Morality Vs. Ethics: A Guide To Ethical Decision-Making

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

While you may have been taught your parents’ definitions of “right and wrong” as children, morality can sometimes seem blurred. Complex moral and ethical questions have been at the heart of politics, philosophy, and religion since the beginning of civilization. If you’ve ever encountered a situation that involved a trade-off or seemed like a lose-lose situation, you might understand how challenging these dilemmas can be. In these scenarios, examining your morals, values, and the ethical implications of your actions may be valuable. 

To prepare for ethical decision-making, it can be essential to learn how to differentiate between morals and ethics, explore the nature of making a sound ethical decision, and know how to make choices that align with your moral compass. By examining the nature of ethics and morals, you may better understand how to problem-solve, navigate complex situations, create your own personal code of conduct, and make choices that stand up to internal and external scrutiny.

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Should I follow my morals or ethics?

Ethics vs. morals: What is the difference between morality and ethics?

While the word “morals” and the word “ethics” are often used interchangeably, and both concepts may involve differentiating between right and wrong, they describe two distinct approaches to decision-making. 

In many cases, morals refer to personal beliefs about right and wrong. Moral values can be guiding principles and are often informed by culture, faith, and upbringing. Consciously or unconsciously, individuals may make decisions based on these belief systems. In some cases, conflict arises due to differences in individual moral philosophies or principles. 

Ethics are a systematic process for assessing the rightness or wrongness of an action or situation. An ethical code may draw upon philosophical ideas, often aligning with the moral principles of belief systems worldwide. However, ethics are distinct from morality, as they aim to help individuals and professional organizations make unbiased decisions that maximize human well-being.

Understanding ethical frameworks

Ethical decision-making often involves assessing a problem or dilemma through various philosophical lenses. For example, you may consider the relative damage caused by one action or choose the healthiest behavior for yourself, your loved ones, and society. 

Ethical standards and considerations may sometimes conflict, making it difficult to establish the healthiest path. However, understanding ethical frameworks may help you develop a more nuanced, balanced, and informed perspective, allowing you to navigate dilemmas with more empathy and clarity.

Harm vs. benefit

Utilitarianism refers to a school of philosophical thought that seeks to maximize the welfare of the most significant number of people. A utilitarian decision is the one that causes the least harm. It is often demonstrated by the famous trolley problem, a thought experiment examining the nature of a decision to sacrifice one person to save a group of people. When making an ethical decision, it may be worth considering how many people will be impacted and to what degree.

Human rights

Another facet of ethical decision-making is the concept of human rights and individual rights. A rights-based approach involves considering the inherent value of human life and dignity. These types of decisions can be challenging when peoples’ fundamental rights are at odds with one another. For example, an ethical question about self-defense may mean weighing one person’s right to defend oneself from harm versus another’s right to safety.

Justice

Philosophical considerations about justice involve ideas about equity, equality, and fairness. Answering ethical questions about justice may involve examining the nature of human dignity. For example, ethics may dictate that a person who has been harmed is entitled to compensation or reparation. Justice relies on impartiality and non-discrimination, often taking the form of specific rules or laws.  In some cases, justice can help individuals better understand how to make sound decisions about situations involving groups of people.

Ethics in society

When making ethical determinations about societal problems, it may be worth considering which path best serves the common good. For example, businesses may have an ethical duty to safeguard consumers, employees, or the environment. These questions can also relate to the individual’s personal social system and relationships to society at large. For example, a person may believe they have an ethical duty to avoid littering to safeguard the environment.

Virtue

Virtue involves character, moral righteousness, and one’s duty to oneself and others. Virtuosity is rooted in the idea that people should adhere to a moral code, strive toward their full potential, and live in ways that maximize happiness and contentment for themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. A virtuous person may practice honesty, wisdom, courage, compassion, and empathy, acting in ways that promote self-growth, positive relationships, and personal fulfillment. 

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Care

In addition to ethical duties to oneself and one’s society, it may be beneficial to consider one’s care for others. Humans depend on networks of loved ones, neighbors, and strangers for well-being, so some believe there is an innate responsibility to ensure others are cared for. For example, a person may believe they have an obligation to look after a child or elder who cannot help themselves, or a company may have an ethical duty to ensure the well-being of its workers.

How to make an ethical decision

Ethical decision-making often involves wrestling with difficult questions. There may be times when competing beliefs, interests, and information complicate the decision-making process or when moral and ethical questions cause individuals to challenge their beliefs. Considering the diversity of information, possible perspectives, solutions, and outcomes, it may be worth taking a practical approach in these situations. Below are a few steps to keep in mind when trying to get a sense of what decisions are ethically sound.

Identify the problem

When you face an ethical dilemma, identify and examine your problem. In some scenarios, the problem may be obvious, while identifying its root cause may take consideration in others. You can use the Five Whys method to reveal the nature of the ethical question you are facing. This method involves asking yourself “why” five times to come to a conclusion about your initial problem-solving hypotheses.

Gather information

Healthy decision-making may require knowledge and evidence. Remain open-minded as you seek to build a strong foundation of information to base your decision on. Consult different people and resources to help you gain a well-rounded understanding of the circumstances surrounding the challenge. 

Weigh possible options

With a more profound understanding, you may begin to weigh possible decisions against one another, evaluating each option through various ethical lenses. Try to anticipate any potential challenges that may arise, considering all possible outcomes. 

Evaluate your decision

Before making a choice, critically evaluate your prospective decision. Be realistic about whether your decision aligns with moral standards and ethical principles, reflecting on the short- and long-term consequences for yourself and others. It may be helpful to consider how others might scrutinize your choice. 

Finalize your decision

Once you have determined the best course of action, plan how you will implement your decision. Aim to do so in a way that is respectful of others, especially if your decision negatively impacts them. Consider how you will communicate, address concerns, provide support, and ensure transparency and compassion for all involved.

Should I follow my morals or ethics?

Understand your personal moral philosophy and improve your decision-making skills in therapy

Grappling with moral and ethical predicaments can be complicated and often involves developing one’s decision-making skills. As you work through the ethical decision-making process, you may confront further questions about right and wrong.

It may be worth consulting with a therapist or counselor for tough decisions and ethical dilemmas. A professional can offer a neutral perspective and guide you toward a decision that you are proud of. Many therapists are trained in ethics and can provide strategies for navigating complex situations. Recent research has found therapy beneficial for around 75% of those who attend, and it may be effective in as little as six sessions. 

If you face barriers to in-person therapy, you might also consider online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. Online therapy offers an affordable way to connect with a therapist from home, which may be preferable for individuals who don’t have time to commute to an appointment. In addition, online therapy has been proven as effective as in-person therapy

Takeaway

Navigating complex ethical dilemmas often involves examining the nature of right and wrong, as well as one’s own moral compass. It may be possible to examine ethical questions through several frameworks, including human and animal well-being, justice and equity, civil and human rights, personal virtue, and duty of care. 

You may also adopt a systematic approach to decision-making that prioritizes knowledge, wisdom, impartiality, and compassion. If you struggle with moral or ethical conundrums on a personal level, consider connecting with a therapist for further guidance and perspective.

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