Morality: Relative or Absolute?

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s ethics debacle may be more than an embarrassment.  His actions may be criminal and he could be facing jail time.

The once vice-presidential contender has gone from popular opinion riches to rags as the extent of his lucrative relationship with Star Scientific president Jonnie Williams has come to light over the last few months.  The issue is whether McDonnell broke any ethical rules or laws by trading promotion of Star Scientific ‘s new product for lavish gifts and “loans”.

The response from the public predictably fell along party lines.   Liberals have used this incident to point out the unapologetic greed of the top 2% and corruption of our elected officials.  Conservatives claim this is trumped up indignation – after all, McDonnell broke no laws.    How can there be such polar opposite reaction from a group of relatively homogeneous (mostly white, Christian, American, east coast-living) constituents?  Does one group lack a moral compass?  Is the other in denial?

According to Pinker (2008) , different cultural groups have approximately the same set of moral values:  harm, fairness, community/group loyalty, authority and purity.  Differences in morality tend to result from variation in interpretation and priority of these values.  Therefore, in this example, liberals may have priorities of moral fairness and perhaps an overriding belief in loyalty to the public (community) over business (group).  In contrast, a conservative’s moral compass may prioritize loyalty to the business community over the public.  Further, conservatives may argue that the Governor is a special person (authority) and deserves special privileges within limits (which were not violated here, according to them).  Both groups likely believe that their respective moral rules are universal and rule-breakers should be punished (Bloom, 2011).

Virginian, like everyone else, arrive at moral decisions based on unconscious moral principles, an intuition that guides our moral reasoning (Bloom, 2011).  But we pretty much have opinions based on our gut reactions, which are influenced by our belief systems,  and then back-justify them with “logic.”   We also tend to only pay attention to things that are value to us – in this case, perhaps justifying our gut feelings.

Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  Both groups are basing their opinions based on their own interpretation of their moral priorities.  Pointing out each other’s hypocrisy just highlights our own.  Perhaps understanding this premise can improve the quality of much-needed discourse.   Viva la difference!



Bloom, P. (2011).  Family, community, trolley problems, and the crisis in moral psychology.  Yale Review, 99(2), 26-43.

Pinker, S. (2008).  The moral instinct.  New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from

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