If you've never seen the movie, Roman Holiday, with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, it is well worth checking out. Gregory Peck plays a paparazzi type American reporter in Rome who happens upon a young princess, Audrey Hepburn, who escapes from her real identify to experience a day in Rome as a regular person. One of my favorite scenes takes place at the Boca Della Verita (Mouth of Truth), an ancient stone near the entrance of an old church. Peck explains the legend of the stone to Hepburn, telling her that if a liar puts his hand inside the mouth, it would be bitten off while a truthful person would have nothing to fear. Who wouldn’t be tentative to put their own hand in that mouth?
Growing up, I thought it was important to discover the wisdom and truth to know the real meaning and purpose of life, and then challenge myself to live up to the well-known line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self to true.” I think, for all of us, that task in life is certainly something easier to say than to do, with plenty of short-term incentives to fool ourselves or avoid searching for the truth, ignoring what doesn’t fit what we want to believe and too easily accepting what supports those beliefs. Today, however, the challenge for young adults seems to be even greater because so few believe that objective truth actually even exists. Relativism has swept the culture with the vast majority of young people today believing that the individual determines (not uncovers) moral truth based on their own opinion and desires, and those "truths" cannot be judged outside of each individual person.
Common expressions of this philosophy are evident when you hear people say, “that’s your truth and this is my truth,” or “who are you to impose your truth or values on me?” or worse, shrug and say “whatever.” So why is this philosophy so concerning or even dangerous? Each person creates their own version of the truth, their own value system, and their own subjective judgment system. Isn’t that progress towards the ultimate goal of individual freedom to enjoy a life that has meaning to them, defined by only them? Sounds awesome!
Well, I do have more than a few concerns about this approach to truth and life that I think are worth considering and discussing with those we care about.
The philosophy of relativism is based on flawed logic and impractical to say the least: Relativists hold that there are no absolute truths and that truth is always relative to subjective perception and considerations. The problem is that this position is stated as an absolute truth and is self-contradictory. It is true for everyone that nothing is true for everyone? We know that that 2+2 is always 4 and cannot be 5 for someone else (“don’t impose your 4 on my 5” Chris Stephanik), that triangles are never circles and the earth always revolves around the sun. Okay, if some things are absolute truths, relativists must mean that only morals are always relative? "You can’t judge me or my values, only I can do that.” I think (almost) everyone would say that it is always wrong to torture a young child purely for person pleasure, no matter what your personal values tell you. I think (almost) everyone would say that what Hitler believed and did would always be wrong and that we would have the right to judge his values as objectively wrong. It may be personally convenient to believe that objective moral truths do not exist but it does not seem to be a philosophy of life that is based on honesty, truth or practical application - and does not hold up logically.
The philosophy of relativism leads to lazy thinking and detached indifferentism: If each person determines their own truth, why would you not stop when you had the answer you wanted to believe? If the individual now has the responsibility to determine right and wrong (a determination that people once thought belonged to God), it would seem like they would be more serious than ever about really thinking through each truth and moral value they build. This due diligence may be possible for a few, but most people do not realistically put in the time and have too much incentive to let this be a perfect system to justify what is right based on ego, desire and opinion alone. If there is really no objective, universal or unchangeable reality or truth, what does it really matter what I do? Things only ultimately have meaning and purpose based on my opinion and nothing higher. For most, this approach to life has led to more of a “whatever” attitude and a “meh culture” with little energy, focus and conviction (Robert Barron). In previous generations, the young may have not always been right but they had some energy and passion when the argued why they believed what they did. Today, I notice more and more a resistance to even discuss what people believe and why. As we bury ourselves into our self-contained and bounded selves, that avoidance of really thinking things through is concerning for the individual and society in general.
The philosophy of relativism leads to the opposite of what it preaches: Many of today’s relativists preach the virtues of tolerance and diversity and rail against anyone who imposes their views on others. However, that philosophy seems to be creating a very different kind of culture than that. A culture of tolerance and diversity would mean that many different ideas and opinions would be both encouraged and tolerated, yet it seems like we are becoming more intolerant of views and ideas that do not fit a specific political perspective of the day. Note that we don’t need to tolerate people we agree with, only those we disagree with, yet today we see disagreement on key issues treated as intolerance and even hate speech. Instead of open, honest, respectful discussion and debate, we quickly shut down those voices that do not agree. How much diversity of ideas and beliefs are seriously tolerated in today’s universities and public squares? The founding fathers of this country began a radical experiment in democracy with a clear recognition that our rights came from a place outside of the individual and outside of the government. Today, we have moved from laws based on objective morality and truth to laws based on the current majority opinion. By definition, this model imposes the will of some on others that disagree based on the opinions of some and not on objective truth. Tolerant? Diverse? Free? I am not sure that is what we are actually getting in return.
Recognizing that objective truth exists changes how we look at the important things in life and helps give communities the energy to rally around important issues that truly impact the culture and society. The good news is that there are still plenty of teens and young adults with a desire to do what is right, to be self-sacrificing, and to be honest with themselves. I trust, as they experience life, they will begin to consider the possibilities that there is more meaning and purpose to life than their own plans alone can reveal. I always told my own daughters that they would be more than okay if they thought things through honestly and all the way. I have tried to teach them many other things (and they have taught me so much about what life is about) but truth has always been at the core. Keep digging and the truth may be what actually does set you free to find the joy and purpose you were created for.