The “Throw Away” Culture and Dictatorship of Relativism

By: Vincent Pham

“Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium)

What is this “throw away” culture that we live in that Pope Francis speaks about in this excerpt? Here in Canada alone, we face the realities of a pro-choice society where we see abortion and euthanasia being favoured by citizens and politicians. Looking to another perspective, what is being done for the marginalized of the City of Toronto including the immigrants, the lower-income citizens, the homeless? These are concerns that relate to what Pope Francis calls the “throw away culture” in which people who are not seen as “ideal” to a certain standard, are marginalized and cast out to the peripheries.

I believe this “throw away culture” ties into what is called relativism – the philosophy that there is no absolute truth, and that truth is relative to a person’s feelings, thoughts and opinions. Ethical relativism is the theory that holds that morality is relative to the norms of one’s culture. Whether an action is right or wrong depends on the moral norms of the society in which it is practiced.  Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 2003 said in his contribution to a book titled, Faith, Truth, Tolerance – Christianity and the World Religion that relativism is “the greatest problem of our time.” Relativism implies that there is no such thing as an objective truth or an objective standard. It goes by the mentality, “As long as I feel that X is good, then it is good.” In a relativistic world, you can say, “2+2=5 because I feel that is right.” Since truth in relativism is subjective, it will differ from person to person and thus, no one can say, “You’re wrong!” in any circumstance.

That is the path our society is heading towards now, particularly when it comes to morality. When we look at abortion or euthanasia, these things have risen in our society because of this relativistic philosophy. The dignity of the human person becomes undermined when it is relativized as in such philosophy, the human person can be seen as a mere object, as something that can be kept or thrown away. This is a result of a society that has no objective standards.

This type of mindset is dangerous because first of all, the people who are already marginalized in society are pushed further away to the margins of society. This includes the disabled, the elderly, the migrants, and refugees and here in Canada, the Indigenous people. While we may think marginalization of peoples is something so far away, I have come to realize that it is all around us and the reality is, people must live with such a reality.  I realized this further when I read Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity. Right within the city of Toronto, the privileged advance while the under privileged are casted aside. This is evident in the distribution of resources and services right in the city. Looking at the Jane and Finch area alone, we see how deprived they are of social services and recreational services while areas such as Downtown Toronto are dense with resources and recreational spaces.

When speaking of issues of life and death, relativistic people themselves would create standards on who gets to live and who does not. That is dangerous, because it puts the most vulnerable people at risk, even in matters of life and death. Those who are voiceless are aborted or euthanized because others believe that their life is not worth living in accordance with their own subjective moral compass.

Do we see a pattern in the rhetoric of relativism? What is common throughout these issues that pertain to relativism is “the self”. Notice how in relativism, everything is centered around a certain individual and the pronoun I or me are used extensively. This is the case as relativism is a selfish philosophy. People with this type of mindset are only concerned about the gains of oneself and not of others.

It was mentioned in out last student Zoom meeting by one of our team members that those who are not productive in society are cast aside as they cannot contribute to it. That is exactly what we see in relativists. However, those who abide by objectivity still recognize that every human life deserves dignity and love. Human beings cannot be objectified – they cannot be seen as objects to be kept or thrown out. That is the truth, that fact.

Why do people quickly approach relativism and seemingly favours it over a world of objective truths? Simply because relativism is so easy to live by as it takes no thinking – you only do what you feel is right and no one can say anything against it because “it may be wrong for you, but not for me.” On the other hand, living in a world with objective truths requires everyone to put much effort into decisions as we need to think twice about our choices.

While relativism sounds attractive, in the long term it waters down truth and when there is no objective truth and objectivity to morality, the walls of society start to crumble as innocent lives are lost, priorities become egoistic and ultimately, decisions are no longer made for the common good.

If we truly want to live in harmony with each other, we must cast aside our egos, and sometimes that means making sacrifices to care for our neighbours who may be less fortunate than we are, and those who may be different than us. That also means re-prioritizing our to-do list so that we can reflect a much bigger picture rather than just our needs. However, one thing that is certain in a world of objectivity is that at the end of the day, everyone will have their fair share and needs addressed – indeed, truly living with the dignity they deserve as human beings because ultimately, “it is good and pleasant […] when kindred live together in unity.” (Ps 133:1)

2 thoughts on “The “Throw Away” Culture and Dictatorship of Relativism

  1. Hi Vincent,

    I really enjoyed reading your take on the pitfalls of moral relativism. I think you touched on a very crucial point in the conversation of why the world today seems so apathetic to other peoples suffering. It seems to me that the selfishness that we see in the world is underscored by the view that absolute moral truths do not exist.

    I think one of the reasons why moral relativism is so attractive to people, apart from giving them free reign to do whatever they want, is because it avoids the often frowned upon totalities that people are so accustomed to hearing. Totalities such as: do not steal, do not lie, do not cheat etc. I think people find it hard to justify for example, that there is never an instance where one is permitted a lie because of the enormous complexities that our lives contain. People like having an out, and relativism gives them that. Additionally, I think the laissez-faire attitude that we’ve adopted into our political system has exacerbated the shift towards relativism. Today, it is a cultural taboo to call people out on their moral transgressions. I personally can’t even remember the last time I told someone outright, “you shouldn’t do that” or “that’s wrong”. Yet, if we are to live together in a good society, we must hold each other accountable for our transgressions. Society has adopted something akin to a selfish “harm principle”. As in, if someone isn’t directing harm at me then whatever they are doing is none of my business. Even John Stuart Mill, the great proponent of the harm principle extended a courtesy to include the well being of others.

    There is not doubt in my mind that a lack of objective moral standards will lead to the crumbling of the social institutions that people have worked so hard to build.

    1. Hello Stefano,

      You provided some interesting insights here. This article I wrote last year for The Awakening Project, and there would be many other points I would add here after taking an Introduction to Ethics Course last year.

      A number of the points you spoke about here are similar to those raised in my ethics tutorials. You said, “I think one of the reasons why moral relativism is so attractive to people […] is because it avoids the often frowned upon totalities that people are so accustomed to hearing.” This point you raise is interesting. I think this all goes back to a self-centred society that we live in. Along with that, you raised up that “laissez-faire attitude,” that many members in society possesses. Maybe at times, I too fail to call people out on acts that I know are clearly wrong because of the fear that the other may *feel* offended. I think there arises a big problem when we cannot speak to an objective truth because people’s feelings may be hurt. I remember my grade 10 religion teacher saying to the class to stop using the terms, “I feel…” but rather, “I think…” because feelings should in no way dictate our morality or opinions. Humans have rationality and thus, can use rationality to determine what is right, what is wrong according to an objective moral standard embedded within every human being. Yet, the relativistic society easily goes by these feelings.

      One of the necessities though, I think in addressing relativism, or even in a dialogue is speaking out of a place of charity. That is a point that looking back, I would add to the above article I wrote. Too often, we are too quick to react that we act on our feelings, our desires, that we fail to think critically and respond after some time of thoroughly thinking something over. Sometimes, our first-reaction may be too self-centred and worse, they may hurt others. At times, our first-reaction may even be misinformed and spread misinformation that causes disadvantages to a certain group of people, maybe even persecuting them. These are things that unfortunately are evident in a relativistic society, and prevalent in the media that we consume. However, let us think twice before responding to someone, even a relativist to ensure that we do so out of charity and humility. That is how we can foster dialogue and true justice in our society.

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