand how murder undermines society, almost everyone would agree it’s wrong and we should stop people from doing it.

Except for my companion.  She thinks stopping someone from murdering another person (or, say, an entire race) is just as bad as the murder itself.  In fact, she claimed my wanting to stop Nazis as being equivalent to being a Nazi.

Of course, in that very statement she’s betraying her true stance because she clearly believes Nazis are bad.  Relativism and morality cannot coexist.  She’s acknowledging that she thinks the actions of Nazis are terrible, she just won’t stop them.  So, it isn’t her morality at play when she preaches non-interference.  It could be indifference, it could be fear or laziness, but absolute Relativism is never the moral high ground.  It’s a moral  no ground.

If she were being attacked and someone just stood by and watched, she isn’t going to praise their relativism after the fact.  You don’t have to be a moral absolutist to know that helping someone in need is the right choice.

I find Relativism as a philosophical stance to be reprehensible and indefensible, not just in morality but in anything.  I’ve heard people use Thomas Kuhn‘s concept of Paradigm Shifts in science (don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar) as an argument that we don’t really ‘know’ anything and all science is essentially faith or insubstantial.  In other words, we can’t really know what we know, so it’s all relative.

Just like the relative morality stance, though, this view crumbles when it’s actually tested.  We don’t ‘know’ anything thanks to science?  Really?  So why, when you walk in a room, do you flip on a switch to turn on the lights?  How come when you’re sick you take medicine?  Or when you want to read an incredibly suave and handsome blogger’s latest post of genius, you turn on your computer/Ipad/Kindle/Magic Eightball?

Science and the things we ‘know’ because of it are all around us. 

Anyone can philosophize as a relativist, but no one lives like one.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m a lousy date.  But hey, it’s all relative.

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