The Importance And Power Of Morality In Decision-Making

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated April 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Morality is subjective. When considering its meaning, some people may consider certain moral principles or religious teachings, like the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments. Others might consider philosophical debates around morality or the history of world leaders who are considered to have acted in moral or immoral ways. You may wonder about the role morality plays in your own life. Do you consider yourself a “moral” person? Does your sense of morality look different from that of your friends? 

Learning more about morality and how it can impact individual and societal decision-making may help you find a clearer sense of right and wrong and how to act according to your values. 

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Grappling with questions about your moral compass?

A brief summary of morality

As a concept, morality has been studied and debated for centuries, and many moral theories out there seek to make sense of how it works. The word “morality” refers to a system of values and principles that inform whether specific actions are considered to be right or wrong. 

Communities often have standards of morality that are encoded into laws, such as laws forbidding fraud, theft, and violence. Individuals may also have moral codes, which can vary depending on various factors. A person’s sense of morality can be shaped by their individual experiences, their relationships and friends, their workplace, any religious tradition they may adhere to, the moral values their family raised them with, their own personal belief system, and the morals in their society and community as a whole.

Morality may seem abstract and philosophical, as “right” and “wrong” are often subjective. However, morality is not purely a theoretical concern. Humans depend on each other as a social species for support and survival.

Having a sense of morality prompts individuals to think about the consequences of their actions, particularly the impact they may have on other people. Restraining harmful impulses with a moral code can help individuals unite as a community. 

Common terms and concepts of morality

An entire branch of philosophy explores the nature of morality and what is right and wrong, often known as moral philosophy or ethics. Suppose you are trying to better understand your sense of morality and how it may translate into your decisions. In that case, it can be helpful to consider some of the common terms and concepts of morality that have been posited, including the following. 

Objective morality

Objective morality describes a universal sense of right and wrong that applies to everybody, i.e., the idea that some actions are just not acceptable no matter what, regardless of individual or cultural belief systems.

Subjective morality

Subjective morality is the idea that morality is defined by individual people and society, with no one true system of morality. In this school of thought, morality itself does not exist without people to encode it into community values and norms.

Moral absolutism

Moral absolutism posits that moral standards are fixed and should not vary by situation or circumstance. As an example, a moral absolutist who believes that killing someone is always wrong would likely not support the death penalty or war. 

Moral relativism

In contrast to moral absolutism, moral relativism posits that there are no absolute or universal moral standards that are true for everyone all the time, but rather that moral standards are culturally defined and can vary based on the individual and culture.

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Morality in decision-making

Morality is often used in decision-making to combine logic and philosophy for the healthiest decisions. 

Moral decision-making refers to decisions regarding moral issues, such as how to act or behave in a particular situation or what might be considered right or wrong. It is a complex process, and some studies suggest that moral decision-making may be informed by two processes. The first is “moral intuition,” involving an emotional process in which an individual evaluates relevant information as right or wrong, and the second is “moral reasoning,” involving reasoning and analyses of the potential outcomes of the decision.

Various theories of moral decision-making and development come from different fields, such as developmental psychology and social neuroscience. These include Piaget’s theory of moral development, which can be seen as a cognitive-developmental theory, and the dual-process theory, which comes from social neuroscience. 

The relationship between power and morality

Another factor to consider when exploring morality in decision-making is the role of power. Some people may have a negative association between morality and power, believing power is inherently linked to corruption and encourages people to act immorally. A research paper in the scientific journal Current Opinion in Psychology proposes power and morality do interact, but not necessarily in the way many may think. 

The researchers suggest that power can either “morally corrupt or morally elevate” people and can have an effect through two main processes. First, power can trigger “behavioral disinhibition,” and second, power can lead people to focus more on themselves. The researchers suggest that power can result in positive and negative behaviors. Because people in power typically see fewer consequences for their actions, they may start to behave precisely the way they want to, regardless of other people’s perceptions—so the relationship between power and morality may have more to do with a person’s innate immoral and moral impulses. 

Having power could, in some cases, morally elevate individuals, depending on whether they are personally inclined to more moral behavior. People with power may also be more likely to act in their self-interest, which may or may not result in immorality. Outcomes can depend on the situation and whether morality or immorality could result in positive benefits for the person in power. More research may be beneficial to understand better how power and morality interact. Still, this research paper suggests that the process can be complex and that power does not necessarily undermine morality.

Understanding your moral compass

Making decisions and taking actions that align with your sense of right and wrong can be a crucial part of feeling positive towards yourself, as it can help you see that you are acting according to your values. For instance, some research has shown that one’s moral self-image may be positively related to self-esteem—in other words, feeling more positively towards one’s morality may be associated with higher self-esteem. However, more research can be beneficial in drawing firmer conclusions.

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Grappling with questions about your moral compass?

Support options 

If you are grappling with complex questions about your sense of right and wrong, it could be beneficial to talk to a therapist. Therapy can help you reflect on how your sense of morality may impact your decision-making. 

Talking about your sense of morality to someone else can seem intimidating. It can be vulnerable to dissect such an intimate belief system, especially because it can often be tied to other highly personal views on sensitive topics. Accessing online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may help you become more comfortable with opening up about your views on morality to a counselor, as you can attend sessions from wherever you have the internet and feel the most at ease, including the comfort of your home.  

Research has shown that online therapy can be effective for a range of mental health conditions and concerns. One such study examined the effectiveness of online therapy for self-esteem and empowerment—concerns that may be relevant for those grappling with moral questions, self-image, and their ability to take specific actions. The study found that after receiving the online intervention, “immediate improvements were shown in participants' self-esteem and empowerment relative to control participants.” 

Takeaway

Morality can be a complex concept, and many theories and ideas surround morality and what constitutes right and wrong. Exploring what morality means to you can help you make decisions that align with your values, but it can often be challenging to do this reflection on your own. If you want support in dissecting your views on right and wrong and how your sense of morality impacts your life, talking with a therapist can be a productive way to start.
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