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Who’s Intolerant: the Relativist or the Absolutist?

Are you tired of being charged with intolerance? I know I am. Anyone who believes in absolute truth has felt the sting of this charge. “We should accept everyone’s opinions as equally valid," say the relativist. “Since you absolutists don’t, you’re intolerant."

Let’s put a stake through the heart of this charge.

A bad combo

First of all, this argument is self-defeating for a relativist. Notice it insists one ought to pursue tolerance, which is an objective truth claim. In other words, a relativist’s insistence on tolerance implies there is at least one absolute truth—namely,everyone ought to be tolerant.

But objective truths cannot exist within the mental framework of relativism. Therefore, a relativist must make a choice—either give up relativism for the sake of tolerance or reject the objective good of tolerance in order to keep relativism. A relativist can’t have it both ways.

Another response is to show how relativism actually underminestolerance. Remember, relativism holds that a belief is true if it corresponds to the set of beliefs of an individual (“I Say" relativism) or a society (“Society Says" relativism).

But what if an individual, or group of individuals, believes intolerance is a good thing? Suppose someone claimed, “For me and for my culture, it’s morally good to be intolerant of anyone who disagrees with us." According to relativism, we would have to accept this belief as true. So relativism doesn’t promote tolerance, it actually works against it.

Warm, fuzzy feelings

We can go even further with our response. Let’s say, for argument sake, relativism did promote tolerance. Would that make it true? No! To argue we should all be relativists because relativism promotes tolerance is a non sequitur—that is to say, the conclusion, “We should embrace relativism," doesn’t follow from the premise, “Relativism promotes tolerance." Simply because good effects come from a belief doesn’t necessarily mean we should accept that belief as true.

For example, I may get warm, fuzzy feelings from believing Santa Claus exists, but that doesn’t mean Santa Claus exists. People experience benefits from believing in absolute truth all the time, especially the truth proclaimed by Christianity—e.g., peace of mind knowing that all things will be set right by Christ in the end. Would our relativist friends accept Christianity as true on these grounds? Of course not!

So, even if relativism promoted something good, such as tolerance, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should embrace it.

Defining terms

A final strategy is to expose the relativist’s misunderstanding of tolerance. Notice the argument implies absolutists are intolerant for saying someone’s belief is wrong. This misunderstands tolerance to mean accepting that everyone’s belief is right.

But this is not tolerance. Tolerance is respecting the other person evenwhen you think he is wrong. So a relativist says we are being intolerant for saying someone is wrong but believing someone is wrong necessarily belongs to the essence of tolerance. Our relativist friends who espouse this argument simply misunderstand tolerance.

Who am I to judge?

I think perhaps the fundamental argument that underlies the argument from tolerance is that we should not judge other people’s beliefs to be wrong. This was the stance of one young woman in the video “College Kids Say the Darndest Things," a recent video released by the Family Policy Institute of Washington (FPIW). In response to the question of why she thought it was okay for a white 5’9’’ male to claim to be a 6’5’’ Chinese woman, she said, “I feel like that’s not my place, as like, another human to say someone is wrong or to draw lines or boundaries."

I think there are two responses we can offer to help our relativist friends see the weakness of this argument.

First, like the argument from tolerance, this argument undermines relativism. We could ask, “Is it absolutely true that we shouldn’t say people’s views are wrong?" If the relativist says yes, then the relativist is no longer a relativist, for there is one thing that is absolutely true: we shouldn’t judge others views as wrong. Relativists cannot hold to this argument and at the same time be a relativist. If the relativist answers, “No, it’s only relatively true," then why should we care, since it’s only his personal belief that differs from mine?

Second, the relativist doesn’t apply the principle to himself. Notice the relativist implicitly judges, “It’s wrong to judge people’s beliefs as wrong." So, if I say to the relativist, “Am I wrong for believing we should judge people’s beliefs as wrong?" the relativist would have to answer yes. But to answer yes is to judge my belief as wrong. In the end, the relativist cannot get out of making a judgment about someone’s belief.

Believe what you want but do no harm

Now, our relativist friend might try to salvage his position and say, “As long as a person doesn’t harm someone, he should be able to believe what he wants." This is yet another argument you’ll find in the FPIW video mentioned above. What can we say to this?

It’s definitely not compatible with relativism, since it asserts we ought not to cause unnecessary harm.

Furthermore, I don’t think the relativist would want to follow this line of reasoning if he is married and his spouse has an affair. Would he say it’s okay for his wife to have an affair as long as she doesn’t tell him about it, since what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him?

We can also respond by saying the argument doesn’t contribute anything to the discussion of whether truth is relative or objective. It merely states someone should be able to have his own opinion without the threat of coercion. This is something most absolutists agree with, especially us of the Christian stripe. The real question is, “Are such opinions true?"

Finally, I think we can say the argument begs the question. It assumes there is no objective truth that all human beings are made to know. Wouldn’t it be harmful to a human being if his happiness is contingent on knowing the truth, and he is prohibited from knowing the truth because of a false opinion?


In the end, relativism has no legs to stand on. All of the arguments mentioned fail as rational support for relativism and in fact undermine it. I think absolutists, inspired by the language of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55, can rightly say, “Oh, relativism, where is thy sting?"



  1. Tom Rafferty Reply

    This is a Straw Man argument. Very few people I know are relativists. Most people I know do believe in an objective reality and truth. The main problem with this post is that it equates objective truth with Christianity. In reality, since there is no evidence for any god, much less the Christian version of such, one who accepts objective reality (the absolutist?) rejects the claim that there is an interventionist god.

  2. Patrick Gannon Reply

    “Are you tired of being charged with intolerance? I know I am.”
    Wow, what a lot of verbiage to answer a simple question. If you’re tired of being charged with intolerance, stop being intolerant. Even the Pope has suggested more tolerance for LGBTs and divorced people, for example and conservative Catholics tell him to pee up a rope. There is no place for tolerance in this Iron Age religion, is there? Even when it is preached from the top down.
    There is no objective authority for your absolutism, as there is no such evidence that your god, upon whom your intolerance is based, actually exists. His very foundation has been washed away.
    The article begins by putting words into the relativists mouth and then shooting them down – that’s called a straw man attack. Relativism is defined as: “the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.” I don’t think all the semantic arguments in the article changes any of that, or invalidates it.
    I don’t know that I buy into this philosophy myself. I find myself drawn more towards Sam Harris’ approach to morality in his book “The Moral Landscape,” but what I do know is that there is no objective, empirical evidence for the god who supposedly provides the absolutist views of the author and other religionists – whatever the flavor of religion. That in itself tells us that absolutism has problems, because all those religions with absolutists views cannot all be right, and either all but one, or all of them, must therefore be wrong.
    The author went to a great deal of trouble to justify bigotry and prejudice against fellow human beings, and as best I can tell, this is in direct opposition to what Jesus is supposed to have taught.

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