When a person is ambivalent, she experiences “simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings”. Moral ambivalence is the experience of simultaneous feelings of moral approval and moral disapproval about the same choice, action, or policy (etc.). The phenomenon of moral ambivalence typically arises when a moral agent confronts an action which satisfies some of her moral values or principles while at the same time conflicts with other moral values or principles that she also endorses. For example, Samantha lies to her parents to protect her best friend. Samantha experiences moral ambivalence because she values honesty and disapproves of deceit, but she also values loyalty to her friends. On this practical occasion, Samantha’s moral values are in conflict with each other, and so she finds her action simultaneously morally blameworthy and morally praiseworthy.
David Wong points out that moral ambivalence can arise from our confrontation with the morality of another culture than our own. Different cultures typically share moral values in common but prioritize the satisfaction of these values in different ways, when these values are in conflict. A Chinese Confucian morality, for example, typically prioritizes one’s obligation to one’s family over one’s obligations to non-family. In Confucian ethics, a son who covers up his father’s theft of a sheep is morally praiseworthy. By contrast, a Western morality that prioritizes the private property rights of all citizens may condemn the son as well as the father. Yet a Westerner may judge the son was wrong to make himself an accessory to his father’s crime while simultaneously appreciating that the son’s action displayed the moral virtue of family loyalty—filial piety is not only a Chinese virtue. The Westerner in this example feels some degree of moral ambivalence about the son’s action.
Moral agents will confront hard cases for moral judgment in which basic moral values come into conflict. Those who seek to understand the ethical decisions of others will realize that tensions between moral values can be resolved in different ways, and will recognize when choices of which they morally disapprove are the result not of totally alien values but rather of different ways of resolving conflict between shared values. In many cases, reasonable and knowledgeable people who share our moral values will make decisions about which we feel moral ambivalence. This ambivalence may shake our conviction that our own judgments are morally superior to theirs. Wong argues this phenomenon of moral ambivalence constitutes good reason to reject moral universalism (that anyone reasoning correctly and with all the relevant facts would make the same moral judgment) and to embrace a form of moral relativism (that there is no single true morality).