Finding A Definition Of Morality That Works For You

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Each person may have their own definition of what morality means to them. While different definitions of morality may have some aspects in common, they often vary in views about behaviors, desires, and emotions. Because morality is subjective, it may be best understood through your own experiences. Learning to define right and wrong for yourself may help you make decisions, form bonds with others, and pursue goals that make sense to you.

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What is morality?

Morality is the code of conduct an individual accepts as a guide for their behavior. The pieces of a person's moral code may come from the society around them, religious groups, family, and personal experiences. One type of morality is objective morality. This form of morality posits that right and wrong are the same regardless of who you are and your opinions. The opposite of this viewpoint is subjective morality, which states that morals can vary from person to person.

Still, it may be challenging to produce a single definition of morality that can apply to all people and contexts, especially because it is subjective. What morality means and what it should look like has long been debated by philosophers, religious thinkers, and others throughout history. 

Despite disagreement over what morality should mean, some principles may be embedded into a wide range of moral guidelines. For example, honesty, kindness, and selflessness, among other examples, are commonly included in individual and societal moral codes because they help humans connect. Some parts of morality may motivate individuals to consider the needs of others or the consequences of actions, which can be a critical skill for a social species like humanity. 

Understanding theories about morality may help you find a version that makes sense to you, which can be a crucial part of discovering who you are. It may also help you empower yourself to make healthy decisions, stand up for others, and find your place in your community.

Different views on morality

How individuals consider morality may stem from questions about themselves and the world around them. Before distinguishing the individual facets of your morality, such as what you view as right and wrong, it can help to get a feel for the "why" behind these thoughts. Below are a few examples of theories that may demonstrate the significance of the underlying foundation of one's moral code. 

Descriptive vs. normative

Philosophers and moral theorists have two primary schools of thought to help individuals understand morality: descriptive and normative ethics.

The former discusses morality through the lens of specific cultural or societal values that can shape beliefs about right and wrong. Instead of considering the proper or correct version of moral behavior, normative ethics seek to understand what people think is moral. From there, it may be possible to determine the "best" way to live life. 

Another way of thinking about morality is through normative ethics, which focuses on making specific recommendations for how people "should" act to be considered moral. This thinking may consider different moral principles and analyze their impacts on society, individuals, and groups to determine which behaviors take precedence. However, basing your thoughts on which outcomes are best for humanity can still depend on your definition of "best."

Absolute morality

Your moral standards are fixed and inflexible if you are a moral absolutist. You may operate by a set of laws or principles you do not alter to fit the situation. This moral philosophy views moral behavior as objective and inherent, not subject to individual thought or change.

Because this view tends to locate morality outside humans' control, absolute morality is often prevalent in religious texts and schools of thought. In this case, the definition of morality may not be tied to humanity but from divine guidelines or inspiration.

Though religion may often use absolute morality, it's not the only reason a person might subscribe to this type of philosophy. A clearly defined and unchanging moral code can offer a framework for decision-making that transcends emotional changes or the opinions of others. 

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Universal morality

The universal morality view is similar to absolute morality but less extreme. Moral universalists often believe that all humans have a set of morals that transcend cultural or societal groups. This set of morals can include basic social behavior tenets, like honesty and resistance to harming others. According to universal morality, morals exist as part of human nature rather than having an ethical code imposed by law or religion. It posits that everyone has an innate moral system that can be discovered through reasoning.

If you are a moral universalist, you might say that performing "random acts of kindness" or "paying it forward" is part of one's moral obligation as a human. Like moral absolutism, universal morality may offer the advantage of creating a clear code of ethics that can stay afloat in various contexts or situations. It is also not as rigid as moral absolutism, offering the opportunity to consider the emotions or individual situations of others.

However, there may be drawbacks to this view. Viewing human nature as the authority on moral behavior can be challenging when each person's "human nature" can look different. What is "natural" can be subjective because differences in background, culture, and personal experiences can shape a person's understanding of the world. In addition, the individuals who created the idea of universalist morality may have been biased in their interpretation of what it means based on their unique upbringing and culture.  

Relative morality

Relative moral philosophy suggests no absolute or universal moral code of ethics exists. Instead, one's definition of morality may be solely based on personal circumstances such as culture, community, and upbringing.

According to a moral relativist, a particular action is only "wrong" if it explicitly violates the religious or social code of ethics of the group you identify with. The basis of moral behavior can be as individual as you and can be subject to change or growth as you navigate different communities throughout life. 

A benefit of moral relativity may be its flexibility. A relativist code of ethics can allow you to preserve what feels right and keep your morality intact because it can be easily adapted to situations. However, a potential drawback to moral relativity can be its lack of clarity on specific issues. 

At its most extreme, relativism may risk dissolving all notions of morality entirely by suggesting that no "right" or a "wrong" applies to everyone. For instance, are members of a group that views violence as a necessary means to achieve its goals acting morally by harming others? Questions like these can be challenging to answer, but they may be valuable in discovering what morality means to you. 

What else shapes morality? 

In addition to the basis of one's moral code, environmental and social influences can shift the way you see right and wrong. Your community can have a significant role in defining morality. To illustrate this observation, scientists have researched how conformity can lead humans to behave in ways that conflict with their morality

For instance, soldiers during World War II became more comfortable committing acts of violence because of conformity with their "band of brothers" or other soldiers. This research has been used to explain how mass conformity can lead to significant and devastating changes in moral behavior, including imposing significant amounts of harm and death onto others. 

The people surrounding you may be as influential on your sense of morality as you are. Because morality can be thought of as an adaptation meant to facilitate social connection and community, it can make sense that humans adapt to fit their surroundings. However, it can also mean that discovering what morality means to you may include questioning your assumptions and conclusions due to your background and relationships with others. 

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Finding moral support 

In moral philosophy, there may not be one "best" answer or line of thought. Instead, how you define morality can be shaped to fit what seems right to you. However, in some cases, it may be difficult to ask yourself questions about morality without guidance. It may be more challenging if you've experienced events that have made you question your moral code or that of others. In these cases, talking to a therapist may be beneficial. 

If you have avoided therapy due to in-person barriers, online therapy platforms like BetterHelp may be a convenient option. Because you can connect with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your home, you don't have to commute to an appointment or pay for gas or parking. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions and connect with group webinars or support groups. 

Pursuing online therapy may be effective, too. One study focused on digital cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) found it could be an equally or more effective method for treating mental health symptoms, particularly those tied to depression. The same study also found that online therapy was more cost-effective for clients than traditional options.

Takeaway

Finding a version of morality that helps you understand your behavior and that of others may be challenging. However, understanding morality can help you build a code to live by that is authentic to you. Being in touch with your moral code may help you make decisions, develop relationships, and pursue goals that make you fulfilled and content. If you struggle with this process, consider contacting a licensed therapist for further guidance and support.
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