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