Arts and Culture

Temptation to Relativism

I CANNOT RECALL how the discussion started, but this summer on vacation with friends a really stimulating discussion about truth took place one evening.

Many of the questions that were raised are questions that students address to me in philosophy courses at St. John’s University. By the time I went to bed, I had trouble going to sleep because my mind was tingling with questions that my friends had raised, and with responses that I had offered. I believe that truth should be near the top of any list of important topics to discuss.

One of the participants in the discussion was a very intelligent college student. At one point, she was trying to defend a form of relativism, the view that we can never reach any absolute truth and that truth is changing all the time.

No Absolutes, Only Opinions

In order to illustrate what this view can lead to, I mentioned a student I had taught who claimed there was no absolute truth, that all we could ever know was people’s opinions, but we could never know what was true or false. I asked that student if he thought that killing six million Jews and six million others was immoral. He replied that the Nazis, who killed the 12 million, thought what they were doing was not immoral.

I replied that if they thought killing was not immoral, they were wrong. I tried to point out that just because a person thinks an action is moral does not make an immoral act moral. There is an objectivity to moral and immoral actions. We don’t arbitrarily create what is and what is not moral. No matter how I tried, I could not persuade the student.

The college student who was part of the discussion during my vacation agreed that killing 12 million people was immoral, and this seemed to convince her that we can reach some absolute truths.

The Nature of Truth

My own thoughts about the nature of truth started when I was a senior attending Xavier H.S. in Manhattan many years ago. The Jesuit priest who taught literature held the Catholic novelist, Graham Greene, in high esteem. In order to point out an example of objective truth, he would make the following statement: “Say that you don’t like Graham Greene’s writing. No problem. That’s a matter of taste. Say that Graham Greene is not a good writer. You’re wrong.”

Today relativism is so widespread that if you tell someone that he or she has judged incorrectly about something then you are considered to be authoritarian or dogmatic or close-minded.

During the “vacation discussion” in trying to illustrate my point about objective truth, I said that Shakespeare is a great playwright, and that anyone who says he isn’t, is wrong. The college student said we think he is a great playwright only because everyone says he is a great playwright.

I said, “No. He is not a great playwright because everyone says he is great playwright, but rather, everyone says he is great playwright because he is a great playwright.”

It is by experiencing his plays that we can come to the conclusion that he is a great playwright.

Aesthetics, Morality, Religion

Reflecting on what I have written in this column about truth, I am wondering if some readers will think I am dealing with a topic that probably only has interest for philosophers. I hope not.

I believe that we can reach objective truth about aesthetics – for example, what is good literature and theater and film and other art. I believe we can also reach objective truth about morality and about religion.

None of this truth is easy to reach and with religion, we have the presence of the Holy Spirit, which, I think, makes religious truth especially mysterious. Nevertheless, without objective truth, we would be wandering aimlessly in our moral lives, shrinking our horizons by not experiencing great art and forced to say that one religion is as good as another, and that it really does not matter which religion you embrace or indeed whether you embrace any religion at all.

To reach any truth involves a commitment. If we don’t wish to make the commitment, then we will live without that truth. A simple, but perhaps crass, way of saying this is that every truth has a price tag and if you don’t pay the price tag you cannot reach that truth. I think that aesthetic truth and moral truth probably involve difficult commitments, but if we make the commitments, we benefit enormously.

I think religious truth is the most important type of truth and it involves a life commitment.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).