Four Kinds of Moral Inventory

by James Ryan

Moral inventory shapes our understanding of ourselves, which in turn shapes our relationship with God. Some styles of inventory ask us to take a hard look at our character defects, and this can create a powerful sense of our need for God. Other styles of inventory encourage us to look not just at our shortcomings but at our strengths as well, and so the sense of need for God is not as strong. If we write according to the first style of inventory, we are more likely to enter into an intimate relationship with God, whereas if we write according to the second style, our relationship with God might become more cooperative.

Because moral inventory affects how we understand ourselves in relation to God, it might be helpful to look at what the various styles of inventory are and how they operate. If we know the basic assumptions of a particular style of inventory, we have a better idea about whether it is a good match for us. This article examines four styles of moral inventory: the Four Absolutes, the inventory based on the Big Book, the inventory presented in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and the inventory presented in a Step 4 guide published by Hazelden. Although these are not the only styles of inventory available, these four will give us some insight into various trends at work in the recovery culture, and some understanding of how we can get started.

Four Absolutes

The Four Absolutes are a tool that was used by the Oxford Group, an evangelistic ministry that described itself as “a First Century Christian Fellowship.” Because the Twelve Steps were derived from the practices of the Oxford Group, we find the roots of moral inventory in the Four Absolutes.

The Absolutes are Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love. Oxford Group members believed that these four qualities were perfectly expressed in the life of Jesus, and so they represent an ideal for human conduct.

When writing the Four Absolutes, Oxford group members often folded a piece of paper into quarters and then wrote one Absolute at the top of each section. Group members then examined their own lives against the example of Christ and wrote down, to the best of their ability, all the ways in which they were deficient. The Four Absolutes were meant as a guide to help members discover their sin, which in Oxford Group understanding meant anything that kept the soul separated from God.

Writing the Four Absolutes brought about a sense of conviction. Oxford Group members discovered themselves to be sinners; they were dishonest, impure, selfish and unloving. They were broken people in need of a savior. The Four Absolutes helped them to expose the fact that their way of living was not working. After writing the Absolutes, members turned their lives over to the care of Jesus Christ. In Oxford Group belief, God provided guidance to the fully surrendered soul. This guidance served in place of selfishness and self-will as the driving force in a member’s life.

As Oxford Group members turned to God rather than to themselves for direction, their decision-making process became central to their relationship with God. When faced with any decision, they prayed and asked to be shown the right answer. Whatever answers came were then tested against the Four Absolutes–for the right answer was always as honest, pure, unselfish and loving as possible.

Big Book Inventory

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous outlines a three-part inventory covering resentment, fear and sex. We will look specifically at resentment inventory because it is the topic that the Big Book describes in the most detail.

Like the Four Absolutes, the Big Book resentment inventory generally consists of four columns. Inventory writers complete a column before moving on to the next. The first column asks for a list of people, institutions, and ideas that are the objects of resentment. The second column asks writers to go back to each item on their lists and explain why they resent each item. In the third column, writers make notes as to whether the resented item affected their pride, pocketbook, self-esteem, ambition, or personal and sexual relations. The fourth column of Big Book resentment inventory asks writers to examine and describe their own selfishness, dishonesty, self-seeking and fear in relation to each resentment.

According to the Big Book, selfishness is at the root of the alcoholic’s troubles. All of the alcoholic’s resentment, fear, and sexual problems are caused by his or her own selfishness. Revealing this selfishness creates an opening where writers can realize the extent to which they need God to take over their lives. The Big Book states that, by exposing their selfishness and turning it over to God, inventory writers will find forgiveness for the people, institutions and ideas that they formerly resented. They will find courage where they were once afraid, and new ideals to shape future sexual conduct.

In place of selfishness, God provides inventory writers with the strength and freedom to be of real use to other people. Big Book inventory provides the motivation for writers to move out of self-obsession and into the work of helping others.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

The inventory instructions in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, commonly called the Twelve and Twelve, are very open-ended. They suggest that inventory writers ask themselves a probing series of questions about various areas of their lives and then write down the answers. While it suggests that writers explore issues such as their sexual and business conduct, the Twelve and Twelve is also very clear that its examples are meant to be only suggestive of the type of examination recommended. Writers are simply supposed to ask themselves questions and be honest in their answers.

According to the Twelve and Twelve, the alcoholic’s problems are caused by misdirected instinct. There is nothing morally wrong with the alcoholic; it is just that his or her good qualities have been driven to extremes by alcoholism.

Unlike the Four Absolutes and Big Book inventories, the Twelve and Twelve does not offer a standard by which inventory writers can measure their defects of character. There is no guide to tell the writer what constitutes an imbalance, or how one might know when a balance of the instincts has been achieved. Instead, writers are left to develop their own standard. They must sort out their instincts alone and decide which ones need attention. Writers must also decide what balance will look like in their own lives. For the Twelve and Twelve, inventory writers are considered perfectly capable of sorting out their own imbalances.

Corresponding with this positive view of the self, the Twelve and Twelve has a less intimate description of the alcoholic’s relationship with God. Because the alcoholic is not suffering from unmanageable defects of character, there is not a strong need for God’s aid. Of course, this does not exclude a relationship with God, but it does make the relationship less intimate and more cooperative. God might be invited to help the inventory writer see and correct the imbalance in his or her instincts.


Step 4: Getting Honest, published by Hazelden in 1992, suggests a four-part inventory encompassing (1) resentments; (2) guilt, remorse and shame; (3) fear; and (4) pride, warmth, love and kindness. We’ll take resentment as an example, since the columns remain the same for each part. The Hazelden guide asks inventory writers to list their resentments in the first column. In the second column, writers are asked why they resent those items. In the third column, writers are asked to examine their character traits that are revealed by each resentment. Character traits are not to be judged as positive or negative; the guide suggests that sometimes selfishness can be good and unselfishness can be harmful. In the fourth column, writers are asked to examine the belief or motivation that lies behind each resentment.

The goal of this exercise is to discover mistaken beliefs that cause the writer to think and act in self-defeating ways. The philosophy here is that by discovering underlying mistaken beliefs, the inventory writer can be relieved of self-destructive behaviors.

Each addict is understood as a person possessed of a rational mind, who is able to figure out and think through his or her own problems. The addict is also expected to be capable of separating mistaken beliefs from those that are correct. No criteria are offered in Hazelden’s guide to help the inventory writer judge true from false. Writers must decide for themselves.

In this style of inventory, God is not really needed to remove anything, since mistaken beliefs are removed in the process of identifying them as such. Persistent mistaken beliefs might benefit from prayer, and so there is room for God in the work described in Step 4: Getting Honest. However, persistent mistaken beliefs might also be remedied with the help of a therapist, or simply by repetition of the insight that such beliefs are wrong.

Ideal versus Introspective Inventories

Looking back over our four styles of inventory, we can distinguish between two types: ideal inventory, which focuses on a comparison with a fixed, external standard, and introspective inventory, which is open-ended and views standards as relative to the individual.

Both the Four Absolutes and the Big Book are ideal inventories. Their use of an ideal involves a strong moral assertion that selfishness (or sin) is at fault for the writer’s troubles. The ideal works to create within the inventory writer a sense of conviction and a corresponding acknowledgment of his or her need for an intimate relationship with God. This intimacy must be of an experiential kind, meaning that the writer feels a need to have God enter and change his or her personality.

The Twelve and Twelve and the Hazelden guide are both introspective inventories. They assume that inventory writers can set reasonable standards for themselves and generate all their own insight without the aid of moral ideals. Because writers are seen as capable of sorting themselves out, there is no felt sense that God is needed to enter the writer’s personality. If the writer chooses to have a relationship with God through this work, it is likely to be of a more cooperative nature, meaning that the writer will relate to God as a means of encouragement for the writer to grow without needing to experience a transformation of personality.

Regardless of which type of inventory we feel drawn to, there are some important things to consider before we begin. Those of us who are interested in writing an ideal inventory may want to first make sure that we are willing to test ourselves against the external standard provided by the style of inventory we’ve chosen. Are we really ready to see ourselves as sinful or selfish? These inventories can generate remarkable insights, but the process is seldom pleasant. If we are going to write ideal inventory, we must be prepared to be uncomfortable.

Another thing to consider before writing ideal inventory is the level of intimacy that we want to have in our relationship with God. Ideal inventory produces a profound feeling of need for God that we might sometimes experience as a form of desperation. If we need God deeply, we must feel God deeply. If we write ideal inventory, our religious sense will probably become a more central part of our personalities, and some of us may find this undesirable.

Those of us who are interested in writing an introspective inventory should first stop to consider whether we are really capable of the kind of value judgments that the process requires. Can we trust ourselves to set a reasonable standard for balance for our instincts? Many people prefer to seek a point of comfort rather than a point of balance. Are we comfortable relying on our own insights about what constitutes a true versus a false belief?

Another thing to consider before writing introspective inventory is the more distant relationship with God that generally results from the process. If we decide that we are confident in our own capacity for insight and value judgments, then we will not feel a deep need for spiritual contact. Our relationship with God will be less intimate and more cooperative. For some of us, this may not be enough.

The choice between writing ideal inventory and writing introspective inventory may require a lot of prayer and soul searching. However, there are at least two things we can keep in mind. First, regardless of which type of inventory we choose, all of us will examine ourselves in a new way and will learn something from the process. Second, and most important, the Fourth Step is not the last time in our lives that we will write inventory if we are committed to working the Twelve Steps. The Tenth Step encourages us to make inventory writing a part of our ongoing faith development. As we learn to walk with God in the Steps, our relationship to inventory may change over time. We may end up trying out all the styles of inventory presented here and perhaps many more. We don’t have to do this perfectly. We do have to do the work, but the outcome does not depend on us getting everything exactly right. We just do our best, and God fills in the rest. Learning to trust God to help us understand ourselves is what writing inventory is all about.