Relativism Results in What?
Frank Peretti visits the issue in a young adult book
My nephew recently passed along to me a copy of a young adult book by Frank Peretti entitled Nightmare Academy. For anyone not familiar with Mr. Peretti, he is the author of some of the best selling fiction works in Christian literature such as This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness (now available in a single volume) and The Visitation. His books have a very Christian world view, and are enjoyable reads by anyone with a view of an active supernatural (specifically, heavenly) realm.
Nightmare Academy is the story of a family of investigators (known as the Veritas Project), and specifically Elijah and Elisha, the two teenagers in the family, who are retained to find out what happened to a runaway child who turned up with an almost completely blank mind. Their search leads them to a place called the "Knight-Moore" Academy which takes in runaways for the purpose of seeing what will happen to people who are put into a completely relativistic environment. The runaways are told that they are making their own environments, that there are no rules, and that there is no truth.
While the book is obviously fiction, the book makes a few really good observations about the failings of relativism. For example, in one scene early in the book, one of the students, Charlene, stole Melinda's Walkman, and Melinda felt that she had been wronged. Of course, the idea that someone could do "wrong" to another is anathema in a relativistic universe. So the moderator, a man named Mr. Easly, takes Melinda (the owner of the Walkman) to task for being so possessive, and suggests that the problem isn't with Melinda's taking of the Walkman, but with the idea of personal property ownership. To understand part of the conversation, you need to know that Melinda didn't originally buy the Walkman, but she found it herself. Easly says:
"Well now, come on, let's not get into either/or here, as if either Charlene or Melinda is right. Maybe both Charlene and Melinda are right. Maybe the real problem is private possessions. Charlene believes that all the world is community property and everybody owns it, right? * * * But it looks like Melinda agrees with you--at least she did when she, uh, found the Walkman, didn't you Melinda?"
Melinda got a little flustered and looked at the ground as she replied, "I don't know, I just wanted it, that's all."
"Nothing wrong with that," said Ramon.
She turned to him. "Yeah, so how would you like it if somebody ripped off your stuff?"
"Oooooohh," the group reacted, mocking her anger.
Easly tossed both girls a coin and then held up a hand to calm things down. "Okay, now Melinda's asked Ramon the big question: How would I like it? Well, that's up to each of us, isn't it? If I'm being selfish with things, then sure, I'm going to get upset if someone else needs what I want to keep for myself. Melinda, did it ever occur to you that perhaps you are being too selfish with things? Do you think it's fair for you to have a Walkman when somebody else doesn't?"
"Yeah, Melinda," piped up some others, "what about that?"
"You could look at it this way: You're actually sharing; you just don't know it. I think that's the whole point here: If nobody owns anything, then how can anyone steal it?"
Melinda looked around the group, still angry and suspicious. "Well if that's the way you want to say it, then whoever's sharing my Walkman, I'd like it if you'd share it back again."
"All right," said Mr. Easly. "See? Both Melinda and Charlene are right."
I have always believed that the best response to a person who is a true relativist is to take the advice of Greg Koukl: Steal their stereo or something else that is important to the relativist. Well, apparently for Easly, this wouldn't solve the problem. He opines that the reason that such stealing is not wrong is because of the notion of private property. We are too selfish, and that's why the stealing of the stereo isn't wrong in any sort of absolute sense.
Of course, this raises another question: why is it wrong to be selfish? If it is a truly relativistic universe, isn't the decision to be selfish just as "right" as the decision to be altruistic? This is, of course, the problem with pure relativism. If there is truly no right or wrong, then there is no reason to believe that one's preference for selfishness is any more or less noble than one's preference for altruism. In a truly relativistic universe, it is equally legitimate to work to pollute the environment as it is conserve the environment. We could go on and on.
Interestingly, Peretti doesn't attack the conversation on this point, but on the point that Easly's solution is not really a "both/and" but another "either/or". How did he do that? Well, I guess I will solicit suggestions from readers to see what "either/ors" they may see and I will give Peretti's "either/or" later.