The term "relativism" is often associated with certain styles of moral reasoning common in contemporary literature. However, the term, as it is used, has two quite different meanings which should be carefully distinguished.
Relativism as Subjectivism. First, moral relativism can be taken as synonymous with, or at least correlative to, subjectivism, with the moral subject or agent as the sole criterion of right or wrong. A relativistic moral theory, in this sense, would be a theory denying objective morality as a whole for it contends that the sole and exclusive source of moral value is the intention of the agent, the person's inner commitment to behaving out of loving or generous motives. Relativism, then, identifies morality with motivation; it sees the virtues as descriptions of styles of moral intending rather than as characteristics of moral action. Thus it rejects entirely the concept of "intrinsic value" as a constituent of moral judgment.
Relativism of this first sort is identified with the work of Joseph Fletcher who affirms that it is reductively a form of philosophical nominalism for it claims that the objective moral value denominating specific acts does not really reside in those acts, but solely in the intentions. Arbitrarily a "name" (moral classification) is projected onto modes of behavior.
Relativism with Objective Morality. Relativism, however, can have quite a different meaning: in this second meaning it is a moral theory that sees moral value as objective but not unchanging. This sort of relativism affirms that moral value is not solely the product of human intention, that actions have value in and of themselves. But it refuses to conclude that the value of specific actions is always and in all contexts, exactly the same. Rather it affirms that an action wrong in one context might well be right in another. The reasoning involved is that morality precisely requires doing what is truly good; what is good in one context, however, might not be good in another. Thus, for example, responsible use of money would be quite different for the married man of limited means and the wealthy bachelor; proper sexual behavior is quite different for the married woman and the single woman. In these cases, then, it can be said that moral value is "relative," but relative to the facts of the case, not purely to the intention of the agent.
This second sort of relativism does not reject objective morality; it rejects immutable morality. Its ultimate basis is the belief that the world is a dynamic, not static, reality and that moral value is consequently also changeable, though always objective.
Debates regarding the extent to which morality is relative (in this second sense) are not really debates about morality at all. They are debates about the nature of the world. If the world is static, then moral values will be rather absolute and unchanging. If, however, the world is dynamic and evolving, then moral values will be seen more as objective-but-relative.
Bibliography: c. curran, "Natural Law," and "Utilitarianism, Consequentialism, and Moral Theology," Themes in Fundamental Moral Theology (South Bend, Ind. 1977) 27–80, 121–144. j. fletcher, Situation Ethics (Philadelphia 1966). j. fletcher and h. mccabe, "The New Morality," Commonweal, 84 (14 Jan. 1966) 427–440. j. fuchs, Human Values and Christian Morality (Dublin 1970). r. mccormick, Ambiguity in Moral Choice (Milwaukee 1974); "Notes on Moral Theology," Theological Studies 32 (1971) 80–97; 35 (1975) 85–100. t. o'connell, Principles for a Catholic Morality (New York 1978).
[t. e. o'connell]