Relative ethics – two words that could have us chatting for days.  The concept is that ethics, or morals, change according to our circumstances.  Whether an action is right or wrong depends upon how things “are done” in the culture in which we live. Interesting.

And dangerous.

While some cultures and people may relative-ize (there’s a new word for you!) their thoughts and their choices, it starts us on a slippery slope into the Big “R.” Rationalization might be the granddaddy of all the harmful choices. Why? Because we may cover our faults by justifying the choices made.


  • “I couldn’t get to the Church to do what I said I was going to do because ….”
  • “I couldn’t possibly tell him the truth – it might hurt his feelings – so I had to lie.”
  • “I took some supplies from my work place. I don’t get paid enough, anyway, and no one will miss it.”
  • “So I cheated on the test. I had to pass it, and none of the material made sense to me.” (or, “I had too much to do. I just couldn’t cram any more time into the schedule to study for that test.”)

We understand. We know the commandments. We “get” the path that we should take. But sometimes, the boundaries may become blurry if we are not always mindful. The little, tiny things become bigger things. An occasional lie becomes a habit. It’s easier to cheat than to do all the work required. On and on.

Walter Harrington, of the Washington Post once explained that when deceit becomes common so does distrust, especially in the “Big anonymous monster we call modern life.”

In the Lord’s kingdom, the ethics are His. When we’re guided by the Holy Spirit, we know what we need to do. And what we don’t.  Situations vary, according to the Lord’s purposes.  At times we may be called upon to walk into unnerving territory, or step into rocky terrain.  But when we give our full efforts to be as He wants us to be; to follow Him; to be true to ourselves and to eternal truths, our actions will be within the bounds of righteousness.  Our walk is far enough away from the edge that we can’t fall into dark regions where relative ethics reign.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell wrote: “Relative ethics provide no cure, since these may merely urge, in Paul Ekmans’ words, Don’t lie to anyone you want to have a continuing relationship with.’ So if you don’t care about a lasting relationship, truth is no big deal.”

(Not My Will, But Thine,Bookcraft, Inc. 1988, page 81)

Really??! We know better. But that’s what some in the “world” are teaching. How opposite of clear counsel we are given: “Thou shalt not lie; he that lieth and will not repent shall be cast out.” (Doctrine & Covenants 42:21)

No real, lasting contentment and joy comes from sampling the commandments – from taking a little of “this one” and a little of “that one.” No. The gospel is the Whole Package. In order to be ready for the Savior, we must ready ourselves in all the small ways that may distract us from the Prize.  Again from Elder Maxwell, “The greatest danger is when we seek to dilute divine doctrines to make them so comfortable that no real repentance is required of us.” (Not my Will But Thine”, Bookcraft, Inc. 1988, page 83.)

Ouch! The blessings of submissively following the Savior grant peace even in the harshest storms. It also provides balm as well as a strong rod to hold onto when many about us are caving – and taking the easy way; rationalizing their behaviors because it’s simpler and more convenient.

President Thomas S. Monson helps us perfectly understand the gift of throwing off relative ethics with these words: “My brothers and sisters, I’m certain our duty and responsibility is frequently to swim upstream and against the tide of temptation and sin. As we do so, our spiritual strength will increase, and we shall be equal to our God-given responsibilities.”  (Thomas S. Monson, “Happiness-The Universal Quest,” Ensign, Oct 1993)

These are powerful words. They remind us of the “choice and accountability” principles our young women are taught.  They are not just for young women, but for middle aged ones and old ones. For young boys, teenage boys, and men of all ages.  It reminds us that, although we make mistakes and sometimes opt for a seemingly “easier” route, the best and safest route is always to Choose The Right!

Would it not be – in the best sense- easier and better if we each chose to toss out our reasons and rationalizations, repent as our Father would have us do, and simply follow the commandments, “at all times and in all things and in all places”? (from the Young Women’s Values)  Eventually, we may come to a bright and beautiful point where, whatever the situation or circumstances, we will – without hesitation – live the ethics that our Lord has given us for our very own blessings, as well as those who quietly watch us.

Vickey Pahnke Taylor is a wife, mom, and grandmother who  joined the LDS Church as a teenager.  She has worked for many years  to share her testimony of Jesus Christ with other folks. Her propensity for being the queen of embarrassing moments notwithstanding, she sums up her journey thus far like this: “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  She  has taught Church youth & family programs for 25 years, has written books, hundreds of columns, & created hundreds of songs all with the intent of growing goodness and pointing people to Christ. Her latest venture is to create a website to focus on & grow the goodness in this world. Please visit her website