Do You Know How To Act Morally? Advice To Lead An Ethical Life

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Everyone encounters situations where the line between “right” and “wrong” becomes blurry. Most people strive to make “right” or “good” choices, but interpretations of what that means vary from person to person, situation to situation, and culture to culture. Humanity has debated moral questions for thousands of years, and many ethical questions remain with unresolved or unsatisfying conclusions.

It can sometimes be challenging to find practical, useful guidance on how to be a more morally guided person. Today, researchers in fields like moral psychology and moral sociology conduct scientific studies that attempt to add a greater degree of certainty about what morals are, how a person can act ethically, and how individual and societal morals differ.

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Are ethics and morals the same thing?

Many use the terms ethics and morals interchangeably. And though they are closely related concepts, they are not the same. Moral principles are subjective values, rules, or guiding doctrines that shape the behavior of an individual. The term ethics is broader and refers to the practical application of morals within a community; it is the discussion of how morality should be exercised in the face of complex problems.

Think of morals as individual factors that shape a person's behavior. In contrast, ethics are standardized rules that define “good” or “bad” by and for a particular community.

Take the medical community, for example. Medicine is full of ethical dilemmas, and medical ethics are heavily discussed and debated. Despite the complexities of various situations, the medical community relies on four core ethical principles when making decisions:

  • Beneficence: A medical professional should do their best to help and benefit a patient.
  • Nonmaleficence: A medical professional should never intentionally harm a patient.
  • Autonomy: When possible, a patient should be directly involved in their medical care and be able to make informed decisions freely.
  • Justice: Medical resources must be fairly allocated.

One of society's most comprehensive examples of ethics is how the medical community applies and adheres to its core principles. The “Code of Medical Ethics” (CME), published by the American Medical Association, is designed to help physicians make informed ethical decisions regarding their practice. 

The CME is used to guide professional decision-making, but it says little about morality. One could argue that an ethical medical professional always tries to make moral decisions, but that does not always mean they can. One could further say that an intentionally unethical medical professional is morally “bad,” but that is a personal evaluation that may change based on the individual who is asked.

Does morality have any absolutes?

One of the oldest philosophical debates, which remains unresolved today, is the debate about the existence of moral absolutes. Moral absolutes are moral codes that can be universally applied: Everyone’s actions can be judged through the same lens, and there are no subjective elements. 

Moral absolutism states that some actions are intrinsically evil and that intrinsically evil acts can never be justified. Many who adopt this theory link the tendency for basic human good to absolutist morals.

In contrast to moral absolutism, moral relativism is the idea that morality is based on context and that morals can change based on the circumstances. This can be especially relevant when comparing the global East to the global West, for example — “good” morals can change significantly at the cultural, community, and individual levels. 

Many modern philosophers believe that moral relativism is a cultural axiom, but how strongly a person considers a moral to be absolute will vary from person to person. In most cases, an objective act can be framed as distinctly “good” or “bad,” but this label is ultimately contingent on the observer’s moral perspective. 

Many people turn to religious resources to guide them in leading a more ethical life. Major religions often feature written wisdom that can be useful when considering morals. Catholicism, for example, offers several written resources designed to bring the reader’s thoughts, feelings, and actions in line with Catholic-defined morality. These resources are meant to steer the reader toward “more moral” decisions according to the teachings of the church.

In the past, many people considered religious faith a prerequisite to morality. While many religions stress the importance of moral behavior, living morally and ethically without religion is possible.

While many people still turn to religion for moral guidance, religion is not a necessary component of morality. In other words, a person does not need to be religious to act morally. However, this idea remains a hotly debated topic.

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How does a person live morally?

While religion is one way to develop a stronger sense of moral direction, it is not the only method. There is not one set of morals that works for everyone, and each person will need to develop their own moral code and standards that align with their beliefs. While it is not possible to list every moral you can or “should” possibly adopt, increasing empathy and prosocial behavior will likely boost your positive thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Fostering empathy

A popular theory surrounding morality suggests that human morals developed very early in human prehistory. Researchers postulate that morals developed to ensure cooperation between early humans, making empathy a significant component of morality. Such acts of empathy allowed humans to work together and achieve more than they could alone.

Morals and empathy are also strongly correlated with prosocial behavior, or actions that benefit others. There is considerable overlap between common prosocial behaviors and what comprises a “good” moral act. Helping neighbors, supporting friends and family, or sharing resources are all examples of prosocial behavior.

To improve your empathizing skills, you might try adopting these six core habits of highly empathetic people:

  1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers. Spend time talking to people outside your social circle and try to find things to politely inquire about.
  2. Challenge prejudices. The large majority of people holds some preconceived notions, “good” or “bad,” about other groups. Identify your prejudices, challenge them, and look for common factors between you and the other person or group.
  3. Join others in new experiences. One type of empathy, experiential empathy, can be particularly powerful. Try new experiences that take you outside of your comfort zone and provide insight into another person’s life.
  4. Develop your communication skills.Improving your communication is one of the best ways to encourage empathetic connections.
  5. Inspire community action and social change. Do not just focus on empathizing with other individuals; get involved in your community and look for ways to help those actions align with your moral code.
  6. Empathize with your enemies. One of the most crucial skills of empathizing is seeing beyond the negative features of those you dislike. Put conscious effort into looking at things from the perspective of someone you do not particularly like.

You can often increase prosocial behavior with deliberate practice. In one study, researchers designed an intervention that promotes prosocial behavior, and they found that participants who consistently put conscious effort into increasing their prosocial behaviors were likely to retain their new prosocial habits after just 10 days.

Think about what morals are especially important to you. What goes above and beyond your version of what is morally good? If you take time to understand your moral code, you will likely be able to take more conscious control of your actions and empathy. As you continue your journey to increase your moral responsibility, you will likely discover new habits and thought processes that are aligned with your moral code.

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Trying to lead a more moral life?

How can an online therapist help?

Online therapy is becoming increasingly popular as a convenient way to get help from a licensed therapist. A therapist may help you sort through ethical dilemmas and help you reach meaningful conclusions about your morality. They can also help with many other mental health challenges, such as anxiety or low self-esteem.

Online therapists have the same training and credentials as other therapists and use the same evidence-based techniques. Visiting a therapist online can remove many barriers people encounter. For instance, you might not have to deal with transportation costs, take time off work, or arrange childcare. Even though therapy is delivered remotely, evidence indicates it is just as effective for many mental health conditions.

Takeaway

Morality is flexible and can change between cultures, communities, and individuals. Take time to define your moral code and examine your values. When exploring how to apply your morals practically, think rationally and consider applying ethical principles to your moral problem. There are no one-size-fits-all guides to being more ethical, but some texts exist to guide your morals within a specific ethical context. 

Living ethically can be challenging, and no one is at their best every day. If you want to become more moral in a general sense, you will likely make significant strides by increasing your empathy and engaging in more behaviors that support friends, family, and your community. Online therapy is an effective support in such endeavors.

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