Most of us profess to be of high moral character, or at least better than our neighbors, or the guy in the office having the affair, or the fellow who belongs to the church that seems to worship OUR god in a blasphemus way.

        Most often such distinctions are self-delusional. Rarely is the “morally superior” person cognizant of any actual differences between him and his “inferiors”.  Or quite possibly he explains away the differences so as to justify any parallel action involving him.

       Perhaps these views towards morality may often be termed “moral relativism” or “situational morality”, but I’m not certain they fit the strict definition of those terms. (You can read definitions of moral relativism and moral absolutism taken from Wikipedia at the end of this column.)

         One moral dichotomy which has puzzled me for eons is that the folks who are so vocal in opposing abortion for any reason, often embrace capital punishment as an appropriate penalty with few, if any, limitations. (Indeed they even call for its use where not applied now). Even more so the case for those cloaking their views in the mantle of religion.

           Now I readily admit this is a generalization to which a plethora of exceptions can be cited. And my own views on each of these issues will probably be considered just as hypocritical if you will. Let me explain my positions.

           The death penalty is immoral, unethical, unfairly and irregularily applied, costly and a weakening of our collective soul. I am against its use under any circumstances.

           Abortion is undesirable but occasionally the only practical alternative for a woman to choose. There are medical conditions, mental conditions and social factors which may provide justification for an abortion. There is no absolute science that establishes a human is created the moment sperm meets egg. I believe abortion is a choice which should only be made after thorough thought. Together with better contraception devices and information, the procedure should be very rare. But I do not favor outlawing it altogether.

        Now please don’t try to turn this essay into a forum on either abortion or the death penalty. That debate can take place elsewhere. Rather ponder what you are reading in the much larger context of how we tend to judge the behavior of others and what compromises we may make in our application of our moral ethos to diverse situations. I would be surprised if even 10% of us are fully consistent within ourselves.

           Tony Norman, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, explores this contradiction in this column discussing how our moral outrage as a people and as a government after 9/11 itself led to questionable moral and ethical decisions in the realm of torture.

      Another exposition of this dilemma comes courtesy of philosopher Peter Singer. He wrote “The President of Good and Evil” (The Ethics of George W. Bush). I read this book and was disappointed to learn it was NOT pure Bush bashing. But Singer illuminates Dubya’s positions and practices on a variety of topics and explains how they do or do not evince a consistent ethical mind. (I realize ethics are not morals and vice versa, but the overlap is considerable and the discussion of ethics apt.)

       And again this is not a forum on George W. Bush, but the application of my argument is evident in these works and they are examples each of us can easily understand from our own recent experience.

        As a fallible human being I find it tempting to lord my moral superiority over others. And I have done so in my life, usually to regrettable effect. Acknowledging this flaw within myself may prevent, or at least forestall, my vulnerability to counter-arguments on debatable issues where I would desire to have the last and conclusive word.

Here is a link to the Singer book on Amazon


Moral relativism may be any of several descriptive, meta-ethical, or normative positions regarding the differences in moral or ethical judgments between different people and cultures:

  • Descriptive relativism is merely the positive or descriptive position that there exist, in fact, fundamental disagreements about the right course of action even when the same facts obtain and the same consequences seem likely to arise.[1]
  • Meta-ethical relativism, on the other hand, is the meta-ethical position that the truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not objective or universal but instead relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of people.[2]
  • Normative relativism, further still, is the prescriptive or normative position that as there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards.[1]


Moral absolutism is the ethical view that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of other contexts such as their consequences or the intentions behind them. Thus lying, for instance, might be considered to be always immoral, even if done to promote some other good (e.g., saving a life), and even if it does in the end promote such a good. Moral absolutism stands in contrast to other categories of normative ethical theories such as consequentialism, which holds that the morality of an act depends on the consequences or the context of the act.

Moral absolutism is not the same as moral universalism (also called moral objectivism). Universalism holds merely that what is right or wrong is independent of custom or opinion (as opposed to relativism), but not necessarily that what is right or wrong is independent of context or consequences (as in absolutism). Moral universalism is compatible with moral absolutism, but also positions such as consequentialism. Louis Pojman gives the following definitions to distinguish the two positions:[1]

  • Moral absolutism: There is at least one principle that ought never to be violated.
  • Moral objectivism: There is a fact of the matter as to whether any given action is morally permissible or impermissible: a fact of the matter that does not depend solely on social custom or individual acceptance.
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