1984: How Relativism Halts Social Progress

Note: The following article contains spoilers for both the book and the movie 1984.

In the book 1984 by George Orwell, the character of O’Brien, a Party (government) official, is likely a relativist concerning truth. Relativism is the belief that society creates truth and defines how its members can justify their beliefs. O’Brien reveals his relativist ideas about truth in his interactions with Winston, the main character, in both the book and the movie.

In the movie, when O’Brien is torturing and brainwashing Winston, he asks Winston what two plus two equals. Winston, who believes in absolute truth, replies that the answer is four. O’Brien replies by explaining to Winston that the answer is really whatever the Party says it is; that sometimes it equals five or three, or all of them at once. In the book, he further reveals his beliefs by stating that the sun goes around the earth when it is convenient to believe this, and that other times the earth goes around the sun, according to the Party’s needs. O’Brien’s belief in the truth of the Party is consistent with the relativist’s theory of truth.

There are several reasons for believing in relativism. After all, there are many different cultures with deeply held beliefs that contradict one another. Sometimes these differences in beliefs can lead to violence and war. If the entire world chooses to believe the relative theory of truth, it is reasonable to think that there would be fewer wars and disagreements, since each culture would be allowed to believe only what it deems correct.

The major flaw in relativism comes when the relativist tries to justify his own beliefs. According to his own philosophy, relativism can only be true if a majority of people in his culture believe it to be true. Even if his entire society believes in relativism, other cultures might not accept this belief, and wars and strife would not be lessened at all. Thus, relativism’s own logic is self-defeating.

Another danger of relativism is that it halts social progress. The realist philosopher Dennett gave the example of a primitive culture that believed in witch doctors and magic, which was visited by a group of Western relativists. These Westerners spread the belief in relativism, telling the more primitive culture that their beliefs in witch doctors were just as good as the West’s belief in scientific medicine. Later on when Western doctors visited the country to bring hospitals and medicine, the natives rejected them and continued to practice their ineffective forms of healing. A widespread belief in relativism would be the death of scientific discovery and progress.

To pick up an audio version of 1984 on Audible, click here.

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