Objective Truth versus Relativism

Edward J. Dodson

[April 1996]

"All belief systems are essentially arbitrary and, therefore, equal."

Asserting that "All belief systems are essentially arbitrary and, therefore, equal" goes much too far in the direction of putting a stamp on moral relativism.

Belief systems are arbitrary the extent to which they conflict with reason and evidence derived from investigation and experience. Divine inspiration may coincidentally provide one with a belief system that stands the tests of reason and experience, but only coincidentally. People have used reason to argue the existence of god or gods for thousands of years. In the absence of conclusive proof, however, one is left with faith as a repository of belief. Our powers of reason and self-contemplation, on the other hand, arm many of us with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The belief system that best serves us is that which contributes to our survival as a species. As we have evolved, we have gradually acquired a moral sense of right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust, wise and foolish. Our moral sense has not yet been perfected and is far too easily harmed by the absence of positive nurturing within our family, our community and our society. But, it is there, as evidenced by our everyday actions and the consensus of support or opposition for certain types of behavior. Where moral sense is on less solid ground, the process of public debate continues until consensus is achieved. On issues such as capital punishment and abortion, consensus may never be achieved.

Although the core teachings of the world's major religions are built around remarkably similar codes of behavior, the capture of these teachings by self-professed priesthoods and institutional hierarchies has substituted control and power in the place of respect for universal principles of human rights. As the writer and self-taught philosopher Eric Hoffer observed, religions as institutions of power demand unquestioning faith in the peculiar applications of doctrine, doctrine the holders of power magically acquire by divine inspiration. Pity the true believers, but be on guard for they are capable of unspeakable atrocities in the name of their god(s).

One person who combined the healthy skepticism of experience with a socio-political philosophy based on moral sense was Thomas Paine. In an era remarkable for challenges to established authority, Paine was one of the few courageous enough to follow reason and evidence to their appropriate conclusions. The socio-political philosophy he espoused is, I suggest, best described with the term cooperative individualism. What he offers is not a system of beliefs; rather, Paine presents and defends a system of values. He borrows from John Locke, and many of his ideas were independently paralleled and further developed late in the nineteenth century by Henry George. Without crediting either Paine or George, philosopher Mortimer J. Adler reached many of the same conclusions. From their writings, I reconstruct the principles of cooperative individualism below, principles that, in effect, serve as a declaration of human rights:

  • That, all human beings share the same species-specific characteristics and have a similar need for the goods that make for a decent human existence.
  • That, such goods include adequate food, clothing, shelter, nurturing, health care, education, civic involvement and leisure.
  • That, we join together in a natural society in order to enhance our possibilities to acquire such goods and for our mutual benefit, protection and survival.
  • That, the source of the material goods necessary for our survival and happiness is the earth, equal access to which is the birthright of every person.
  • That, in the pursuit of such material goods each person has the sole right to the use and disposition of whatever material goods are produced by his or her labor (whether produced by labor alone or with the assistance of other material goods [i.e., capital] created and utilized for that purpose).
  • That, such material goods, by virtue of acquisition by means of one's labor or voluntary exchange with others, fall exclusively in the realm of natural property.
  • That, human behavior falls within the scope of liberty when such behavior in no way infringes on the opportunity for other persons to use their efforts to produce or obtain by exchange material goods.
  • That, human behavior ventures beyond the scope of liberty and within the realm of criminal license when such behavior results in the physical or mental harm to another person or the theft and/or destruction of one's natural property.
  • That, human behavior ventures beyond the scope of liberty and within the realm of economic license when such behavior denies to others persons the opportunity to use their efforts to produce or obtain by exchange material goods.
  • That, a society by virtue of practical considerations, grants economic licenses to persons (individually and collectively) the result of which is to convey privileges not enjoyed by others. To the extent such economic licenses come to have exchange value in the market place, such exchange value is acknowledged to be societally-created. Justice requires, therefore, that a natural society collect this value for distribution to all its members as a social dividend or for use in providing for societal amenities and services democratically agreed upon.
  • That, a society is determined to be just to the extent liberty is fully experienced and protected, equality of opportunity prevails, criminal license is prevented and when prevention fails appropriately penalized, the full exchange value of economic licenses is collected for distribution and/or societal use; and
  • That, the material goods (i.e., the wealth) produced by the labor of individuals (and whatever capital goods they also legitimately acquire) is protected as one's natural property; and, therefore, not subjected to taxation or otherwise confiscated.