Growing up, taking seemingly countless surveys that would provide researchers and pundits with fodder for “What the Youth of America Believe Today,” I never knew how to answer the question, “Do you believe in moral absolutes?” A definition was never provided. And I also wanted to clarifying questions like, “Does belief in absolutism means I can’t acknowledge that the application of moral principles is often person- and situation-specific?”

For some helpful thinking along these lines, here is an excerpt from a transcript of a lecture by Peter Kreeft on moral relativism:

Morality is indeed conditioned, or partly determined, by both situations and motives, but it is not wholly determined by situations or motives.

Traditional common sense morality involves three moral determinants, three factors that influence whether a specific act is morally good or bad. The nature of the act itself, the situation, and the motive. Or, what you do; when, where, and how you do it; and why you do it.

It is true that doing the right thing in the wrong situation, or for the wrong motive, is not good.

Making love to your wife is a good deed, but doing so when it is medically dangerous is not. The deed is good, but not in that situation.

Giving money to the poor is a good deed, but doing it just to show off is not. The deed is good, but the motive is not.

However, there must first be a deed before it can be qualified by subjective motives or relative situations, and that is surely a morally relevant factor too. The good life is like a good work of art. A good work of art requires all its essential elements to be good. For instance, a good story must have a good plot, and good characters, and a good theme. So a good life requires you do the right thing, the act itself; and have a right reason or motive; and that you do it in the right way, the situation.

Furthermore, situations, though relative, are objective, not subjective. And motives, though subjective, come under moral absolutes. They can be recognized as intrinsically and universally good or evil. The will to help is always good, the will to harm is always evil. So even situationism is an objective morality, and even motivationism or subjectivism is a universal morality.

The fact that the same principles must be applied differently to different situations presupposes the validity of those principles. Moral absolutists need not be absolutistic about applications to situations. They can be flexible. But a flexible application of the standard presupposes not just a standard, but a rigid standard. If the standard is as flexible as the situation it is no standard at all. If the yardstick with which to measure the length of a twisting alligator is as twisting as the alligator, you cannot measure with it. Yardsticks have to be rigid.

And moral absolutists need not be judgmental about motives, only about deeds. When Jesus said, “Judge not that ye not be judged,” he surely meant “Do not claim to judge hearts and motives, which only God can know.” He certainly did not mean, “Do not claim to judge deeds. Do not morally discriminate bullying from defending, killing from healing, robbery from charity.” In fact, it is only the moral absolutist, and not the relativist, who can condemn judgmentalism of motive, since he alone can condemn intolerance. The relativist can condemn only moral absolutism.