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Where do Morals Come From? Understanding Beliefs, Values, and Ethics

Updated on July 26, 2017
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Catherine Giordano is a writer and public speaker who often writes and speaks on topics related to science, philosophy, and religion.

Beliefs, Values, Morals, Ethics

The words “beliefs,” “values,” “morals,” and “ethics” are commonly used when discussing principles concerning our interactions with other people and the world in general. The meanings of these words in that context are similar, but the differences are important.

I’m going to discuss these words in the context of religion and other life philosophies. I will argue that religion is not necessarily the best way to determine what is “good.”

It is not always easy to sort out beliefs, values, morals, and ethics to find  the principles that should guide us in life.
It is not always easy to sort out beliefs, values, morals, and ethics to find the principles that should guide us in life. | Source

What Are “Beliefs”?

Let’s begin with the definitions of “belief” in dictionaries. A belief is

  • An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
  • A conviction of truth or reality based upon the examination of evidence
  • Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction
  • Trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something
  • A tenet or body of tenets held by a group
  • A religious conviction

Notice that the definition of belief does not say that something is true or real, but only that it is accepted as true or real. Only one of the definitions mentions evidence. In short, a belief is an opinion and it may or may not be true.

For example:

  • I believe in God.
  • Religions have different sets of beliefs about God.
  • What are Christian beliefs?
  • I believe that the Bible is the word of God.
  • It is my belief that people can be good without God.

Religion is based on belief, not evidence. Believing something without any evidence that it is true sets a dangerous precedent. A person can believe anything. Most religions are life-affirming and help people live good lives, but every now and then a suicide cult comes along.

A belief is an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
A belief is an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists. | Source

What Are “Values”?

Again, let’s begin with the definition of “value” in the context of life principles. (Value also refers to the material or monetary worth of things among other definitions.)

  • The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something
  • A person's principles or standards of behavior; a judgment of what is important in life
  • The relative worth, utility, or importance of something or someone
  • A quality that is intrinsically desirable

Like beliefs, values are opinions. They define what we think is important in life and guide us in making decisions about how to live. People can have different, even directly opposing, values. Our values are based on our beliefs about what is good.

For example:

  • Parents and churches instill values in children.
  • Almost everyone considers honesty to be an important value.
  • Some people value money above all else.

All religions have values. Not all of these values are what most of us would call “good.” If a religion values the killing of “infidels,” most of us would not call that a good value.

A value is a standard of behavior, a judgment about what is important.
A value is a standard of behavior, a judgment about what is important. | Source

What Are “Morals”?

Once more, we can turn to dictionaries to provide a foundation for understanding the meaning of "morals."

  • Standards of behavior concerning what is and is not acceptable
  • Beliefs about what is right and/or good in human behavior
  • A behavior that is considered right or good
  • Conforming to a standard of right behavior
  • Behavior that is in accordance with one’s conscience or ethical judgment

Essentially, morals are a set of behaviors believed to be right and or good. People or acts which conform to this set of standards are considered to be moral.

  • Religion guides people to live a moral life.
  • Honesty is an important moral value.
  • I hold myself to a high moral standard.

People who adhere to a moral code tend to see their moral code as absolute. However, there are many moral codes. These codes are similar in some ways and different in others. This suggests these codes are nothing more than a set of beliefs about the rightness and wrongness of certain behaviors. The same behavior can be moral or immoral depending on culture. For instance, here are two conflicting statements about morality.

A moral woman is subservient to her husband.

A moral man must treat his wife as an equal.

The problem with religious moral codes is that they are very resistant to change. The culture may change, but religion tends to lag behind. It took 400 years for the Catholic Church to recognize that Galileo was right about the earth revolving around the sun.

Morals are beliefs about what is right and good.
Morals are beliefs about what is right and good. | Source

What Are “Ethics”?

Ethics and morals are very closely related. Ethics is a philosophy that uses reason to determine right and wrong. It explains why certain behaviors are or are not moral; why a value is important or unimportant; why a belief is appropriate or inappropriate.

Dictionaries define “ethics as:

  • A philosophy for dealing with human conduct with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions
  • A system of moral principles; the body of moral principles that defines a group or culture
  • The rules of conduct as established by reason

For example:

  • Medical ethics instruct that doctors must “first do no harm.”
  • We must bring ethical values to our business dealings.
  • Is it ever ethical to lie?

Ethics is a system of beliefs about what is right and/or good in human behavior.
Ethics is a system of beliefs about what is right and/or good in human behavior. | Source

What Is Moral Relativism?

Ethics is not a hard and fast system of rules. You may have heard the phrase “moral relativism” or “situational ethics.” It refers to using reason to determine the highest good and basing our behavior on this concept.

We often use situational ethics when we consider self-defense. It is not ethical to kill, but we may feel it is right to kill someone who has attacked us. However, it may not be ethical to kill the attacker if you have another way to save your life.

We use situational ethics sometimes in the case of theft. In the novel Les Miserables, Jean Val Jean steals a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister and her children who are starving. Opinions can vary about whether the theft is ethical in that case. The baker and the policeman have one point of view; Val Jean has another. Is it ethical for his starving family to eat the bread if they know it was stolen?

We use situational ethics in everyday life all the time. Consider this contradiction. Most people would consider both of these statements to be moral.

Honesty is an important moral value.

A white lie can be more moral than the truth if it is told to avoid hurting someone.

Ethics incorporates beliefs, values, and morals but also includes reason. It is the best guide for moral behavior.
Ethics incorporates beliefs, values, and morals but also includes reason. It is the best guide for moral behavior. | Source

Why Is a Philosophy of Ethics the Best Guide for Moral Behavior?

Ethics incorporates beliefs, values, and morals but also includes reason. It recognizes that humans are fallible and thus beliefs, values, and morals must not be considered as absolute truths, but instead must be open to examination. Absolutes inhibit the use of scientific inquiry and the change in cultural norms as a basis for behavioral decisions.

Let’s take a simple case like spanking children. The Bible says, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” (Proverbs 13:24 and 23:13). Many people believe that spankings and beatings are the best way to teach children morality. In fact, many people proudly speak of how their parents took a switch to them. Is this behavior ethical?

I say “No” because it is not compassionate to inflict pain and humiliation on a helpless child. I say “No” because scientific investigation has shown that people who were spanked as children bear emotional scars that harm their interpersonal relationships for life. I say “No” because spanking teaches children to be “good” in order to avoid punishment and not because “being good” is the best way to succeed in life.

Is abortion moral? Many people think so. I think it is unethical in some cases, but ethical in others. I don’t think denying a fetus its right to life is ethical. But what if the pregnant woman already has six children under the age of 10, and she is the sole support of her family, and the doctor has told her she is very likely to die if she continues the pregnancy? Is it not more ethical to preserve her life and her ability to care for her children? Is that not the higher good? And shouldn’t the woman who is in this predicament be the one to decide?

When is “Cultural Relativism” Unacceptable?

Cultural relativism says that we must respect the norms of other cultures and not call their practices immoral. I answer this with the flippant response: “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

My ethical system says that self-actualization, freedom, and compassion are the most important values. I support human rights.

Women should not be subjugated. This means no female genital mutilation designed to deny women sexual pleasure. It means allowing women to have an education, and allowing women to have reproductive freedom. It means no slavery or exploitation of people. It means allowing people the freedom to love whom they choose and as they chose. (Of course, children, since they have not yet reached the age of reason, must be protected from possible exploitation by adults.)

I admit it is tricky to know where to draw the line. That is why beliefs, values, and morals must always be subjected to ethical analysis as we try to determine what is right and wrong and what is the highest good.

Just for fun, please take this poll.

What has been the biggest influence on your personal beliefs about values, morals and ethics?

See results

Summation:

We tend to think that all our beliefs are true and that values and morals are absolutes. However, our beliefs can change and we make exceptions to the "rules" dictated by values and morals all the time. Often our values are in conflict with each other. In those cases, the best way to find the "good" is through ethics because we apply reason to the issue instead of hard and fast rules.

There is broad agreement in our society about what is good; ethics is a guide to help us find the good in every situation. Ethics does not mean abandoning values; it means finding the best way to express those values in specific situations.

A Brief Introduction to the Philosophy of Ethics

© 2015 Catherine Giordano

What are your thoughts on beliefs, values, morals, and ethics? I welcome your comments.

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    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 21 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Alice Brown: Thanks for your comment. Personal experience is a good way to understand what is "good." Then add some critical thinking, in other words, ethics.

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      Alice Brown 21 months ago

      Family, Church, Teachers, Independent Study--all are tested and informed in the crucible of experience. Experience preceeds ...

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      referencegirl: It was so wonderful to read your comment. You and I think alike. I'm a UU also, although I came to it as an adult. Have you read my hubs on UU and on humanism? You will probably like those as well as the ones I have written on atheism and religion. Check them out when you have time.

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      referencegirl 2 years ago

      Very interesting and thoughtful. Thank you. The biggest influences on my personal beliefs about values, morals and ethics were church, family and my own independent study. I grew up Unitarian Universalist and was taught in Sunday school that it was my responsibility to figure out what I believed on my own - to walk my own spiritual path while respecting the paths others chose to walk. So that requires independent study to. My parents were atheist humanists and basically believed in nothing and chose to follow some ethical ideals while eschewing others. They did believe quite strongly in behaving in a way that has the most positive impact on your community - don't litter, don't steal, be a nice person, etc... but also readily broke the law when it served their own desires. I do not think they were like this because they were atheists as I see very religious people doing the same thing. I do not think that religion guides people in terms of morality and ethics or in terms of doing harm as much as most people seem to think.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you ps: It is indeed a blessing to have people who care.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Wow Tony: I'm just overwhelmed. thank you so much for your praise and for the way you choose to embrace the good in life.

    • tony mcnaughton profile image

      tony mcnaughton 2 years ago

      What a fantastic read. Only a fantastic individual could bring forth a fabulous flow of thoughts that this article induces. I'm so happy at embracing my "belief system/structure/power base/strength....it's the pattern of growth that has enable me to be a person of "becoming" rather than one of "getting and having". All that I am in both love and anger comes from the format of this "life event(s)" construct. You are a delightful thinker and I really delighted in your thinking manner. I'm glad you're a part of the sharing community here at HubPages. Thank You, so much for all that you have given in this wonderful presentation. I am so taken-in on your focus/perspective of "goodness". How wonderful it must be to have the spirit of your person so beautifully expressed in the power of the pen !

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you steve8miller: It is always nice when my writing is called amazing. I'm glad you found it useful to your understanding of faith.

    • Lovelifer profile image

      Lovelifer 2 years ago

      Great compilation, Catherine! You touched on every aspect of goodness and I think there is something in this hub for everyone who is searching for "more".

    • steve8miller profile image

      Steven Miller 2 years ago from Ohio Great City of Dayton

      To start what has been my main influence was my struggles growning up. This is what has led me to know there is a God. I understand on my conscous level that there is a creator and from birth we are instilled with love. Someone has to teach us how to hate.

      I truly believe that we all are created equal and we should take in consideration of others feeling. Even if they are a believer or non believer. It does not matter because I may believe in something higher but everyone struggles and still don't come to the same conclusion.

      Sometimes struggles lead me astray,but eventually I come back to my understanding of things and realize that I may have to prove my faith when it becomes tested. If it were not for the creator then were would we truly be?

      This was an amazing hub thanks. Many blessing to you and may your life be filled with love, hope, faith, compassion, strength and very strong willpower

      We will be tested on our faith each day. Will you pass?

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      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      Catherine I just wanted to come back since you left such a kind note---we are so blessed to have so many who care!!! It helps lighten our load. Thank you hardly says it but "thank you."

      More Angels and blessings headed to you ps

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you ps. When I write about things like ethics, I know people may not always agree 100%, but I hope to get them thinking on the issue.

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      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      That is a good quote...the one about not letting your brains fall out. I can listen to a differing opinion and respect someone's else right to have that view while not 'buying into it."

      Well said...much food for thought here. Angels are on the way to you this afternoon ps

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Iris, I've missed you also, but I know you are off being successful elsewhere. I'm glad you liked it. Maybe non-religious types can just say "YES!".

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      Cristen Iris 2 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      I've missed reading your writing, Catherine! What's the secular humanist's version of "amen"?

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      FlourishAnyway: I liked your comment. Ethics only work if people have inherently good morals and values--good grounding as you put it. What I am doing in this essay is asking people to examine their beliefs, morals and values to see if they are in totally conformance with "good." Thanks for reading and commenting.

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      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      Regarding cultural tolerance and treatment of women, your quote about not being so open-minded that your brains fall out is one of the best quotes I have seen in a long time. We talk so much about values but so many people behave so erratically, as if they have no ethical grounding or moral code. It can be alarming.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      ocfireflies: In fact, HP does like this hub. It has a score of 93. According to HP, it is votes that result in a good hub score so thanks for your thumbs up.

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      ocfireflies 2 years ago from North Carolina

      Catherine,

      I am pretty sure this is one of those hubs the HP royalty would consider an example of a quality hub. And I agree. Very professionally presented with intellectual propriety. A definite thumbs up!

      Kim

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Venkatachari. Your comments have added valuable points to my post. I appreciate your praise and votes.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      You have discussed it so reasonably and aptly. As you said, ethics and morals are related to each other. Morals depend more on religion and beliefs. But ethics are based on social thinking and are more reasonable based on practical life.

      We can have our own beliefs and values but they should not inflict disturbance or injury to other person's life. We should keep them for our own life and should not impose on others.

      But there should be some general code of conduct which everyone should follow to live in a society. That code of conduct or ethics, as you can term it, should be for betterment of society as a whole, should be decent, harmless and reasonable.

      Exceptions can be there always according to some unavoidable circumstances depending upon individual cases. But that should not be considered as a general code or practice.

      Thanks for creating this wonderful topic with your great analysis and opinions. Voted up, beautiful and interesting.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Hannah. for your thoughtful comment. I will respect another person's cultural choices when it comes to a preference for atonal music but not when it is about subjugating women.

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      Hannah David Cini 2 years ago from Nottingham

      A very interesting and well argued piece.

      I agree with you strongly about cultural relativism, if we start to think that way where do we draw the line?

      I really enjoyed reading this and look forward to more of your work.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Poetryman6969: Nice of you to stop by and comment. Moral and ethical issues are more complex than they seem at first.

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      An interesting overview of some thorny issues. When Americans were compared to those head choppers in ISIS, I for one thought the guy doing the moral relativism needed to go join ISIS where belongs.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Jodah: Thank you for your comments. As I began to write this I realized the topic was much too big for under 2000 words. All I could do was introduce the issues to get people to think about them. I want people to think about what is "good" and then apply reason instead of rules to decide how to be good.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Billybuc: As you said, the do unto others rule is pretty ironclad. Thank you for sharing.

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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Too much here to comment on. I will say that my family was easily my biggest influence...those lessons have stayed with me forever, and the one I can't shake is "do onto others as you would have them do to you." There is no wiggle room in that one.

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      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Wow Catherine, this hub posed some important questions as to what is ethical, moral and good etc. The definitions of the various terms was very interesting and there is a fine line between some of them. The question of what is ethical or moral and what isn't is much more difficult to determine than what is good vs bad, and is different between different cultures and times. Belief and values similarly. Very interesting read. Voted up.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Stephen Hawking made his own decision about his life. (By the way, you won't need the tissues for the movie. It is inspiring, not sad.) Someone else may have made a different decision. That's why I think it is for the individual to decide.

      Just about everyone knows right from wrong. I'm not saying that people should be free to choose wrong. It's just sometimes, what is right in one case is not right in another. Assisted suicide is one of those cases as you point out. I think the individual must decide what it right for him. Not the church, not the government. I certainly was not advocating a free-for-all. I'm glad that after a bit of thought you ended up close to agreeing with me about ethics being best determined by the individual.

      Another example. some religions say no divorce, yet most people in unhappy marriages think it is more ethical to divorce than live in a sham marriage. The individuals get to decide.

      Lying is wrong according to just about every moral code. But I think everyone engages is small lies some times. They have decided that the good done by the small lie outweighs the bad of telling a lie. Situational ethics. The individual should definitely not do anything he believes to be immoral.

      Thanks for your comment and vote. I'm glad I got you thinking about these thorny issues.

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      Mary Craig 2 years ago from New York

      You have certainly let the cat out of the bag with this one. Belief systems are based on so many factors and influenced by those we respect. Making decisions about right or wrong would most definitely suffer if left to individuals and personal preferences.

      Sometimes, as you've pointed out, cultural norms are not the best gauge of what is ethical. Is assisted suicide ethical? What are the requirements? Just one of the current issues we are dealing with. I know, I've always said, " they shoot horses don't they!", but who are we to decide when a life should end? I dare say Steven Hawking is a perfect example of what can be accomplished even through extreme physical adversity and no, I haven't seen the movie yet. I'm stocking up on tissues.

      So, after all I've said I don't think I'm totally disagreeing with you.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.