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Trying to Understand Ethics, Law and Morals

Updated on January 12, 2013

Ethics are, according to the dictionary, “ideas of right and wrong; the philosophical study of moral values and rules”. But what does that mean in a modern day society?

Everyone is interested in ethics. We all have our own ideas about what is right and what is wrong and we can tell the difference.


In the UK conservatives (both big and small “c”) have said things such as;

“The country is in a state of moral decline and there is no respect for authority anymore”

“We must get back to basics”

Do these words mean anything at all? Or are they just empty “values” we hold close to us because society has programmed us to?


What should be the moral standing of countries, societies or communities?

Are there any differences between society’s laws and our own moral laws? If so then why?

Are some communities or individuals “better” at morality than others, or are they all capable of being “good”?

Does anyone have the right to tell others what is “good” and what is “wicked”?

What do you think the best answer is to the question “why should I be a good person”?

Communitarian or Individualists?

Ethics is complicated because our morality is an odd mixture of received tradition and personal opinion.

But philosophers on both sides will not put anymore weight in their words when discussing ethics than “club rules gathered and agreed upon by members”.

The question you have to pose yourself is this; is it the fault of the society or of the individual as to where they draw their “moral line”?

It seems very unlikely that a society has or would ever exist where the unmotivated murder of another would be acceptable because, although the odd serial killer does appear in the fabric of society, murder is universally unacceptable. Yet in medieval Europe executions were considered public entertainment. So where, and how, do we draw the line?

the roots of morality?

Most people living in western Christian societies would say that they base their ethical beliefs and behaviour on the Ten Commandments. Also they have the “golden” rule; always treat others as you would like them to treat you. This rule is also found in many other religions.

Is religion where morality comes from? Is being moral simply a matter of obeying commands you believe to be divine?

However, history has shown us that people can be completely unmoral while believing they are moral because they follow who they believe to be higher than them.

Others believe that there is more to morality than blindly following orders. In modern society that seems to be the opinion of the majority of people.

So is it society’s fault?

 Most people like to flatter themselves that they choose to do good acts rather than being “programmed” to do them. So perhaps society has very little to do with the fundamental moral foundations of our characters? It may in fact be responsible for many of the evils of mankind.

Its all up to you...

Men may kill other men in different uniforms because society encourages them to do so, but their genetic instincts might be to do things like play rugby and drink beer with each other.

Or maybe men chose to kill each other over emotive issues. But does that make them “evil” or just weak minded?

It could be they both believe they hold the moral high ground.

Many factors influence how we behaviour towards one another, what we believe is right wrong is all different and will vary from individual to individual, form society to society and from religion to religion.

Socrates believed that the most important thing about human beings is that they ask questions. He also said that real moral knowledge existed and was worth pursuing for its own sake.


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    • jaskar profile image

      jaskar 6 years ago from England

      reading that back we got really off the point there real fast.

      if anyone has any comments relating to the actual hub then please feel free.

    • jaskar profile image

      jaskar 7 years ago from England

      true that. but either way the tories are getting in. and no doubt with a fairly large majority. its not about who will come to power next who will come to power after that.

    • profile image

      Greg 7 years ago

      Niall surely you know as well as I do that will mean 4 years at least of a tory government? Remember what happened the last few times they got in? Dare i mention Thatcher????

    • jaskar profile image

      jaskar 7 years ago from England

      not at all. if we are talking about what Labour USED to stand for. but NOW i do not see a difference between Labour and tories. because i know for a fact that their is NO socialism in their new point plan fi elected again. check it out for yourself.

      if you want socailism, which i DO, you would have to vote Liberal or Green. SHAMEFUL to see how British politics has changed. what Labour need is four years as an oppisition party so more left wing members can gain foot hold and change the course of Labour away form populist BULLSHIT and back to what Brtitain truely needs, even if they people dont know it yet.

    • profile image

      Greg 7 years ago

      "I’m sure if we gave you all the votes people don’t use Britain would have another Labour government."

      You make that seem like a bad thing?

    • profile image

      Elenid 7 years ago

      this is so true, its funny.

    • jaskar profile image

      jaskar 7 years ago from England

      Thank you, it is good to talk to like minded people. the problem is that people don’t realise how free they are, their would be public out cry, mass protests etc if their vote was taken away but not using it seems to be fine. I’m sure if we gave you all the votes people don’t use Britain would have another Labour government.

    • profile image

      Elenid 7 years ago

      I completely agree with all points you just made. especially concerning hussains death and the new suicide issues. i think (in agreement with you) that on an individual scale, people need to realise their responsibilty to act for their beliefs and care about their countries government and politics. the idea of being able to vote and choosing not to, as some are now, is in my opinion completely ridiculous. i'll vote for them if they want!

    • jaskar profile image

      jaskar 7 years ago from England

      The states chose not to accept laws because they believe them wrong, and we should be ‘progressing’ in another direction.

      Religion shouldn’t be force but in many societies it is expected form a young age; the society the child is born teaches them that the words of whatever god is right and they believe it. That’s why societies and other groups agree because they come from the same mould (lack of a better word).

      I’m not saying that personally politicians don’t care about people dying; I did not get my point across well there. What I meant is that we have not in the modern age gone to war to stop the killing of people and we have never given weight to the deaths that may happen on both sides in ‘liberation, operations. From the end of WW2 until this very moment we haven’t gone to war to stop killing of innocents in other countries. Africa has had wars, genocides and ‘evil’ dictators coming to power everyday, no one cares.

      People should care more about themselves. They have become complete desensitised to the horrors across the world. They should not just care that a government looks after them economically. if possible, the government should stand up for the rights of people across the globe, this doesn’t not mean more war and death it just means doing something rather than standing aside. If we don’t use our progress to help others then we ourselves are no better than those committing these awful acts.

      I’m not with suicide as a general rule but if some one wishes to die because they have to live with unbearable pain (or any other kinds of problems they can not deal with) they deserve that right.

      However, this is going to sound horrible so I apologize in advance. People can not die with dignity. No matter how it happens. Our bodies break down sometimes when we are old and others before they are even born but its always ugly. It leaves parts of people broken and scared.

      Hussain’s execution was the right thing to do in my opinion. It was completely justified. He tried to genocide a people. If governments with power actually cared in the first place it would never had happened. What happened because of that man was vile.

      However, the parading of his body, the way in with the execution has conducted and the fact that all of it was filmed and released makes me sick. No matter how evil and sick some one has done they should be treated ‘correctly’. Dragging ourselves down to that level was disturbing.

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      Elenid 7 years ago

      Well, as I'm sure you've noticed, we are agreeing with each other.

      Whilst I fully realise that some states choose not to accept the new laws that allow single sex marriages etc. progress is viewing how improvement has made a difference. In that sense, people can now say that in general, people are accepted for who they are. Hopefully in the future these few states will bow to public and governmental power.

      Religion in this modern society is often overlooked. Most would now say that they are not particularly religious. I'm afraid that despite the need to modernise religion in some sense, it is not anyone's right to force beliefs on people - even if their not religious. We would be as bad as they can be in extreme cases.

      I beg to differ on your point that governments don't care about people dying at war. In PQ, they announce deaths and give sympathy to families. No human being can ever be accused of taking life in general too lightly. In this I think you underestimate politicians. They are people, with families, with people that could have fought.

      I'm fully aware why governments exist. It's also to protect people and keep the country from chaos. People caring about their living and their job isnt something to be sniffed at. It is their way of living, and it matters to them more than anything else because it is the thing that effects them most. This can be seen as quite selfish, but i think this entire miniture debate proves that there are people out there that care more than that.

      I'd like to ask about humanity in relation to the euthanasia case. Are you for or against or somewhere in between? And perhaps consider on your decision the people who wish to be able to die with dignity.

      Also, quite unrelated, but I do discussion weeks with forms for council, and we did the death of Hussain - do you think it was the right decision?

    • jaskar profile image

      jaskar 7 years ago from England

      This is exactly the point I’m getting across; you can draw the line yourself but that’s just what you think. No matter how open a society, a free one anyway, no amount of debating is ever going to land a law anywhere but the middle ground. Because of the varying opinions on what is right and wrong. The euthanasia debate is an excellent example.

      Can you actually think of a moral issue that humanity has made any progress in? I really can’t.

      Forgives is necessary for humanity to come forward as a whole, most definitely. The complexity and variation of our beliefs (such as morals etc) make these gaps hard to close.

      On an unrelated note; Amusing comment about PQ but British politics is shameful as it is without dribble like that.

      I can see how we would progress economically and technologically. But who gets to say what progress is socially and culturally? 30 years ago being ‘gay’ was illegal in Britain was illegal now they can marry. Where as in America, in a few states, being ‘gay’ is still illegal. Are we progressing or are they? Religious factions would say that homosexuals are wrong and more liberal people (myself included) would say that they have as much right as anyone. Because of these divides we can never know who is right and who is wrong.

      War is the personification of violence, violence is never acceptable. Unjust things happen every day and we let them. Governments only ever go to war when its their personal interest at stake. They don’t give a SHIT if people die. They should but they don’t.

      Different versions of government and control exist because people have different ideas of right and wrong and want to protect them.

      The problem being people don’t care where these principles and the foundations for their ideology came form. All they care about is their standard of living and job.

    • profile image

      Elenid 7 years ago

      Religion is another excuse for population control actually yeah. Evil deeds are acts of emotional or physical violence against one person or a group of people that violates human rights and causes destruction in society. society doesn really matter but if you did listen to the bible then people should treat each other as they treat themselves (one of few good points XD)

      Man is stupid in a lot of respects. Its why we follow animal instinct against listening to conscience and learning from our wrong-doings. the more intelligent of us humans will, however, through history and open debae (like this one) learn in some way. in life and law its all a case of trial and error, and we may never get it right. after all, improvements are always possible.

      Forgiving people in my opinion is the sign of a good person. someone willing to learn to accept others with their history and mistakes. Forgiving is necessary, otherwise all countries would be at war forever, all friends would be enemies and all sense of common decency would be replaced by the kind of atmosphere often found in prime ministers questions. oh yeah, i said it.

      Progress is making things better for people in any respect, improving their lifes politically, socially, economically, culturally, technologically, and in defence as a LAST resort. hopefully we have come to the age where most disagreements can be solved diplomatically.

      War is never the way to achieve peace. I agree in that, and war should never be an option that people consider without exhausting all other possible options. War, however, can be in order to fight for the rights and freedom of others, which doesnt always mean that we think better, rather that we are prepared to stop unjust things happening everyday.

      We have a right as people to advise and speak out against things we think are wrong. This isnt the idea constructed under elitism or oligarchy, rather than one formed under the concept of actually doing some good for people.

      Nowadays to the misfortune of the public, politics has begun to be so far corrupted, defeatist or defenceless in belief that we tend to forget the ideas that we arrived with. The crucial thing to remember is that a lot of people will never forget them. Its why we as a western society and democracy get to choose who makes the important decisions.

    • jaskar profile image

      jaskar 7 years ago from England

      Thanks very much Elenid.

      Religion is really just the collective view of individuals. So we have the same problem with religion’s views as we do with individual’s views; what is evil? And what is good? Massed views are more, such as religion, may be more wide spread and ingrained into societies but does that mean they are ‘correct’?

      You said “we learn from our mistakes” but do we really? From my point of view history is just man making the same mistakes over and over again.

      Why is it more ethical that we forgive people? You may say this from your own view point but what justification do you have for it?

      By the way I completely agree but I’m just trying to make a point.

      What do you class as ‘progress’?

      Because in my books waging war is NOT the way to progress. War makes horrible unjust things everyday. We only go to war because we think our beliefs are better. But who are we to tell others how to think and feel?

    • profile image

      Elenid 7 years ago

      loved this. my fav, i do admit. I think that when it comes to 'moral compasses' the definition of 'good' as seen in a religious view can be very close to evil - preventing people from demonstrating free will, and punishing them from exploring the rights that come with being human. we learn from our mistakes, and if we didn't make them in the first place, we would never have learnt anything at all.

      When it comes to people being 'evil' or 'weak minded,' i think the later is true. a weak minded person going in the wrong direction will test boundaries in order to feel as though they have more control. if people really try to atone from what they've done, by serving time in prison or anything to seek to give something back to society; i think the most 'ethical' or 'good' thing to do is forgive them.

      Unfortunately, their will always be war. Because humans will always fight for what they truly believe is right, in other ways as well - perhaps there are better ways than war - but we should fight. otherwise there is no good and bad, and progress would become mere rumour.

    • A M Werner profile image

      Allen Werner 8 years ago from West Allis

      jaskar, I found this hub very compelling, lots of questions to ponder and address. At its root, I think ethics and morality are individual truths only the individual shares truly with his or her self. On the face, we are all capable of lying about nearly anything and thus, as is my philosophy, government of law is a worthless endeavour. The same holds true of religion. Personal integrity to our personal fundemental truths is what drives us in life. When we dishonor or disobey something we profoundly thought was true, no one can punish us more than ourselves. Like Cain, our countenance falls and we begin to cycle down into breaking more and more of our own rules. Peace.