Moral Relativism


I’ve recently been called out as a moral relativist.

I was in a discussion about theft and when I said that stealing a loaf of bread when starving/your child was starving (if there was no other option) it would be morally acceptable to preserve one’s own life, I was accused of being a moral relativist.

As a Catholic, I obviously denounce moral relativism, however, I know that the morality of an act can be circumstansial. Is there a difference here? Is it a false dichotomy to say that they are different?

How do we reconcile this?


Morality is always relative to the situation, even in Catholicism.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say stealing is COMPLETELY morally acceptable in your situation, it is just more morally acceptable. If you steal bread to feed a starving child, and you are not seriously compromising the Baker’s finances, then it is MORE acceptable than if you would, say, steal the bread from a starving child.

Stealing is still a sin, perhaps not a mortal sin.

“Moral relativism”, which is denounced by the church, is when YOU are the one deciding what is right and wrong. If you are following the church, then you are an absolutist, because the church says what is moral and what is not. You have to make sure you are really following the church though.


You are correct that our morals are not relative. The confusion can set in when we get confused about which part of an act is the part which makes it an immoral act.

For example: murder is immoral. Most people think it is immoral because of the act of killing, but that is not true; you can kill in self-defense without sinning. Therefore, the act of killing another man is NOT intrinsically evil, but rather, the act of killing an innocent man is evil, because of his innocence. Once a man renounces his innocence, and gives sufficient reason that he must be deprived of life, he can be killed without sin on the part of the killer. This is why killing in self-defense and killing in just capital punishment is permissible.

Now to stealing: the act of stealing is defined as unjustly taking away a thing which belongs to another person without paying some recompense for it. In all ordinary situations, this applies to any and every case that one steals a thing form anyone else.

However, in the case which you mentioned, in which a person who is starving takes food from a person with plenty, in order to survive, there is an exception, for the following reason: all things on the earth are primarily owned by God, not men. All of my possessions and yours are given to us by God to be stewards over, and properly speaking, we do not own them at all; God does. God’s possessions should always be used in accordance with His will.

Thus, when a man is starving, and needs to “steal” food for sustenance, in truth, that food belongs to him, and thus it is not stealing.

I am not a trained theologian, and so I can’t fully explain the logic which leads to this conclusion, but I know that St. Thomas Aquinas explained this issue in depth, so I encourage you to go looking for the answer among his works.


:thumbsup: Well put.

Just take a look at the Catechism on the 7th Commandment: CCC 2401-2463.

In particular, look at CCC 2446:

2446 St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” [239] “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”: [240]

[INDENT]When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice. [241] [/INDENT]

It would be stealing from the starving man and his starving child not to let him take some bread. Not the other way around.

That’s not moral relativism because stealing is still intrinsically immoral. However, not every act of taking something is an act of stealing.


Thank you very much for your responses. That puts it into great perspective for me.

Joe - I hadn’t read that in the Chatechism before. I feel the same way, I just didn’t know how to put it into words. Thank you for the share of knowledge.

I’m going to be reading Liberation Theology here in the next couple of weeks and I believe that it will touch on this same thing.


No difference.

IMO what you just described is moral relativism.
Thou shalt not steal, but it’s okay sometimes.

Perhaps you shouldn’t denounce moral relativism when you yourself are a follower of it?

But take heart. Even God is a moral relativist!
As per Moses in Deuteronomy, He once said it was moral to take your disobedient child to the center of town and have everyone stone him/her to death!
I’m guessing that’s one of many examples God has since changed his mind about.



Do you know that Iiberation theology has been condemned by the Church?


This is not a correct perspective on moral relativism.

The claim of moral relativism is that morality is completely relative to the circumstances whereas in Catholic tradition the absolute nature of morality is retained but with the understanding that moral acts have dimensionality to them BECAUSE they are acts of agents. Circumstances, motives and the nature of the acts themselves come together to determine the unchanging and absolute moral rightness or wrongness of any act.

In Catholic moral theory under the same circumstances and given the same motives the same act by any moral agent will always be determinably wrong or right.

Moral relativism denies that and claims there is no right or wrong involved in actions except according to the preferences expressed by some culture, society or individual. In other words, a moral relativist will concede what you think is wrong need NOT be wrong for others without any reference at all to circumstances or motives.

Right or wrong, a true relativist would claim, is entirely up to the individual or culture to determine. Any morality, the relativist will claim, is entirely RELATIVE to the individual or culture that espouses it – there is no objective means by which to compare which individual or culture is right or not. NO objective comparison is possible, in principle.

Morality is entirely relative to individuals or cultures according to moral relativists and no objective moral right or wrong exists.

That is NOT Catholic moral teaching, so stop spreading misinformation based upon your lack of understanding as if you have any authority to speak for the opening poster, for God or for Catholicsm – or even for relativists for that matter, since you, clearly, don’t understand what it means to be one.


Here’s a document from the CDF when Cad. Ratzinger was there.


Stealing food because one is hungry cannot be a mortal sin as far as I can tell. At best it would be a venial sin and perhaps a most minor venial sin.

But I still wonder if stealing is the best option to overcome hunger. Most every town, and certainly larger ones, have a place where the hungry are fed. One can ask where and ask also for help to get there. One can also beg, embarrassing as that is, many a saint survived by begging. One can also volunteer to do some service in return for a meal. That, apparently was a frequent occurrence in the Depression of the 1930s. And a quid pro quo service maintains one’s dignity. The service can be relatively minor in value but it maintains dignity.

But I realize that when one is hungry, one is not thinking as well as he might otherwise. And certainly, if caught, he should be given enough food and rest to continue his journey.

The Commandment of Love always applies.


I think the point is that if one is really in such need of food that one must take from another’s possessions, and no other solution is necessary, the act of taking another person’s food when they have plenty is NOT stealing at all, which is why it isn’t a sin.

Obviously there should be a better solution in the majority of occasions, as you have stated, but this thread is dealing with the hypothetical.


“When you choose the lesser of two evils, always remember that it is still an evil.” Max Lerner

The classic instance of this was the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Those who approved the bombings thought it would bring the war to a halt and save many lives.

But, whether they thought so rightly or wrongly, they could not escape the fact that thousands of innocent civilians would be annihilated.

If it was a lesser evil, it was still an evil.

Stealing another man’s bread is evil, but the evil of dying from hunger far outweighs the evil of stealing a loaf of bread. And if a man refuses to share his bread with those dying of hunger, he deserves to have it stolen. :shrug:

Maybe he deserves something a good deal worse. :rolleyes:


The circumstances, motives and nature of any given act are infinitely variable. How can we refer to ‘the unchanging and absolute moral rightness or wrongness of any act’? It changes with the act itself.

Who determines?


The reason taking the bread in this instance is not stealing is due to the nature of possession: we possess because God has give us things to possess, because He has allowed us to possess. In short, it is through God that we possess anything at all.

And so we must use our possessions as God would have us use them. There is only enough for all if no one hoards what they have. The poor man ought to have been given bread and not driven to take it.

Consider the Baltimore Catechism definition of the 7th Commandment:

A. The seventh Commandment forbids all **unjust **taking or keeping what belongs to another.

It is not unjust to take what the other person ought to have given in charity.


It’s not who but what that determines.

Different “whos” can determine different judgments about the act, but the act remains intrinsically what it is. We can debate whether an act is right or wrong, and the consensus view will prevail in a court of law. But courts of law vary from one civilization to another.

The act still has to be judged for its intrinsic rightness or wrongness.

If slavery is only right because the consensus is that it is right, or is only wrong because the consensus is that it is wrong, then there is no intrinsic rightness or wrongness about slavery.

Would it be your view that slavery is intrinsically wrong?


Stealing for the sake of satisfying hunger appears to be a poor excuse for the practice. Consider: how realistic might it often be for a starving man to fail to accumulate sufficient means to afford a solitary loaf of bread? Would not a more acceptable scenario at the very least see the one suffering from hunger make an honest appeal to the baker to perform some menial task in order to make fair the exchange? For what else might such an unfortunate be doing with the rest of his day if not earning the means to buy his daily portion…?


The thing about natural law and Catholic teaching is that they are applicable at all times and places. For example, a family of Jews is hiding in the woods outside of towns they are travelling through during the Nazi occupation. No, they actually can’t spend their days begging for a bit of bread in exchange for work.


Well, yes…um, no, not really…under such circumstances there must clearly be more than mere poverty/starvation going on…would it not be fairer to say that the poor unfortunates in such a case would be classified as operating in a hostile environment in threat of their lives?

The difficulty with simply allowing the provision to remain without such clarifications is that it then allows an individual who may not have any personal motivation to simply vegetate all day in a drunken fugue only to steal his bread by night. To place such a one in amongst the tragically hunted is at the very least doing the latter group a grave disservice…


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