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Rated: E · Essay · Philosophy · #2042774
How our ideas about morality, ethics, values, and trust, all intertwine and overlap.
A Matter of Morals. And why they do.


First of all, I'm not interested in the morals of the individual. The Nazis had their own ideas of right and wrong, as do serial killers. Morals, by their very definition, imply or refer to notions of universality among cultures and societies that are otherwise very different from one another.

Morals are, or ought to be, the very opposite of subjectivity. They are the codes of conduct and behavior by which we not only lead our own personal lives, but it is presumed -- in a civilized world -- that certain aspects of that code are the same for everyone.

Murder, rape, incest, theft, fraud, lying, cheating are all examples of moral beliefs that our society in particular, reinforces with punishable laws. Since these laws are (generally) obeyed by the vast majority, then it is by consent of the governed that we accept these morals as serious controls on our way of life -- precisely because, for us, they apply to all. Or we wish they did. More on personal, individual beliefs (and principles) later on.

When authors write fiction, for instance, the moral makeup of their characters is critical to readers. Nasty villains are relatively easy, while great heroes are less so. Heroes are usually more complex, such as what's called the "anti-hero", because he or she is often as bad in some ways, as they are good.

The question is begged, however, whether Darth Vader, from Star Wars, for example, was a good person with some bad ideas about things, or a bad, even evil person, who was still essentially a good guy. In this sense, the difference between heroes and villains may be subtle indeed.

All morals in a story should be universal in nature, and not culturally specific. But not always. When it's necessary to use certain morals, such as the ill treatment of women in India, which are outside our American norm, readers must be informed that certain behaviors are acceptable in other countries, or derived from specific religious beliefs.

The maltreatment of women by Muslim men is morally acceptable (for them) because their religion gives them permission to do it. So strong do we cling to moral concepts, that even Muslim women, as just one example, tolerate their own abuse because of how they are raised and what they are taught. Laws are different in the sense that in India, again, prohibitions are being passed making it illegal to burn your wife if her dowry is too small. This despite the fact that from a traditional, religious, and moral viewpoint, murdering the woman in such a way was (and often still is) considered fine and dandy.

As India westernizes its thinking, their morals also change accordingly, thus we see the instigation of policies which outlaw certain acts that were, at one time, considered entirely appropriate. Many examples of this kind of thing exist, and this is just my take on the short and sweet (or bitter) of it all.


People tend to get confused over the difference between morals and ethics. It's easy to do because while related, even synonymous, the two involve grammatical differences, plus ethics are typically tied to business, medical, and legal practices.

If how we think, involves our moral beliefs, then how we behave or act upon those beliefs in the real world involves the practice of ethics. For instance, two doctors might both believe abortion is wrong, morally speaking. But while one doctor performs the procedure on a routine basis, one does not. The doctor who doesn't, considers it unethical to do abortions because it conflicts with his moral beliefs. The other doctor, however, considers that some morals are of greater importance than others; although he is personally opposed to abortion, and discourages it whenever possible, he also feels a moral imperative with respect to what's best for his patients, or in doing what they want or what they think is in their own best interest. When he weighs the options between his two conflicting moral decisions, he chooses what the patient, or the parents of the patient, believe is morally correct for them.

Choosing between two moral conflicts typically involves a third kind of moralistic decision. A personal "code-of-ethics" can help us make these decisions, but they are not always, if ever, easy. Well crafted characters in a novel (or movie) are morally complex and usually ethically conflicted. Thus they make both bad and good decisions accordingly. The doctor who overrides his or her own moral beliefs and makes choices that favor what their patients want for themselves, exercises what are called "situational" ethics. More on that later on.


Trust is my favorite issue and I share a great deal of bitterness with those who have been betrayed in one way or another. I believe that trust -- when we extend it to others -- is given in the absolute belief that recipients share our same morals and ethics. To most people, trust is a sacred commitment and when someone violates that trust, they also breach both our moral principles and the faith we placed in them. That's a form of violence which is -- and ought to be, in most cases -- unforgivable.

There is no small version of trust; it is always a big deal, as well it should be. When I trust in another, even the smallest things take on added importance. And when one violates even the smallest of commitments, it damages the bond of trust between us. Do this often enough and the trust factor is permanently destroyed. Any husband or wife who's been unfaithful and then accepted back by their spouse, can never expect the relationship to be the same as it was. Ever. And no, that's not the voice of experience; it's little more than common sense.

"What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas?" Oh, sure, now that's where you can place your trust with absolute confidence. I think they want you to trust that they'll take your money with no questions asked. Well, they've never let me down yet; I'll give them that much. And have -- more than once. But that's another story and don't ask. Speaking of anecdotal stories....

Although I enjoy anecdotes, the problem with them is that the information in the story is often second-hand, third-hand, or even more. I generally pay close attention to firsthand accounts, accept them for what they are, but rarely tolerate gossip and rumors. Over the years, I've trained myself to be so sensitive to such matters, that I almost never watch TV news anymore. And read only a Sunday newspaper. If that. I do, however, listen to two radio broadcasters -- "talk shows" as they're called -- which is where I get the bulk of my current events coverage. Among these cited examples, I've found that hearing is vastly superior to seeing or reading.

The question is sometimes raised as to whether morals and ethics are, to some extent, inborn and instinctual. Many Christians would have us believe that newborn babies are already plagued by sin and in need of the redemption that Jesus obtained for us. Maybe, though I think it's the adults we need to worry about.

In related fashion, anthropologists and others have pondered whether humans are inherently prone to violence or are more gentle by nature. The prehistorical record is ambiguous on the subject. We certainly know that apes and especially chimpanzees are capable of sudden and unpredictable murder and mayhem. Except for the few children raised by wolves, the history of human behavior, whether young or old, is largely recorded via the concepts of both nature and nurture.

High intelligence in humans is definitely inborn. We have a genetic predisposition to not only learn stuff, but to use language in order to communicate with others of our own species. Skills, however, including knowledge that is cumulative and passed on either verbally or through writing, may be something altogether different. But what about ideas of right and wrong? What we commonly refer to as morals. Are they included in our genetic makeup? Maybe.

The better question is whether ethical behavior is inborn. Remember that ethics refer to actions; they're active, as compared to the more passively abstract philosophies of morality. So were early hominids ethical by their very nature? Chimps and gorillas exhibit a crude form of ethical treatment among their own kind; they know early on the meaning of proper manners, so to speak, including certain disciplines and attitudes which make for congenial ape societies. But compared to humans, such actions are neither moral or ethical. Only humans have refined these twin attributes both for the better, and the worse.

In those cases where people exhibit the worst of what humans can do, whether in the form of sadistic cruelty or expedient necessity, it is likely that the perpetrators possess a sense of their own wrongdoing, but rationize their actions based on any number of psychological factors or pathologies.

On the contrary, when humans demonstrate their propensity for kindness, gentility, self-sacrifice, altruism, and encouragement of others, such faculties -- when gregarious in nature -- were simply enriched and enhanced by the nurturing of like-minded individuals or familial environments. In other words, mentally healthy people. Thus I'd have to say, if asked, that mental health in humans will characteristically manifest as (generic) moral and ethical qualities.

There's an old U.S. Air Force anecdote about a WWII bomber that went down in the arctic, landed, and needed repairs done. When the local Eskimos came around, curious about the strange event, they volunteered to help out. With almost no instruction, it's said that they knew where things went and how they worked. They just knew, because functionality was its own truth. The process is akin, I think, to "reverse engineering" almost any machine or mechanical device.

In a similar manner, I believe that almost all humans are capable of reverse engineering, so to speak, behaviors and attitudes that produce functional, positive results (Right) while discarding others that are counterproductive and negative (Wrong). In other words, steal what isn't yours and get your ass kicked. Evil, in this context, is kicking the ass of someone else for the purpose of stealing what they have -- and what you want. The topic is interesting and I hope you get something from my observations (besides a headache).

The reason so much blood was shed over slavery, throughout the ages, from Spartacus to the American Civil War, is that humans know, instinctively, that we are meant to live free. Just as animals (or humans) struggle to free themselves from inside a cage, so do people reject like confinements, constraints, and other limitations when such are forced upon them. Part of living a moral life is knowing which cages we should accept or tolerate, and which represent tyranny, oppression, or abuse -- both real and figurative -- at the hands of another person.

The idea of owning another human, like property, is an anathema to us at a "gut" level of understanding. So why did we do it, and still do? Hmmm, maybe some people's morals are wanting? During the Civil War, however, these were good Christians fighting other good Christians over the issue. How was it that Southerners didn't share the same revulsion, repugnance, and rejection of slavery as an ultimate evil? Well, many did, while most others did this thing we call "rationalization". Many convinced themselves that negroes were better off under slavery than otherwise. While others believed they were inferior humans. Still others found passages in the Bible that permitted it.

On and on it goes. When the immorality of slavery was taught to children as morally acceptable, it was inculcated as a truth no less veracious than the crucifixion of Christ himself. The inferiority of Blacks was taught in schools (and churches) as a scientific fact. Thus we find that the South and North were operating according to two very different codes of moral conduct and subsequent ethics.

As with the slave ship owner whose personal epiphany freed him from his own metaphorical shackles (where we got the song Amazing Grace), Northerners were not only better educated and enlightened, but what they were promoting -- as an undeniable truth -- blended in much easier with what people already instinctively knew or sensed was wrong. Or contradictory. America's own Declaration of Independence referred to all men as being created equal -- an assertion that had already sewn the seeds of future and inevitable discontent and conflict.

Slavery exists today as it always has, because, among other things, there is financial gain in addition to all else. But whether economic or otherwise, the "bottom line" is still a matter of morals -- either a lack of same or a perverted form of them. Those engaged in human trafficking, many of whom no doubt claim membership in one religion or another, suffer from degrees of schizophrenia that would qualify most for immediate institutionalization. Others are simply evil, for lack of a better description.

Equally vile, however, are those societies, our own politicians included, who sit idle and do little or nothing to erase the scourge of slavery from human civilization. And snuff out the slavers themselves with little or no mercy. Our failure, as a human community, to end this blight once and for all is its own loathsomeness that runs second only to the Holocaust itself.

Principles & Values:

Last but not least by any stretch, these two terms can and do mean many different things, and are used in a variety of ways. The words apply to laws, for example, and to the governing rules of science and nature. They also refer to aspects of right from wrong, i.e. morals and ethics. So why use so many words that all point to the same things?

If one checks a dictionary and looks up morals, they'll find ethics as part of the answer -- if not the whole answer depending on the dictionary. Turn to the word, ethics, and you'll read that they refer to morals. And 'round and 'round she goes. When we search for values and principles, the same kind of mutual back and forth occurs, more or less. The two are great synonyms for use in writing, but I'm convinced that many people get them all rather confused. It would be rare to find someone who could tackle the four terms of morals, ethics, principles, and values, and then define the whole bunch to their own, let alone everyone's satisfaction.

Here's a set of working definitions that might help, or maybe not. Although I'm satisfied with my analysis, this is the first time I've collectivized the entire group and put my results in writing. If not entirely correct, the following is pretty close:

Morals are nothing more than a collection or group of principles, while ethics involve the application of those principles to everyday life. Values relate to the level of importance we place on our principles, and are both common and core in nature. So what does this all mean? Well, I'll be more than happy to tell you.

In order for moral ideas to have a place in the real world, they need to be in the form of principles that delineate how we think and feel about specific issues. If one is morally opposed to abortion, then they would refuse to get one, as a woman. Or condone the same, as a man. And solely as a matter of principle. If one is morally opposed to gay marriage, then they would likely vote against it, legislatively -- on principle. So on and so forth. Libertarians, as a general rule, have relatively few moral principles, for example. Just in number, but not in quality. Conservatives on the other hand, tend to have lots of them.

Principles should not be confused with opinions. While everybody's got opinions on everything, they're not necessarily prepared to act on them and behave accordingly. Principles lead directly to behaviors and actions. Once again, while morals and the principles that comprise them can be very subjective and personal in nature, these private ones are subordinate to the public, generally accepted versions.

While I might think the use of drugs is morally acceptable, and I might use them myself and even argue for their legalization, I also abide by the laws (objective morality) of the government and therefore don't sell them to anybody else, minors especially. I might, however, vote accordingly if and when the issue is on a ballot.

Although I possess one or more principles that form the foundation for why I believe the way I do, or why I profess moral convictions of one form or another, none are more powerful than what we call "core" values.

"Common" values (virtues) are such things as courtesy, politeness, kindness, honesty and so forth. If someone treats us rudely, we may treat them rudely in return. So being courteous is flexible, changeable, depending on the situation. Such actions are sometimes called situational ethics. We discussed these earlier with respect to the two doctors who both believed abortion was wrong, but where one performed them and the other refused to.

As an aside, Conservatives (and Christians) tend to reject situation-ethics because they define the practice according to its most narrow and negative connotations. If viewed solely in such a manner, situational ethics might well describe an individual for whom right and wrong themselves become flexible, interchangeable, volatile and even dangerous. Such an interpretation is itself an illogical and inappropriate distortion of the term. It assumes that one's morals are subject to change, rather than a person acting in accordance with them.

Sometimes no situation, however, is compelling enough to allow for a flexible evaluation of its merits. In such circumstances, no amount of deviation in one's ethical response is considered tolerable, let alone acceptable. Instances of this sort involve our deepest, innermost values.

Core values are immutable, soul-locked, cannot be debated, argued, or discussed if the intent is to change them in some way. They are sacred, sacrosanct, and to be respected at all times. Religion is the best example of a core value, especially when the person is devout or seriously faithful. Some people have no core values, while others have many.

Another example of a core value is the importance of trust. Sound familiar? No amount of argument can change my mind that trust is something we ought to cherish, grant it sparingly, and treasure it when bestowed by others. Most would sooner cut their own wrists than dishonor the trust that someone has placed in us.

Another example might be one's perception of the power of good versus evil. One of my chief core values involves the superiority, in every way, that good lords over evil. No amount of persuasion or discussion will change my mind about this. I don't care if evil appears stronger or victorious, it pales by comparison to the glory of goodness. The idea is a lot deeper and more complex than my meager example, but I think the point is clear enough.

A quick review for those who care:

Morals are composed of principles which are essentially based on concepts of right and wrong. While our personal views of right and wrong might differ a little or a lot, we strive to live (act ethically) by the moral principles established by the society as a whole.

Moral principles manifest themselves in the real world via the role of ethics. Ethics are the active, behavioral demonstrations of our moral beliefs and values. Morals are almost never passive in nature; they actively dictate how we live and steer our lives along. To continue the metaphor, ethics are the vehicle itself.

Values (akin to virtues somewhat) are of two varieties: common and core. Common values (which often involve situational ethics) are flexible and changeable. New ones are often added and old ones deleted simply as we live our lives. Core values, however, are who we really are, way down deep. No amount of pretend or acting can disguise or alter our core values. While common ones are akin to breathing -- sometimes fast, slow, heavy, or shallow -- core values are the air itself. Without strong core values, men and women would rarely, if ever, shed blood for one cause or another. Doing the right thing when no one is looking, is another example of a core value kind of thing.

Core values can only be altered by an epiphany of one sort or another. In this context it's important to understand that a true epiphany is not simply a change in the way we think; indeed it represents a complete revision both in how we view the world and accordingly, how we choose to behave in that world.

All of this verbiage (garbiage?) is detailed here for others only to ruminate over, and the intent is neither to teach or to preach. I don't aspire to be anyone's personal guru, nor do they wish me to, I'm sure. These are just some very interesting ideas that have served me well in the past, and reflect a lot of stuff (and fluff) that I've picked up along my personal journey.

Some would argue that, similar to fishing, one needs to learn when to throw the small ones back. Well, I guess they didn't read my essay on vegetarianism.

And how I'm opposed to fishing.
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