Is Truth Relative?

Is Truth Relative?

Are moral claims and spiritual claims objective or relative?

Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self-sustained. Mahatma Ghandi1

Every day we ask questions about the world we live in: Did you turn off the coffee pot before we left the house? Is it raining outside? Do you really love me?

These questions seek the truth.

When we ask if it’s raining outside, we are looking for an answer that corresponds with reality—the actual weather. The answer helps us plan for our day. An unfortunate mistake can lead to a ruined outfit or soggy pair of shoes.

When a claim accurately represents the world we live in, it is a true claim. Truth is simply saying that what is, is and what is not, is not.1

Objective and Relative

All of truth falls into one of two categories. We take some claims about the world to be objective. Objective claims aim to rightly represent the world, and they can be either true or false.

However, not all claims are about what is true of the world. Unlike objective claims, relative claims aim to tell what is true only in relation to a particular person or culture. Relative claims are only “true” in the sense that they accurately represent what is true for some person or community.

So how do we know the difference between objective things (broadly true or false) and relative things (true for one person or culture but not for another)?

Concrete Claims

The clearest example of objective truth is science. When a physicist investigates the nature of the universe, her conclusions are accurate representations for all peoples across all cultures.

If she finds that the universe is expanding, her finding holds true across cultures. Since we all live in the same universe, everyone’s universe is expanding. Scientific claims like these remain unchanged from person to person.

What then should we make of controversial claims in science? For example, scientists may debate the answer to the question, “Are climate changes on the earth caused by global warming?”

Well, within the debate itself is an assumption that two experts with conflicting findings cannot both be correct. If one answers yes and is accurate in his assessment, then any expert with an answer of no is mistaken, and vice versa. The actual truth remains objective.

True for You, Not for Me

The most common kind of relative truths are preferences. Preferences are true in relation to a particular person.

For example, the claim that chocolate is the best food in the world may be an accurate representation of some people’s taste, but it is not an accurate representation of everyone’s taste. The claim is true relative to the people with the preference. To a person in China, the claim may be true, but to a person in India, the claim may be false.

Notice that the claim—“Chocolate is the best food in the world”—can be both true and false, depending on the person. This is what is meant by the phrase, “That’s true for you, but not for me.”

Another example of relative truth is etiquette. In Japan, it is rude to leave on your shoes when entering someone’s home. In the United States, that is not necessarily the case. Therefore the statement, “It’s rude to wear your shoes in someone’s house” can be true in Japan but false in the United States.

Spiritual Claims

Scientific claims and preferences may be easy enough to discern, but what about spiritual claims? For instance, what about the statements, “Jesus is the Son of God” or “God exists”?

Philosophers and theologians agree that these claims are objective because they declare something about an actual person or actual existence. Let me clarify.

Imagine someone claims that you are six feet tall. It would not matter who made the assertion, what culture they lived in, or when they made it. It is either true or false of you. If you actually are six feet tall, it is true.

The same holds for your existence. Your existence is either true or false. Since you’re reading this, let’s assume you exist.

In the same way, the question of God’s existence is a matter of objective truth. Since he cannot both exist and not exist, a claim that God exists is either true or false for everyone across all cultures at all times.

Much like your own existence is true regardless of who believes it, if God exists, he exists no matter anyone’s opinion.

Moral Claims

So scientific and spiritual claims are objective, but what about moral claims?

Imagine a country in which the ruling government seeks to exterminate a racial minority. Now imagine that all non-minority citizens agree to kill the minority group because they think the group uses too many of the country’s resources.

Do you think the people of the country are doing something wrong?

If morality is relative, they are doing nothing wrong because the actions seem right relative to their own culture, community, and interests—they’re preserving resources. However, if killing an entire minority group is wrong—even if others in that culture approve—then this is a case of objective moral truth.

Truth and the Christian Worldview

In the Christian worldview, moral claims are considered objective because they are anchored in the character of God.

Love is morally right because God is love. Telling the truth is morally right because God is truthful. Torturing animals or people for fun is wrong because God is kind and just. God, as a morally perfect being, is the reflection of moral perfection.2

Understanding morality this way helps us make sense of our deepest intuitions. When a murderer kills children, our sense of wrongness is an accurate representation of something actually being wrong.

When someone has lied to you, the sense of being injured is an accurate representation that a wrong has occurred. The lie was not only wrong relative to you, but also to the person who told the lie. The objective nature of morality is reflected in our belief that if someone has lied to us, they have committed a moral infraction.

It would seem that if our deepest moral intuitions tell us that some things are wrong for everyone (e.g. killing the weak for fun), then morality itself is grounded outside of our opinion, construction, or preference. Much as the laws of physics are the ground for understanding the cosmos, so most world religions believe a God or gods is the foundation for understanding moral notions such as goodness, justice, and love.

If God is indeed the foundation of moral truth, then investigating him is the best place to start for understanding objective moral claims.