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Moralism (a.k.a. moral absolutism, moral authoritarianism, moralitarianism, morality-based thinking) is essentially the application of authoritarian principles to the subject of ethics.

The resulting worldview holds that good is derived from adherence to a set of moral rules (and bad comes from violating those rules) rather than by any attempt to evaluate the harm or benefit caused by those actions. The results of one's actions are instead viewed as rewards for following the rules (or punishments for breaking them) dispensed by some authoritative metaphysical agent (typically God), rather than being due to the execution of natural laws.

This view stands in sharp contrast to the rationalist (moral consequentialist) view that good or bad derive from the results of one's actions, rising from the impartial execution of natural laws, and that moral codes are nothing more than approximate guidelines for maximizing good results -- a map, not the territory. It also generally opposes the central premise of science, which is that truth can only be determined by the careful study of impartial observations (sometimes referred to disparagingly as "reality-based thinking" by moralitarians), rather than by appeal to authority.

Most moralists allow for some exceptions to their moral rules, permitting conscience and empathy to override in cases where "sticking to the rules" would be clearly harmful. Those who refuse to allow exceptions to moral rules tend to be regarded as extremists.

There is a large overlap between moralism and US conservatism.


Moralism Rationalism
good or bad derive from degree of adherence to a set of moral rules good or bad derive from the results of one's actions, arising from the impartial execution of natural laws
good or bad results are rewards or punishments for following or breaking moral rules good or bad results are learning experiences that help us to figure out how to produce good results and avoid bad ones
moral codes are the final word on what is right and wrong; they are the territory, not a map moral codes are maps, approximate guidelines, to help minimize harm; they are the map, not the territory

Religious moralism (aka faith-based reasoning) refines this a bit:

Religious moralism Rationalism
The universe operates according to the whims of a supernatural being. The universe operates according to discoverable natural laws.
A "bad decision" is one that violates the wishes of the supreme being. Bad decisions cause "sin", which is contagious. A "bad decision" is one upon which the results of those natural laws operating cause results that we find harmful.
"Harmful" is when people are exposed to sin. "Harmful" is when people get killed, hurt, or have their options unnecessarily limited.


This worldview has a number of practical implications.

Assignment of blame

A community must therefore assign blame or innocence in ways which reinforce the community's existing morals, rather than based on objective evidence as to the outcome of individual actions. Regardless of what the evidence may show, people whose morals the community agrees with must never be held accountable for their bad actions because that is damaging to the community's credibility, while assigning blame to someone whose morals the community disagrees with is always acceptable.


Those who break the rules should be punished, even if their rule-breaking causes no harm.

  • Example: Homosexuals break the rule (typically citing the Bible as a source) that men and women should be attracted to, and want to marry, each other, rather than others of the same gender. Many moralitarians therefore find it acceptable to say that homosexuals should be imprisoned or even killed, even though they are not actually doing any harm.


The proper response to a serious problem is to suppress or punish any activity related to that problem (in any other way besides punishing or suppressing it), even if such activity would have the net effect of reducing the problem.


  • /hypocrisy becomes almost logical within this framework: as long as you are seen to be working against X, then that counterbalances your own X-related actions. Right and wrong become simple linear-sum totals; if you can do more "right" than "wrong", you're okay, even if you directly cause others to be punished for doing the same things you're doing while remaining unpunished yourself.
  • The morality of an act does not depend on the act's context.
  • The rules against which all acts are judged are not determinable by individuals.
    • The exact process by which the rules are determined is often vague but tends to be authority-based.

Differing concepts therefore include:

  • moral relativism: the idea that morality only exists relative to social, cultural, historical or personal references.
  • the idea that standards of morality can (or should) evolve when challenged by new understanding
  • moral consequentialism: the idea that an act's morality depends solely on the consequences of that act
    • it's not clear whether said consequences must be the act's intended consequences as well


Most religion is based on moralism, as one of the defining characteristics of religion is reliance on dogmatic rules for evaluating ethicality rather than an open and rational examination of the effects of ethically-significant entities.

Moralism seems to be an essential component of American conservatism, whose adherents feel far more comfortable evaluating ethicality in terms of simple rules (i.e. morals) than in terms of harm/benefit.



This thing ... which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retrained.

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Chapter 2 (source)

My point is that those who stand outside all judgment of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of the impulse. ... I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently.

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Chapter 3 (source)


This belief seems to form the core of contemporary American conservatism and explains the seemingly shameless tendency among its adherents to rationalize their position using whatever arguments seem to support their case at the moment (cherry-picking), disregarding consistency between one argument and the next and ignoring or dismissing the need for factual accuracy.



Some references (e.g. Wikipedia) draw a distinction between "moralism" and "moral absolutism", but basic sources such as Merriam-Webster define "moralism" in terms compatible with Wikipedia's definition of "moral absolutism", and do not define "moral absolutism" at all. We will treat the two as equivalent until some clear and useful distinction emerges.







I think it's entirely possible that there may be some universal standard of good and evil; I think the problem happens when people think they've reached (or been given) a perfect understanding of that standard, and therefore feel free to apply it ruthlessly. People need to be able to question whether their system of morality is applicable in a given situation, and to change it – refine it, hopefully getting closer to an absolute standard, but never claiming to have reached that standard – if it doesn't. Anything else is madness. --Woozle 13:26, 30 July 2006 (EDT)

I would update the above comment by saying that it seems pretty clear that the universal standard has to do with causing harm (or benefit) to others. I'm not sure why this wasn't obvious in 2006, except that I had to be exposed more to ideas that actually disagree with this, in order to see where they differed. --Woozle 14:01, 13 April 2010 (UTC)