Interpreting What It Means To Be Morally Right: A Guide To Ethical Behavior

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The debate over morally right actions typically focuses on ethics, which involves figuring out whether certain actions are right or wrong. The study of ethics often investigates questions like how we should live our lives, how to be happy, what knowledge is, and what being virtuous means.

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Individuals may face considerations about morally right decisions in their personal and professional lives. They may have to think about how their actions might affect other people. Making a decision might involve adhering to a certain set of moral values or principles and trying to make well-thought-out decisions. Read on to explore the concept of morally right actions and their importance in various contexts.

What does it mean to be morally right?

So, what does it mean when we say something is "morally right"? This phrase points to actions, beliefs, or decisions that match moral principles and are considered morally good. This involves discerning the difference between what's right and wrong–a process guided by values that may show us how to act in society.

Brief history of morals

Morals have always played a key role in how human societies function, influencing how people treat each other and make choices. The earliest human communities came up with moral rules to guide behavior and keep the peace, often rooted in religious beliefs or cultural customs.

Going back to ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome, philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle focused on talking about morality and ethics. They explored how people should behave to be happy and contribute to a healthy society. These ideas were later added to by religious teachings from major faiths like Christianity and Islam, which laid down moral principles for their followers to live by.

The Enlightenment, which began in the late 17th century, saw philosophers like Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill come up with fresh ideas on morality. They put a spotlight on logic and individual rights as the foundation for moral actions. This marked a turning point toward a secular approach to morality that was based on human values instead of religious commandments.

Examples of morals

Morals may vary between cultures and individuals, but some fundamental moral principles are often considered universally applicable. Some common examples may include:

  • Honesty: Telling the truth and being transparent about one's actions, even when challenging or uncomfortable
  • Integrity: Acting in accordance with one's beliefs, even when no one is watching
  • Respect: Treating others with dignity and valuing their perspectives, regardless of differences in background, opinions, or beliefs
  • Compassion: Showing empathy and understanding towards others, especially those in need or experiencing hardship
  • Responsibility: Taking ownership of one's actions and decisions, seeking to learn from mistakes, and rectifying any harm caused
  • Fidelity: Being loyal and committed to family or friends and maintaining trust in relationships

Factors influencing moral judgment

Moral judgment is the mechanism we use to figure out what's morally right and wrong. Several factors can shape a person's moral judgment, including how they were brought up, their environment, the situations they find themselves in, and the tough choices they face.

Upbringing and environment

How a person is raised may influence their moral judgment. Family setting, cultural norms and values, and different experiences may all help to build up a person's moral principles. For example, parents can teach their kids about right and wrong, which may help them become honest, thoughtful, and understanding individuals. 

The environment may also help shape moral judgment through reinforcement and consequences, which can discourage or push certain moral behaviors. For instance, a child who sees someone getting punished after lying might better understand why honesty is important and include this in their own moral beliefs. Society and culture also have an influence on a person's moral character, as different societies and cultures prioritize different values and ethical norms.

Situations and dilemmas

We often lean on our moral principles to help us decide what to do in complex or challenging circumstances. Sometimes, certain situations make us rethink our moral judgments to resolve a certain dilemma. In these cases, we may have to look closely at our moral beliefs and think about what's best for everyone.

Imagine you're faced with a moral dilemma where you must choose between helping your loved ones or the greater good of society. This might involve balancing different ethical perspectives–including personal values, societal values, and philosophical principles–to figure out what action may be morally justified. How a person handles these moral dilemmas may reflect their pre-existing moral beliefs.

Potential critiques and limitations

When we talk about morally right actions, we often must consider the possibilities of criticisms and limitations. Let’s look at some of these challenges, specifically focusing on the idea of moral relativism and the biases we might not realize we have.

Moral relativism

Moral relativism is a viewpoint that claims morality is subjective and can change based on the culture or society. This challenges the idea that there is an objective standard for deciding what's morally right or wrong. 

One potential way to manage moral relativism is to find common moral principles across different societies. There might still be disagreements and debates, and finding universally shared values might not be possible given the wide range of cultural, religious, and social influences on moral beliefs.

Inherent biases

Inherent biases, including cognitive and social biases, may also affect how we decide what's morally right. For example, confirmation bias might make someone look for information that supports their existing beliefs. Groupthink, which happens when group members go along with the group's opinions and decisions, can also lead to biased moral judgments because of the push for agreement.

Some ways to fight these biases may include self-reflection, having diverse and critical conversations, and seeking out different viewpoints. However, completely removing inherent biases may be challenging since they're deeply embedded in human psychology and social constructs.

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Applying being morally right to everyday life

There are several strategies to potentially help us make morally right decisions in our daily lives. By understanding virtuous conduct, we might be able to improve our overall process of making moral decisions. Consider these examples for ways to incorporate moral principles into your everyday life.

Honesty and transparency

Being honest and open may be important to you when interacting with others. This means always telling the truth, even when it might lead to awkward situations. By acting with integrity, you can adhere to your moral values and gain the trust of the people around you. Being dishonest can have long-lasting effects on relationships and your reputation.

Fairness and equality

You may value treating everyone with fair and equal consideration, regardless of their background or personal beliefs. This involves making sure everyone has the same opportunities and resources and making decisions in an unbiased way. When you encourage fairness and equality, you often start to break down prejudices and work toward a more just society.

Empathy and compassion

Showing empathy and compassion can help us understand how other people feel. By actively listening and showing that you care about others' well-being, you can show that you value the people around you. This can lead to better communication, stronger connections, and a more positive environment.

Personal responsibility and accountability

Taking personal responsibility involves being accountable for your actions and understanding how they might affect others. If you make a mistake, you can own up to it and learn from it to avoid doing the same thing in the future. Holding yourself accountable may help you consistently improve your moral behavior and contribute to a more responsible community.

Online therapy may improve understanding of morals

Online therapy may be a useful tool for those seeking to better understand their moral principles and tackle morally challenging situations. As a convenient and accessible option, online therapy may offer expertise and guidance at your convenience, allowing you to reflect on your values and moral choices. Many logistical challenges present with in-person therapy, such as childcare expenses and encountering unfamiliar territory, may be eliminated with virtual counseling.

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Moral counseling methods have been developed and shown to be effective in helping individuals navigate moral problems. Therapists may be able to conduct moral counseling online to help individuals sort through any moral decisions they have to make.

Over time, the efficacy of online therapy relative to traditional, in-person therapy has been studied numerous times. One such study concluded that cognitive behavioral therapy, a common intervention for depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental illnesses, is just as effective when delivered virtually.

Takeaway

When we have to make a tough choice, it may help to use a step-by-step process for ethical decision-making. This involves thinking about ideas like moral rights (what we should be allowed to do), obligations (what we should do), and rules. We might look at the potential effects of our actions, and then make decisions that match up with our personal beliefs about right and wrong. A solid understanding of ethics may help us face life's challenges while staying true to who we are.
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