Perhaps one of the biggest threats to human dignity in the modern world is the expanding popular ‘philosophy’ known as relativism. Relativism is the idea that holds that there is no absolute truth; that is, that everything is subjective to personal or cultural experience and projected onto the outer world from within. Consequently, ‘my truth’ may not be ‘your truth,’ but both truths are in harmony with each other because, ultimately, there is no Truth. Many writers, philosophers, theologians and scientists have denounced this seemingly tolerant idea, claiming that it poses a threat to civilization. CS Lewis wrote that it will “certainly damn our souls and end our species,” Pope John Paul II claimed that it would destroy freedom, and biologist and avowed atheist Richard Dawkins affirmed that relativism denigrates scientific truth.
Absolutism, the idea that there is absolute truth (and that some things are relative), forms the foundation for all human rights. Indeed, Article 1 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights already assumes that each person is endowed with dignity, regardless of time, place or situation: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Such a declaration is absolute by nature; it is not relative to anything, even the person. One can therefore see how relativism poses a threat to human dignity and human rights — they no longer are an objective reality, but rather a subjective opinion. If everything is relative, then states and authorities grant the human person his or her dignity through law. Fundamental human rights are no longer laws written in nature that states must respect, but rather laws that they create and can change at will. This can easily lead straight to Auschwitz, where the state ruled that some people had more rights than others based on race. To acknowledge human rights is to acknowledge human dignity absolutely. To adopt relativism is to reduce justice to the imposition of the strongest will from above; the intolerance of those in power. All forms of social activism become mere caprices of a group of people, as they lose any moral ground and justification for their claims.
In a sense, the very existence of the United Nations and its Universal Declaration of Human rights is a refutation of relativism. The fact that men and women from all national, cultural and religious backgrounds can come together and acknowledge that every single human person has a fundamental right to food, shelter, life, and freedom reveals a universal notion of what ought to be. In itself, Relativism is a philosophically inconsistent concept. It claims that it is true, that “all is relative,” and in doing so it violates its own proposition, since that claim is by nature absolute. Among its many dangers, it makes it possible for human dignity to be determined by those in power at will, rather than acknowledged. The fight for the weak, the poor, the abused, and the oppressed becomes the irrational fancy of a few who enjoy helping others; they justify their actions by thinking it is the ‘right’ thing to do for no concrete reason. For indeed, if moral duty is conditioned purely by time, culture and people there is absolutely no reason why anyone should follow the whims of the Zeitgeist.
By Carlos Garcia, WYA North America Intern