What’s Right Or Wrong? Knowing What Moral Principles To Value In Your Life

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated March 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

For thousands of years, humanity has found it challenging to define morals and ethics. People often agree on core morals but may disagree over situations in which those morals are applied. For example, most cultures agree that intentionally ending another person's life is immoral behavior, but almost every culture tends to make an exception for war. While certain individuals may loathe the thought of taking a life, society often recognizes certain situations where it can be acceptable to violate that moral code. 

For many, morals tend to be balanced between an individual's morals and those dictated by society. 

Experiencing a moral dilemma?

What’s the difference between morals and ethics?

Morals are typically the rules that guide society, but they may not always be applied universally. The philosophical field of thought that examines absolute moral principles, or moral codes by which all peoples’ actions may be judged, may be called moral absolutism and is usually heavily debated.

The contrasting philosophy, moral relativism, typically asserts the opposite. It can help to know the difference between the two when deciding which moral principles to value. 

Relativism may refer to the idea that morals are contextual and shaped by cultural factors. Relative moral codes are often flexible and can be interpreted differently in various situations. Morals can vary from culture to culture, and individuals within that culture may interpret moral rules differently than other members from the same culture. 

Most modern philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists seem to believe that relative moral codes are the norm for most individuals. However, some researchers still debate whether there are underlying "core" moral codes, rooted in human nature, upon which cultures, groups, and individuals may build relative morals. 

The term "ethics" is often used interchangeably with "morals". While the two are related, they are slightly different concepts. The empirical investigation of morals–the study of what is objectively right and wrong–is what is generally referred to as ethics. Confusion tends to arise when discussing the term "moral philosophy," which may be synonymous with "ethics" but is not the same as "morals". 

Applying ethics to moral questions

Colloquially, many people think of morals as personal and pertaining mainly to an individual, while ethics may be viewed as standards of "good and bad" defined by a particular community. Take the medical community, for example, which is deeply involved in ethical discussions and debates. The core ethical principles of medicine are: 

  • Beneficence: actions of a medical professional should intend to benefit the patient.
  • Non-Maleficence: medical professionals should not harm their patients.
  • Autonomy: the patient should be involved in their care and allowed to make informed decisions when possible.
  • Justice: medical professionals should prioritize patients fairly regarding available resources.

These principles might seem unmoving and equally applicable to every person—a nod to moral absolutism—but ethical concerns may arise when encountering specific situations. Consider the case of a patient who needs a heart transplant. Donor hearts are often rare, and there may be no guarantee that the patient will receive one. How would this patient's medical team apply the core ethical principles of medicine to ensure they make moral decisions for the patient's life? 

The modern approach to ethical organ allocation–the process by which donor organs are assigned to patients in need–is usually a team decision. By assembling a multidisciplinary team of medical professionals, transplant teams aim to reduce bias and ensure that as many relevant factors as possible are considered. 

In the case of organ transplants, the core principles of beneficence, non-maleficence, and autonomy tend to be relatively straightforward. The medical team typically wants to benefit the patient by performing the transplant, and the patient has likely been able to make an informed decision about receiving a donor organ. 

The ethical principle of justice typically presents the biggest challenge. To make a just decision, the transplant team likely must consider the resources at their disposal and decide how to best allocate them. The scarcest resource is usually a donor's heart, and transplant teams are often tasked with selecting the most eligible recipient. 

The medical team tends to decide based on predetermined guidelines, which experts in medical ethics developed. The goal of the transplant team is usually to balance the ethical imperatives placed upon them with the resources available. While choosing to give one patient a heart over another may seem like it violates the principles of beneficence and non-maleficence, the justice principle often takes precedence when faced with scarce resources. 

Ethical decisions in high-stakes circumstances, like organ transplants, may require analyzing the nuances of highly complex situations. However, doctors often adhere to core moral values during these situations by applying ethical guidelines. While it may seem that certain ethical imperatives like "do no harm" are straightforward absolutes, the situation's nuances can sometimes turn an absolute moral into a relative one. 

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Are there any absolute morals?

The medical field might be an excellent example of how ethics can be applied to solve difficult moral questions. However, the answers to those questions may not align with what we consider true. A person's morals often differ from social morality or what society deems the correct response to various moral questions. A person's true self may follow a very different moral code than their peers. While evidence suggests that modern morals tend to be relative based on cultural and individual factors, there may be some evidence for moral codes that likely exist in all societies. 

A group of researchers investigated moral development from an evolutionary perspective to possibly find evidence of universal codes that were morally right and morally wrong. They hypothesized that modern moral codes likely developed from the need for cooperation between early humans, leading to the development of "morally good" character traits. They tested this idea by comparing the moral codes of 60 different cultures to see if known behaviors of cooperation were considered morally good. Their study found seven moral rules that may be universal in every culture: 

Family loyalty

Each culture the research team studied placed a high moral value on caring for family, specifically genetic relatives. Researchers theorized that this likely evolved to help ensure that genes unique to the family, rather than the individual, had a higher chance of being passed down. 

Group loyalty

Putting others above one's own needs is typically viewed as morally good by many cultures. Working together, building friendships, and developing social communities likely helped early humans manage challenges faster and more efficiently than they otherwise could have. 

Social reciprocity

Early human societies were likely vulnerable to "free riders" who didn't contribute effort to the process but still received benefits from the fruits of cooperation. Reciprocity likely became an important moral code to help ensure that individuals didn't drain the resources of society by taking without returning something of value. 

Heroic dominance

Societies tend to value heroic virtues like bravery, fortitude, skill, and self-control. This moral value probably evolved as different societies sought to protect their resources against other humans or challenges in nature. 

Dovish submission

In contrast to heroic virtues, societies also often value monkish virtues, like humility, deference, and obedience. Obedience tends to be considered particularly important in many cultures' approaches to child-rearing. For adults and children, respecting superiors is also often considered important. 


Every culture the researchers studied seemed to consider fairness morally good. Rules of division, such as "I cut, you choose," are present in many cultures and have likely been used to divide resources fairly since ancient times. 


In most cultures, disputes over resources can often be resolved by recognizing prior possession. The idea of owning property and individual resources can be found in most societies, and respecting the property of another is likely a universal moral. 

What is right or wrong?

The above study may provide strong evidence for the existence of absolute moral codes that arise from human nature, not culture. The morals identified by the researchers are typically broad, and it may not be clear how they apply in various circumstances or to a particular individual's identity. However, when deciding right from wrong, the seven morals might offer a guideline for consideration. 

If a person is faced with an ethical challenge, they might consider reconciling the seven morals discussed above with their individual morals. Fairness, for example, is typically a universal moral, but different people tend to interpret what is fair differently. Ultimately, deciding right or wrong may be a personal decision that belongs to the individual. Still, understanding society's underlying moral codes may help guide good decision-making and make it easier to make ethical choices.  

Experiencing a moral dilemma?

How can online therapy help?

Online therapy can be an effective way to sort through challenges, including ethical questions and moral dilemmas. A therapist can help you reconcile your personal beliefs with society's expectations and offer a listening ear to help you manage any challenging parts of the process. Consulting a therapist online may be more accessible, as it typically removes some barriers to therapy, like traveling to an office or being restricted to only nearby therapists, potentially giving you more access to quality care. It is also often more cost-effective than traditional therapy, as you may not be required to incur transportation costs to commute to a therapist’s office.

Online therapists have the same training and credentials as traditional therapists and use the same evidence-based techniques. Although therapy may be administered via the Internet, evidence indicates it is just as effective as in-person therapy. One study of the effectiveness of online therapy for inmates found that traditional therapy had no significant edge over online therapy and found that inmates were satisfied with online therapy. 


While modern philosophers have defined and structured moral philosophy comprehensively, it is still often heavily debated. One prominent debate is usually whether rigid moral absolutes that are universally applicable to every situation exist. This concept typically contrasts with moral relativism, which proposes that morals tend to shift based on circumstances. Today, most moral philosophers agree that there are likely broad underlying moral codes that guide behavior, but cultural factors typically guide how those principles are interpreted and applied in a society. Morals likely also differ at the individual level, as each person may interpret society's moral rules slightly differently.
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