Os Guinness writes in Time for Truth:
The discipline of living in truth is urgent today because modern life reduces community and accountability to its thinnest, thereby tempting us to live in a shadow world of anonymity and nonresponsibility where all cats are gray. In such a world, becoming people of truth is the deepest secret of integrity and the highest form of taking responsibility for ourselves and our own lives. . . . If truth is truth, then differences make a difference – not just between truth and lies but between intimacy and alienation in relationships, between harmony and conflict in neighborhoods, between efficiency and incompetence in business, between reliability and fraud in science and journalism, between trust and suspicion in leadership, between freedom and tyranny in government, and even between life and death. Certainly, the choices are ours, but so also are the consequences.
Consider the following (fictional) dialog and the way our culture views truth. In the discussion, Tom doesn’t believe there is any truth in religion and there is no absolute moral standard. He represents a position called relativism, which means that everything a person believes is not absolutely true, only relatively true, or true for them. Brenda believes there is truth in religion and an absolute moral code. She represents the position called absolutism, which means there is absolute truth and a moral standard that applies to all people everywhere and at all times.
TOM: Hey, Brenda. What’s up?
BRENDA: Not much. What are you up to, Tom?
TOM: I’m thinking about this nonsense people call “Religion.” Some believe that their religion is the only true religion (Ha! Laugh). That’s absurd. There is no truth in religion because there is no absolute truth!
BRENDA: Oh yea? Is that true? [pause] It appears you believe at least one truth about religion, that “there is no religious truth!”
TOM: Well . . . well, I suppose that religion can be true for you, but not true for me. After all, it’s really just your opinion.
BRENDA: Of course it’s my opinion; whose else would it be? Seems to me whose opinion it is makes little difference whether or not something is true. Ownership of opinions and the truth of opinions aren’t the same. Besides, an opinion is not necessarily false simply because I own it. Were you trying to say that opinions can’t be true?
TOM: Yea, that’s what I meant!
BRENDA: Is that your opinion? [Pregnant pause] If your claim “Opinions can’t be true” is not your opinion, then what is it? A statement of fact or a statement of preference? If it is a statement of fact, what evidence do you have that all opinions are false? If it is a statement of preference, then your claim “Opinions can’t be true” is hardly convincing.
TOM: (Looking frustrated). C’mon, Brenda! You know that religions try to get you to believe in some stupid notion of an absolute right and wrong like a moral standard and, well like, nobody agrees on that because there is no absolute moral standard.
BRENDA: Now wait a minute. Simply because no one agrees on whether there is an absolute moral standard does not mean that one does not exist. If it were true, that there is no absolute moral standard, then we would have to admit nothing can be absolutely wrong. In what sense is it relatively wrong to commit murder or child abuse? In fact, if I wanted to slap your face right now, you couldn’t say it was wrong absolutely, but only wrong because you did not like it!
TOM: (Grunt!!) Why can’t we just all get along? Tolerance and openness are the things we ought to be pursuing. You know . . . . Celebrate Diversity!
BRENDA: Tom, since you believe there is no moral standard, then you really can’t say we “ought” to be pursuing anything, because “ought” implies there is a standard of right and wrong behavior. In reality, I suggest tolerance and openness are just empty expressions that allow us to avoid discussing the real issues and ultimate questions we all ask at one time or another, such as “How can we know the truth in religion when we see it?” And, while there are many diverse things in culture that we can appreciate, does this mean we have to commit intellectual suicide and sacrifice the idea of truth on the alter of cultural sensitivities?
TOM: This all sounds so confusing! Why do we have to believe in such exclusive ideas, like it’s my way or the highway! Why can’t we just believe that truth is inclusive? You know, the idea that all the world religions really believe the same thing? The whole world would be much better off if we’d just let each person think that their beliefs are equally true with another person’s beliefs, even if they contradict one another…at least that’s what my psychology professor says.
BRENDA: Hum [gazing into the clouds] . . . that’s interesting. If everything people believe is equally true and, therefore, truth is all-inclusive as you say, then nothing would be false. [Pause while Tom absorbs this new idea.] In fact, the statements “Everything is true” and “Everything is false” would both be true and that’s sheer nonsense! In fact, this makes even less sense if you think about it. If no beliefs are true absolutely, then the belief “No beliefs are true absolutely” is only a relative statement, which is insane and, if you’re honest, doesn’t make sense to you either!
TOM: My head is starting to hurt…BRAIN BURN! Well, I suppose that I can know if my beliefs are true and right if they work for me. You know … if I get the results I want from my beliefs, then I can know whether they’re true and right.
BRENDA: But Tom, don’t you see that the effects of our beliefs are not the same as the beliefs themselves. I don’t think my beliefs are true because they work; instead they work because they’re true!
TOM: Well . . . (frustrated sigh), it’s my right to believe what I want!!!
BRENDA: Of course it is, Tom. But your right to believe doesn’t mean anything you believe is right.
TOM: [Gazed with contemplative look] Hummm . . . . .
Moral relativists are thus under some pressure to explain why they go beyond simple factual statements about what the majority in a society believes, insisting on advancing a philosophical claim about the truth of moral statements. This is one reason some would give for viewing moral relativism as an instance of a more general relativism that sees the truth of any statement as a function of its coherence with a broader theoretical framework. Relativists who base their position on a sharp distinction between facts and values must work with two distinct notions of truth: factual claims are made true by correspondence to reality; moral claims are made true by cohering with or being entailed by the surrounding conceptual scheme. Those who see truth of any kind as ultimately a matter of inter-subjective agreement may be better positioned to avoid this problem.