Four Kinds of Moral Inventory (by James R.)
July 12, 2008, 4:47 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The fourth step suggests that we take a “moral inventory” of ourselves, which is generally understood to mean that stepworkers must look carefully at their lives and report back honestly about what they see. There is, however, no clear agreement in the 12 step fellowships about exactly how one should look at oneself or exactly what stepworkers should look for while they are at it.

As with most things in the recovery culture, where there is no clear agreement, there is instead a wide variety of opinions, and the newcomer, looking into the steps for the first time, is confronted with what can feel like an overwhelming number of options. One potential sponsor says the newcomer must write out their life story; another potential sponsor says she must search her heart for selfishness; still another says the only genuine forth step is one that includes strengths as well as weaknesses.

This choice is not one to be taken lightly, either, for each different style of inventory makes different assumptions about the nature of the stepworkers’ troubles and can influence what they will learn about themselves in the process. Our choice of fourth step will determine how we view our selves, our problems, and what we need to help us recover.

Because this choice is important and not always easy, it might be helpful to look at a few of the styles of inventory. In this article we’ll look at four types: the Four Absolutes, Big Book inventory, the inventory presented in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and the inventory presented in a fourth-step 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. Hopefully, our survey of these four will at least give the newcomer some idea of the direction they might like to take in step four.


The Four Absolutes are a tool that was used by the Oxford Group, an evangelical 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 came up short. 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—the right answer was always as honest, pure, unselfish and loving as possible.


The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous outlines a three-part inventory covering resentment, fear and sex. For example, Big Book resentment inventory generally consists of four columns. Inventory writers complete each column before moving on to the next. The first column asks for a list of people, institutions, and ideas that the stepworker resents. The second column asks for a short explanation of the cause of each resentment. In the third column, stepworkers make notes about whether the resented person affected their pride, pocketbook, self-esteem, ambition, or personal and sexual relations. The fourth column of Big Book resentment inventory asks inventory 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, and all of the alcoholic’s resentment, fear, and sexual problems are caused by his or her own selfishness. This type inventory can create a sense of conviction similar to that created by the Four Absolutes. Big Book inventory writers discover that they are selfish and 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, stepworkers 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.

Both the Four Absolutes and Big Book inventory offer a clear moral standard against which the stepworker can measure his or her personal history. In fact, the fourth column of Big Book resentment inventory offers standards very similar to those of the Four Absolutes; where the Absolutes suggest a perfect ideal of Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love, the Big Book suggest that the alcoholic search out the places where he or she has been selfish, self-seeking, dishonest, and afraid. The two standards are not a perfect match, but there is a lot of agreement between the two, and the desired effect of both inventories is spiritual in nature. Both the sinner who uses the Four Absolutes and the alcoholic who writes resentment inventory are expected to find themselves closer to God as a result.


The inventory instructions in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, commonly called the 12-and-12, 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 12-and-12 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 12-and-12, the alcoholic’s problems are caused by misdirected instinct. The alcoholic isn’t necessarily selfish; it’s just that his or her natural strengths have been driven to extremes by alcoholism.

Unlike the Four Absolutes and Big Book inventories, the 12-and-12 does not offer a standard by which inventory writers can measure their defects of character, although it does suggest that some type of standard—such as the Seven Deadly Sins—might be helpful. Still, there is no fixed guide to tell the inventory writer what constitutes an imbalance of instinct, or how one might know when a balance has been achieved. Instead, writers are left to sort it out as best they can, adopting a standard or not as they see fit.

The 12-and-12 has been very influential in recovery culture, and many step guides take their cues from its pages. The NA step workbook, for example, presents the stepworker with a series of questions on a variety of topics and allows each addict to come to his or her own conclusions about their moral condition. The 12-and-12 also makes the suggestion that inventory writers can list assets along with their defects. Most inventory guides that came after the 12-and-12 picked up on this suggestion and included a section where the inventory writer lists his or her strengths.


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 structure for each of the four parts is very much the same.

The Hazelden resentment inventory, like that of the Big Book, asks inventory writers to fill out a series of four columns, listing their resentments in the first. In the second column, writers are asked to list the causes of their resentments. In the third column, writers are asked to examine their character traits that are revealed by each resentment. The Hazelden guide suggests that these character traits are not to be judged as positive or negative and even 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 derived from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and suggests that by discovering underlying mistaken beliefs, the inventory writer can be relieved of self-destructive behaviors.


Looking back over our four styles of inventory, we can distinguish between two kinds: “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 offer ideal inventories. Their use of an ideal involves a strong moral assertion that selfishness (or sin) is at fault for the stepworker’s troubles. The ideal works to create a sense of conviction and a corresponding acknowledgment of the inventory writer’s need for an intimate relationship with God.

The 12-and-12 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 fixed moral ideals.

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 isn’t always pleasant.

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 can produce a profound feeling of need for God that we might sometimes experience as a form of desperation. If we write ideal inventory, our spirituality will probably become a more central part of our lives.

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? Or is it better for us to enter this kind of inventory with a set of standards, like the Seven Deadly Sins, to help us sort ourselves out? If working a Hazelden-style inventory, are we comfortable relying on our own insights about what constitutes a true versus a false belief? Or will we run a risk of deceiving ourselves?

The choice between writing ideal inventory and writing introspective inventory isn’t always an easy one. Our sponsors will probably have some good advice to help us along, and, if we are truly committed to working the 12 steps, the fourth step is not the last time in our lives that we will write inventory. The tenth step encourages us to make inventory writing a part of our ongoing development, and so it will be possible to try more than one style of inventory until we find the one that works best.

In this article, we have not—by far—covered all of the types of moral inventory available. Hopefully, we have at least made clear the fact that there is more than one style of inventory available, and that each different type has its own strengths and weaknesses. If we’ve done our work well here, the newcomer and old-timer alike will have gained a better sense of their options when it comes time to write inventory.

15 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Whatever you do just get it done and get on! The 4th step is ONLY 1/12th of the process and wasting a lot of time in it is only depriving the newcomers of your unique and individual experience. After all the purpose of these steps is to fit ourselves to be of maximum usefulness to God and others. We benefit few in debate and philosophizing; our assets are in action!

Comment by Brent

Brent’s idea of “action” is a useless simplification. If you wish to “take” the Steps that are suggested in the Big Book, then you need to know and follow the suggestions that are in the Big Book. I’m all for serving God and others, but personal opinions about how that relates to the specific instructions for “taking” the Steps are beyond the pale.

Comment by Dick B.

I agree Brent. Your comment was both helpful & useful. Thank you.

Comment by Elvis

True Brent that action is oh so important. On the other hand as an engineer by training who likes to understand how things work — I’m grateful for a website which offers insight and sheds light on 12-step history, processes, and approaches.

Comment by Jane

Concerning sponsorship: Ive started my 5th step with my sponsor, but she says I need to live the rest of it…what…this is not the NA way is it? Just a little frustrated because I need the insight of my sponsor while doing my 5th step, and not her complacency…any advice?

Comment by theresa b.

Let’s look up “inventory” in the dictionary!

It comes from the Latin word “invenire”. Invenire means “to find”.

For a helpful contrast, the word “invention” comes from the same root and means “findings” – as in discoveries. But “inventory” is commonly applied to a large number of physical objects so we can pinpoint the definition of inventory by saying it means “finding” in the sense of “noting an object”.

The common factor between the ideal and the introspective inventories is that both note definite and actual objects. The precise objects that all effective inventories take note of are resentments, fears, harms/guilt and sex harms/shame.

The word we overlook in this conversation is “moral”. While the original mob took their moral framework from the same cultural background as Christianity, we can choose to see in the 12X12 inventory Bill’s attempt to secularize the inventory process. Instead of the Four Absolutes, Bill there uses the Three Instincts. The common factor is that there be some moral ideas back of the inventory.

Many people could do with a nice simple Four Absolutes moral code. Because the steps don’t articulate a clear moral code (nor should they), in practice I believe most sponsees end up simply adopting their sponsor’s moral code in the Fifth Step.

But a simple external code, such as the Four Absolutes, the Christian Seven Deadly Sins, the Buddhist Five Vows and Three Refuges, are also enormously simple and practical guidelines for future 4th and 10th steps. Bottom line: external moral codes are simply not that fashionable right now!

Comment by 8YSTEM

Every resentment I have or harm I’ve caused that I’m aware of needs to be shared with another person (ideally a 12-step person or counselor who’s familiar with the 12-steps) Their insight can be invaluable especially in the beginning.

I would ask to learn about your sponsors personal experience in doing her 5th step, whether she has a sponsor now, where she is in her own 12-step process and how helpful the program has been for her overall.

The more I’ve come to understand how the program works, the more I believe the program is a blueprint for life. I agree with your sponsor that living the program matters and appropriate guidance is essential too.

I’ve focused on the AA program though my problems have long been more addiction related (mostly with food now and drugs previously).

Comment by Jane

Congratulations to James R., who is listed as the author of the 4th Step inventory comments. Few people have done as careful a job of laying out options. With an exception or two, his discussion of the Oxford Group Four Absolutes is very good. Similarly, his discussion of the Big Book inventory correctly covers the items–except that it leaves out the written list of people we have harmed. This is a common error, but explicitly mentioned in the Big Book and forms the basis for the 8th Step list. Thus the Big Book “written” columns are Resentment, Fear, Selfish Sex, and People Harmed. The items within each column are mucked up in the Big Book by the insertion of the “emotions” matter and Bill’s “Mrs. Brown” stuff. I leave the other two categories to your readers because, like James R., I don’t think much of them. On the other hand, much of the confusion over what is “moral” and what is an “inventory” can be clarified when one looks at my Oxford Group book and discussion and Oxford Group writers like Cecil Rose, and also at Anne’s journal where she clearly talks about “moral standards.” Joe and Charlie confused the scene by defining “moral” as “true.” But if one knows that the four standards came from Robert Speer’s book The Principles of Jesus he will have a better understanding of how this all started with Dr. Speer and then with Professor Wright who added the “absolutes” idea. “True” is just a personal opinion that subtracts from understanding. In summary, your writer did a better job of this than I have seen; and I certainly struggled 24 years ago when it was apparent that neither my sponsor nor his sponsor had a clue as to how to do a 4th Step inventory although they regarded themselves as “big book thumpers.” Onward and upward.

Comment by Dick B.

If you are so plagued with alcoholic insanity that you need to take inventory, is it realistic that you will be able to effectively analyze and choose form this list offered? A lot of people would start drinking again before they could get their head around James R’s comparisons. Not to say that this is bad information, but a new person in desperate need of recovery should be guided through the big book 4th step if they’ve chosen AA as their path. My own inventory taking is based on the 4 column inventory (with security in the 3rd column too) but has progressed to add some other things like identifying old ideas and a few other tweaks for more insight. I suffered from chronic relapse for ten years during which time people offered me variations of inventory, none of which revealed to me what the BB inventory does.

Comment by mike bruer

Shoemaker, who taught Bill the step materials, did his “inventory” in 1919 and simply wrote down where he had fallen short on honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love. Simple, and Sam shared it with Frank Buchman in China. He felt the inventory and confession and his conviction and surrender were so important, he made a note in his personal journal each year after 1919 reminding him of what he did. Anne Smith’s Journal covers the whole idea of checking by the “moral” standards–the absolutes and does it well. As to the Big Book inventory, I’ve already pointed out that James R. omitted the “harms done” part which, in turn, is used in formulating the 8th Step. I personally found the whole process of self examination for resentment, self-seeking, dishonesty, fear, and harms done to be a healthy and sincerely followed challenge as I moved along toward recovery. Long questionaires, inadequate instructions, lack of simplicity, and failure to get Bill’s idea of looking for bad merchandise and tossing it out would have stopped me. Then I found the Oxford Group book “When Man Listens” contained the inventory framework found in Bill’s work. Once again, James, and for the last time, thank you for your pithy, precise layout of the four options you chose. God Bless, Dick B.

Comment by Dick B.

Hello I N I enjoyed reading the article it was very well written the problem I have with the different types of inventory is three of them by Nature have to be incomplete( half-measures availed us nothing)( nothing counted but thoroughness and honesty). Understanding that you can’t fix a sick mind with the mind that created it we have but one alternative, the clear-cut directions that are found in the big book. It has been my experience that as long as the alcoholic can follow these clear cut directions given to him by a sponsor that understands them that he will recover weather he understands what he’s doing or not. I have done a video on YouTube on the controversial 4th step” step 4 bbss” please let me know what you think.

Comment by Joe poti

In a letter written by Bill W. and printed in “The A.A. Way of Life” by World Services, Inc. in 1967 and later reprinted in the same book which was changed to “As Bill Sees It”.
Pg. 191 of “As Bill Sees It”
“The Beginning of Humility”
“There are few absolutes inherent in the Twelve Steps. Most Steps are open to interpretation, based on the experience and outlook of the individual.
Consequently, the individual is free to start the Steps at whateaver point he can, or will. God, as we understand Him, may be defined as a ‘Power greater …’ or the Higher Power. For thousands of members, the A.A. group itself has been a ‘Higher Power’ in the beginning. This acknowledgment is easy to make if a newcomer knows that most of the members are sober and he isn’t.
His admission is the beginning of humility — at least the newcomer is willing to disclaim that he himself is God. That’s all the start he needs. If, following this achievement, he will relax and practice as many of the Steps as he can, he is sure to grow spiritually.”

Comment by Geri G.T. February 4, 2018 @ 8:53 pm

Comment by Geri G.T.

Maybe this sounds like a crazy notion but why not consider Bill Wilson the authority on the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Big Book inventory is the basis when the literature talks about the inventory process. The 12×12 is not a separate inventory but an enhancement of the Big Book inventory. Do the original first. The Absolutes Inventory is meant to add depth to Step Six and Seven. Again, it builds the self-examination process that we are to ultimately do daily as a Step 10 practice. The Hazelden inventory has nothing to do with what Bill Wilson laid out for us so take it for what it is, a pseudo psychological / pseudo spiritual amalgam. The AA method is in no way a psychological construct. It is only meant to illuminate the impediments to aligning our self-will with that of God.

Comment by Steve Murphy

how would u suggest how to a written inventory on toxic shame ?

Comment by Mario P

Hello. My name is Bill D. Drink date is 01-03-1970. I consider steps 4,5,6 and 7 the moral inventory. To qualify, I am an alcoholic, and I am not an “and a”. My big upgrade in these 4 steps is using a dictionary to look up the defects, and writing out the definitions in my own long-hand-writing. next I plug the defect along with it’s definition in to the 7th step prayer. Each defect definition said out loud in my own voice, is actually a short meditation.

Comment by Bill Donovan

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