Conditions May Apply

Relativity without Relativism

Is sexual activity morally right or wrong? Most people would say, “It all depends.” The church says it depends on whether you are alone or with someone, whether you and that someone are of different sexes and married, whether you can responsibly bring a new child into the world, and so forth. In other words, the church teaches that the morality of sexual activity is related—or relative—to various conditions. Is this moral relativism? Or is it moral absolutism, for the church teaches that unless sexual activity meets certain conditions it is always wrong?

Answers to these questions depend on whom one asks, since the words “relativism” and “absolutism” are both used in loose and idiosyncratic ways. One is tempted to say the meaning of “relativism” is relative to the absolutist who condemns it. To call someone a relativist or an absolutist is almost always to make an accusation. A relativist, one is led to suppose, is the sort of person who would be all in favor of torturing children if that would get their parents to divulge some important secret, while an absolutist is someone who would never permit a lie, even if the lie would save one’s children from a madman.

Critics of relativism typically point to the dangerous consequences of allowing exceptions to moral norms. They argue, quite reasonably, that telling teenagers there might be exceptions to rules against sexual touching is to invite sexual abuse and unwanted pregnancy. Similarly, critics of absolutism...

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About the Author

Edward Vacek, SJ, is professor of moral theology at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.