A Psychological View of Morality and Ethics Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D. 10-15


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   9-07,7-12,10-15

ABSTRACT:  The meanings of “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” “morals,” and “ethics” are explored.  The major “reasons” to act morally and the human motivations to act morally are reviewed, and self-interest is identified as an essential motive.  Experientially-based principles of behavioral guidance are offered, that represent morality and ethics as well as being useful for effective and healthy living.

KEY WORDS:  morality, ethics, motivation, right, wrong, good, the good, good person, good life

Human society cannot exist without rules and principles guiding and regulating behavior–telling us what is permitted, what is prohibited, what is desirable, and what is undesirable.  Since human beings are of necessity self-centered, can be selfish, and can be destructive to other individuals given the right circumstances, generally agreed-upon restrictions on negative behaviors are necessary.  The individual person is usually not able to learn by himself, even over a lifetime, all of the important predictors of successful behavior in the world (positive behaviors), so maxims, fables, holy books, priests, and psychologists are needed.  Similarly, few individuals are able to create their own systems solely from their own life experience, so they need the guidance of rules, maxims, and principles regarding both positive behaviors and negative behaviors, so that they will be able to behave in ways that will achieve their goals, by regulating how and when they act and especially how their behavior affects those around them.  We are dependent for this guidance on the accumulated wisdom of those who have gone before us and on our own abilities to discern the predictable outcomes of different patterns of behavior, in ourselves and in others. 

Morality identifies various actions as being either “right” or “wrong,” based on feelings deep within us about what is “good” and “bad”.  Ethics is the effort to formulate rules and principles for how to treat each other, while morals are more related to our inner, emotional sense of what is “right” or “wrong.”  Morality does not need to justify its positions rationally, whereas ethics is always trying to “make sense” of the kaleidoscope of human behavior.

The purpose of a sense of right and wrong is to make life more pleasant and less dangerous.  Doing right makes life more pleasant and less dangerous for us and for others, and doing wrong has the opposite effect.  (Those who believe that right and wrong are defined for us by a higher power might be motivated to do right and not wrong in order to please the deity or might view right and wrong as having the purpose of testing our loyalty to that higher power.)  Right and wrong are always social concepts, either about our interactions with other people or with the deity.  People who act morally and ethically are seen as “good” people, although being a “good person” transcends and sometimes differs from what is generally seen by a given culture as moral and ethical.

Privately we consider as “good” things that further our interests and “bad” as things that harm our interests.  Our interests include our desires, goals, and welfare, and a relationship with the deity may be a part of this for some people.  Publically we consider as “good” those behaviors that conform to our moral/ethical rules and principles and as “bad” those that do not.

We can see certain implications about human beings from our need for and efforts to conceptualize and construct morals and ethics.  (1) Human beings do not have built-in morals or ethics, with the exception perhaps of our tendencies to treat those who benefit us better than we treat others and to help other human beings in general in crises.  Human beings may learn adaptive moral and ethical principles from experience, but this takes a great deal of experience, and something must control our behavior long before we can learn such things for ourselves.  (2) The “natural” behaviors of human beings are often destructive to other human beings.  If they were not, there would be no need for morals and ethics.  (3) When we act in accordance with morals and ethics that we have been taught, we are giving up our natural inclinations for instead doing what is expected of us.  This means that it is “natural” for human beings to resent having to conform to morals and ethics, even if they also perceive that there is benefit for them in so conforming.  We can opt to see those benefits so clearly that we give up that resentment, but many people do not reach this point in moral development and continue lifelong to be ambivalent about doing what is “right.”

Each set of moral or ethical rules and principles will, if followed, create a slightly different human society, depending on the values emphasized and those de-emphasized by the moral or ethical code.  This is true even of codes handed down by a deity or other revered authority figure, and every code should be evaluated and understood in terms of its underlying values (e.g., propriety, compassion, love, control of sexual behavior, importance of lifetime marriage).  Different individuals would favor one or another “flavor” of morals and ethics, based on their own value preferences.  The desired outcomes underlying the experientially-based principles presented in this essay are that people have relatively trusting and sometimes loving relationships with each other and that they do not act in ways that they think are in their own best interest but that would bring harm to others.  Freedom of choice and action are valued, but with the restriction that our actions not harm others (except in ways that we have agreed to as a group).  There can be disagreement about whether someone has been harmed and what should be considered harm, of course, and this will be dealt with later in the discussion.


Based on the above analysis of human behavior, a moral person is one who acts always (or, realistically, most of the time) in accord either with his own deep sense of what is right and wrong or with the consensus among others in his group about what is right and wrong.  Of course, most people would only agree that a person is moral if he conformed to the consensus among the group about what is right and wrong (regardless of whether that consensus is based on religion or on reason), since most people are not capable of constructing a clear moral or ethical system for themselves and because that is the only basis we have as a group for setting up rewards and punishments for being “good” or “bad.”  When an individual goes against her group’s consensus about right and wrong, honoring her own view of right and wrong, and she is “proved” to be right about that in the future, we honor such a person as being especially moral (even if the group has already killed that person for being “bad” according to th group’s previous consensus about what is right and wrong).

Being moral calls on us to live by our deep feeling reactions to various behaviors.  Human beings seem to have something of a shared sense of what is “right” and “wrong” based on these deep emotional reactions.  Cultures vary somewhat in how they turn these deep emotional reactions into principles or rules, but in almost all cultures murder and theft are felt by everyone to be “wrong.”  Cultures tend to identify “wrong” actions more clearly than “right” actions.  In the Bible’s Old Testament, the Ten Commandments, for example, tell people what not to do.  Jewish tradition identified compassion and treating others well as the “good” things to do.  Jesus focused on elaborating on these “good” things to do and on “good” attitudes toward life and others, but the institutionalized Christian church busied itself to also define what was “wrong” and to trade on our dislike of ourselves for doing wrong by offering atonement and redemption for sin.

Most of morality is about helping us to refrain from harming others, which is not easy to do, since we are quite skilled at doing so and since our very human envies, angers, and jealousies prompt us to act harmfully, either to get what we want or to right a wrong.  Great anguish and struggle often accompany our efforts not to act wrongfully.


An ethical person is one who acts in conformance with a group’s considered and codified notions about how to treat others.  There is overlap, of course, between morals and ethics, since elements of how to treat others may also be part of morals for a given group.  We often refer to “ethics” when considering a code of conduct for a certain subgroup, such as a profession, like medicine.  Note that it is much less common for a person to have a sense of what is right and wrong in how to treat others that differs from the group’s ideas than for a person to have a sense of morals (based on her deep sense of what is right and wrong in general) that differs from the group’s ideas.

Being ethical means following the ethical guidelines or rules that we honor, almost all of which aim to help us to understand the various ways in which we might harm others and to identify ways that we “should” act that can benefit others.  Professions have ethics codes and various groups, particularly churches, teach ethical principles (as well as moral principles).  Examples would the physician’s code enjoining them to “first do no harm” and the accountant’s code requiring complete honesty in their arithmetic.  The Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association has aspirational principles on the subjects of beneficence (benefiting others) and nonmaleficence (not harming others), fidelity (valuing the welfare of others), responsibility (being trustworthy, doing what one says that one will do), justice (equity and fairness), integrity (telling the truth, not allowing personal interests to intrude on one’s responsibilities to others), and respecting others’ welfare and rights.

Ethics codes often include some moral issues, such as therapists having sex with their patients.  The purpose of ethics codes is to keep our attention on awareness that all of our actions have consequences and that if we act without thinking, we can easily harm others.  The ethical principles that are most emphasized in our day and age seem to relate to acting in loving and compassionate ways.


Plato believed that emotional awareness guided us on the path to true knowledge, but Aristotle advocated that only reason could be trusted.  This divide is still with us, with science an example of the belief in reason, and personal growth and spirituality as examples of the belief in the value of interior awareness, including emotion.  The Christian religion is ambivalent about emotion, encouraging some and discouraging others.  It seems unequivocally clear both historically and in the lives of people we know that to depend exclusively on either reason or emotion leads to error.  Reason that is not informed by emotion and empathy cannot determine what is right and good, and action that is based solely on emotion is often misguided.  The contributions of both are needed.

Religious leaders have, of course, contributed to ideals and morals.  Jesus offered the vision of universal salvation, which contributed to reduction of tribal and ethnocentric identifications and therefore to reduction of intergroup conflict.  Saint Gregory the Great concluded that quiet humility, passive contemplation, charity toward others, and indifference toward one’s own body would bring one closest to God.  Saint Thomas Aquinas named the natural virtues to be understanding, science, wisdom, art, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and the infused virtues (infused by the Holy Spirit) to be faith, hope, and charity.  We have heard much of the struggles, particularly of males, to control sexual desires and urges, as sex has given organized society problems for eons.  In the Dark Ages between the fall of Rome and the cultural explosion of the Renaissance, monks sought holiness (and self-control) through withdrawing from the world and “mortifying the flesh.”  Clearly, controlling how one responds to desire is essential to being “good” in relation to other people.

As medieval society faded and cities grew, immorality flourished, since people no longer had the behavioral controls offered by village monitoring and by belief in principles of morality and conduct that were unavoidable because they were believed to be inherent in the universe as well as in people.  The church offered the certainty of absolutes from God, but the Renaissance sought facts and universal principles of conduct that could be proven by reason.  The diversity of beliefs that became apparent as people gathered in cities challenged the hope that such universal principles could be agreed upon and contributed to weakened behavioral controls.  If people seriously explored these other religious/cultural belief systems, they found that there were many ways to view and understand existence.  Weakening of tribal, ethnic, and religious definitions of selfhood and morals, through greater intermixing of peoples, forced the individual to figure out what was the most appropriate thing to do in each new circumstance.  Because in our global and increasingly interdependent world people are having more and more influence on others anonymously and at great distances from them, we are still struggling with this diversity challenge today.

Immanuel Kant brought to philosophy the idea that knowledge was relative to the knower and his experiences (including upbringing, culture, etc.).  This suggests that there is no absolute truth (except for revealed truth), and it forces the individual to use her faculties to make good choices of behavior (instead of knowing what will be right or useful by its being inherent in the “conscious universe” or stated infallibly by authority).  Kant believed that the individual could transcend this relativity of knowledge through studious self-awareness.

In Plato’s view, people could be motivated to seek the truth or wisdom because achieving it would make them one with the universe–the greatest transcendence possible.  Eastern and Western mystics sought joyful bliss in the transcendence resulting from joining the holy–achieved not through reason but through emotional oneness with the divine.  Hobbes, on the other hand, later argued that the learning and adjustments necessary for social living were not the results of striving toward some higher state or understanding but rather developed in people only for utilitarian reasons.  If people are basically selfish and self-centered, and if they are to learn to share or be altruistic, it will only happen because the alternative (greater conflict and violence) is less desirable.  Freud shared this view of people as growing and adjusting because of internal conflict (the conflict between selfish desires and the awareness that one may get more in the long run by suppressing immediate gratification and acting sometimes as others wish us to act).

Managing aggression and sexual needs became much more difficult for people as a result of the industrial revolution, because more traditional impulse controls, through the ritual and prescribed roles and actions of small groups, had melted away.  Since his fate was now decided by competition (instead of by assigned role or village cooperation), modern man needed to decide at each moment how aggressive to be (all the way from violent to altruistic) as well as to figure out how to maintain his or her freedom to rise in the social order by avoiding illegitimate parenthood.  Freud’s solution to these sexual and aggression dilemmas was self-awareness–in other words, if the individual could be totally aware of his emotions, needs, and motives and the reasons for them, he would do as well as possible in making choices and managing emotions and desires. 

The late nineteenth century’s view of maturity included being hard-working, self-reliant, self-controlled, logical, egalitarian, loyal, and emotionally warm.  In industrial and post-industrial society, in the grip of relativism and without the trustworthy guidance of authority or the “conscious universe,” notions of wisdom faded, and success has become our substitute for the last Platonic stage of wisdom.  Thus, today we admire an “expert” but are suspicious of anyone who claims to be wise!  Keeping the Romantic tradition alive, psychology has offered its own substitutes for Plato’s fourth stage–the “liberated” person and the “self-actualized” person as described by Abraham Maslow.  The liberated person is liberated from ignorance and from the control of arbitrary moral authority.  Instead of the success of status and wealth, self-actualization is the success of the inner person truly being itself and expressing itself to the maximum extent possible.  Maslow claimed that truly self-actualized people had strong moral awareness, rather than being basically self-serving as we might expect of human beings.

Functionalism has been the dominant philosophical bent in America, consistent with this country’s cultural worship of success.  Benjamin Franklin is reported to have identified the following as desirable and useful character traits:  self-control, silence (good listening), order, making maximum effort, thrift, being productive, fairness, cleanliness, moderation, tranquility, charity, humility, and sincerity.  Psychologist Gordon Allport identified characteristics of successful people to be having interest in other things and people, warmth and friendliness, self-acceptance, a fair grasp of reality, awareness of limitations, a sense of humor, and a philosophy of life.

Modern developmental psychology has produced the following view of maturity:  “basic values” necessary for successful functioning–a realistic view of oneself and the world, social competence sufficient to get one’s needs met, and self-control sufficient to prevent needs and impulses from interfering with success, plus “superior values” that are achieved by few–altruism (warmth, concern, responsibility, gratitude, fairness, and love), integration (harmony of elements in the person, integrity, honesty, self-acceptance, inner calm, self-knowledge, and insight), autonomy (self-assurance and self-respect leading to some freedom from dependence on the opinions of others), and ethical consistency (having principles and living by them) (Kiefer, 1988). 

Being a moral person and being a mature person are not the same, since a person can be moralistic (and in that way appear to be moral) by following the rules without being mature.  People who do right simply through fear or through following orders are actually immature rather than mature.  On the other hand, a person cannot be mature without being moral, and this sense of what is “right” is so central to maturity that a simple formulation of maturity might be “knowing what is right and appropriate to do, through both reason and emotion, and doing it, as long as it does not result in harm to self or others.” 

There has been a strong tendency historically for human beings to base moral principles on revelation from a deity (e.g., rules and principles found in the Bible, the Koran, etc.).  This avoids the problem of each individual wanting somewhat different principles.  The alternative is to construct moral rules and principles based on human experience, most often attempted by philosophers.  Some of these constructed rules and principles are integrated into society through being made into law.  In a few societies, the governmental structure has been made identical with the dominant religion.

It would seem consistent with childhood experience with parents and therefore “natural” to us to have moral rules given to us by a superior person or being.  The advantage of this over constructing moral principles and rules for ourselves is that for all those with allegiance to that deity or other authority figure, there is no argument over what is right and what is wrong, since it is accepted that the deity or other authority figure knows vastly more than we do.  (An interpreter of the deity’s rules and principle can be questioned, of course, and this is the practical reason that the Pope is declared to be able to speak ex cathedra—i.e., directly for God—on some matters.)  Those with allegiance to another deity may have different revelations, of course, which has historically led to warfare at times.

In a sense, all moral rules and principles are based in human experience, since rules given to us by a deity would not be followed if they were contrary to our fundamental nature.  Consider a deity-provided rule that said that children should kill their parents when the parents reach the age of 70.  Such a rule is inconceivable to us because it is so foreign to our parental relationships (at least for most of us).  If our deity exists independent of us and has His/Her/Its own purposes, which we cannot fully understand, then it is entirely possible that He/She/It would issue a rule that we do not understand but would be expected to follow.  If such a rule were handed down, though, human beings would declare that deity invalid (not to exist).  To modern day Christians, this example of a rule is inconsistent with their understanding of God, but they should remember that Abraham was praised by God for preparing to kill his son on God’s command.  The reply that God didn’t really mean that instruction to be followed (but was testing Abraham) is also inconsistent for us with our presumption that God is perfect.  Nevertheless, even though we require that moral rules be acceptable to us (which is inconsistent with our saying that we should follow the deity’s will no matter what that will decrees), it gives them more authority to have them stated by an authority figure.

If moral rules and ethical principle are not given to us fully formed, as by an authority figure or deity, and we are constructing them ourselves, then the results of various behaviors is a key determinant of their inclusion in a moral rule or ethical principle.  Human beings would not include theft in a list of morally prohibited behaviors simply for the act of taking something belonging to someone else.  Theft is immoral because of its impact on the person whose property or identity is stolen.  The same applies to adultery, which is prohibited because of its impact on families.  When we are making decisions about possible actions and considering their moral or ethical implications, it is important to carefully analyze all of their results.

There are several different sources of “knowing” what is right and wrong, and the use of these different sources have somewhat different individual and societal outcomes.  It should be remembered that right and wrong, morality, and ethics are all human-centered-i.e., they relate to the needs of human beings, and they are expressed in human terms.  Some might wonder if morality expresses aspects of some larger moral organization of the universe, but this remains unknown, since humans can only understand things in human terms.


All of us learn about morals and ethics from others, including parents, religion, and society in general, and the primary conditioning around doing what is right takes place through fear of punishment or loss of love.  As they grow up some people mature out of this fear-based conformity to see that everyone benefits if all of us “follow the rules.”

Most of our instruction from others what is tradition in the group, but people generally accept it because it comes from those they trust or from those whom they wish to please or obey.  Some people as adolescents or as adults wonder about the reasons behind the principles and rules that they have learned.  Others do not question their beliefs or those of others and rely almost completely on their instruction from others for “knowing” what is right and wrong.  When these people are in conflict about what to do in an ambiguous moral circumstance, they ask trusted others what to do.  Since, human beings have a tendency to construct things to their own advantage, moral/ethical instructions from others are always to some degree suspect.


Human beings usually assume that “knowing” is the result of rationality, i.e., of accumulating facts or making assumptions, and relating those facts and assumptions to each other.  It is certainly possible to gather data about right and wrong (which behaviors make life more pleasant and less dangerous) by observing how we feel in reaction to various behaviors of others and by observing the reactions of and outcomes for others of how they are treated.  Whether we use the reactions of others or our own as data, however, without criteria for assigning value to various outcomes and therefore to various behaviors, there is no rational way to choose behaviors that are right and wrong.  Reason alone does not assign such values.  How we or others feel in reaction to how we are treated is based in feelings (sensations and emotions) and not in reason.  One can observe, for example, that murder deprives some people of an individual that may have been important to them, that this makes finding food more difficult for those people, that human beings have painful feelings about losing a close person, that people who are murdered lose the opportunity for some years of life, and that people without enough food experience hunger and fear.  However, rationality itself does not tell us that these outcomes are undesirable.  That kind of “knowledge” comes from our emotional reactions to events.  From our experiences we predict that when we lose someone or don’t have enough food, we will feel emotional pain or be hungry and fearful.  When we are aware of possible outcomes such as these, we anticipate them conceptually or experience (feel) a preview of the feelings that we expect to occur, and we then “know” to avoid these occurrences.

In order for rationality to help us construct a system of right and wrong, it must have both knowledge of facts and circumstances relevant to outcomes that matter to us and the input of our sensations and emotions, which tells us the positive or negative value of those various outcomes.  We then use our rationality to construct rules or descriptions of behaviors to be rewarded or to be avoided, and we may than also assign consequences (rewards and punishments) to these.

We can learn from historical observations of others what the likely results of various moral (right) or immoral (wrong) actions will be.  Every time we watch a movie in which one person tries to gain advantage over another through deception, we have an opportunity to learn how it feels to be deceived and whether those who deceive get what they want.  When we learn what led up to a certain war and what the war’s consequences were, we have a chance to gain some moral insight.

Philosophy has struggled to find logical and convincing rational ways to “know” what is right and wrong.  Three major strains of thought can be discerned (Larissa MacFarquhar, “How To Be Good,” The New Yorker, 9-5-11).  Followers of Kant’s approach think that we should live according to principles of behavior that we would want everyone to adhere to (an abstract restatement of the Golden Rule).  In other words, judge whether an act is moral by whether it is consistent with a rule or principle that would produce a moral world if everyone followed the rule or principle.  “Consequentialists” think that the morality of an action is best judged by its total consequences (a Utilitarian approach).  Morality is not judged by motive or adherence to rules, but it is defined as acting in ways that bring about the greatest good in the world.  “Contractualists” think that the way to arrive at moral principles is to find principles to which no person could reasonably object.  (If we all agree, then it must be right.)

Following Kant, you would determine what is a moral world by your preferences for how the world should be.  Judging acts by their consequences leaves us with an inductive task—to discern moral principles that cover all of the individual moral acts that we have discovered to be moral by observing their consequences.  The contractual approach is minimalist, since the agreement of all people is required, and all people are not likely to agree on very much!  It would identify the few basic principles to be called “moral,” but human differences would put all other choices into the category of preferences rather than morality.

Philosophy is so intellectually dense and therefore so inaccessible to most people that it seems to most people to be of limited use in the “real” world.  However, these three major strains of thought, taken together, do describe the world of morality and ethics.  As a group we establish moral rules or laws that most of us agree on.  We choose these rules because of the consequences that we experience and observe of the behaviors that we encourage or prohibit, and in the moment of decision, we can judge whether an act is “right” or “wrong” by considering whether we would like everyone else to do it or not do it.  Perhaps philosophy’s greatest weakness is its intellectual tendency to lose sight of the role of feelings in telling us what we value.


As noted above, sensations and emotions play a key role in developing a moral code or sense of right and wrong.  Our emotional reactions to experiences show us the positive or negative value of those events based on whether we feel pleasant feelings or unpleasant, painful feelings.  The nature of these feelings shows us the degree of value (from the intensity of our feelings) and something about the source of our valuing—i.e., an experience that results in feeling shame is different from an experience that results in feeling guilt and will be valued differently based on whether we dislike shame or guilt more.

Emotion alone does not give us a firm basis for developing expectations or rules of conduct, since emotions are strongest in the moment and fade over time, since we may feel differently about different instances of the same experience, and since emotional reactions to the same experience differ among individuals.  We might be tempted to prohibit driving by all older citizens after being in an accident caused by an older driver, but our rationality can investigate further the accident records of older versus younger drivers and consider the costs to competent, older drivers of prohibiting all older drivers from driving.  Rationality allows us to delay action while doing what is necessary to make a good decision.

Individuals differ in their emotional reactions to events (being mugged, being dumped by a lover, etc.), due to genetics, temperament, and repetition of experiences, but fortunately our reactions are similar enough that most of the time we can empathize and sympathize with each other about our experience with the same event.

In order to make a coherent, understandable system of right and wrong, there must be enough similarity between the sensations and emotional responses of most people in the group to a given circumstance.  Otherwise, the rule will “make sense” to some people but not to others.  (This seems to be the problem we face with sociopathic individuals in our society—that they do not experience the same resultant feelings from experiences that others do and that rules about not harming others do not “make sense” to them.)

In establishing rules and consequences for rule-breaking, the emotions of the aggrieved can lead to excessive prohibitions and excessive punishments, as when the family of a murderer wants him to be put to death but the “reasonable” punishment prescribed by the law is a lengthy imprisonment.  We must therefore use knowledge of our emotional reactions carefully in assigning value and punishments.

Rationality and emotion form a good partnership when we are willing to use our reflective ability to think about and understand our emotional reactions:  what exactly we are reacting to, what prior experiences have affected our reaction, why our reaction has the intensity it does, what behavioral impulses result, what those impulses are attempting to accomplish, etc.  Emotions can do damage if we respond to them without thinking.  A good rule is to delay action until our whole being is satisfied with the decision.


Obviously religions have things to say about right and wrong, since part of their purpose is to guide believers to do right.  In addition to formal teachings regarding morals and ethics, religious groups provide a milieu in which people learn by modeling the attitudes and behavior or other group members and of religious leaders.  For many people, their modeling experiences in their churches are cherished reminders of ideal ways for people to treat each other.  

A religion’s statements or rules may be either believed to be direct revelation from the deity (e.g., the Ten Commandments in Christianity, the Koran for Islam) or they may be rules derived by religious leaders from what is believed to have been revealed.  In religions with no deity, ethical and moral statements are based in a concept of the nature of the universe, Reality, or the human condition.  Some religious rules for living, such as dietary rules or rules for rituals, serve the purpose of uniting the religious group and encouraging focus on the deity or on what is important.

Religions with deities encourage compliance with moral and ethical rules by promises of eventual reward or punishment, usually in an afterlife.  The deities usually display an attitude of anger or rejection toward noncompliers, and this direct disapproval also encourages compliance.  Non-deity religions put forth an analysis of human beings and human life that attempts to convince others to agree with this analylsis and thus follow the prescriptions and proscriptions that are based on the religion’s view of things.  (For example, in Buddhism, the goal is to reduce suffering, so moral and ethical guidance is based in what will reduce suffering.  It is posited that desire and attachment usually lead to suffering, so that tempering one’s desires and attachments should reduce suffering and may have moral and ethical implications.)

It is often implicit in the worldview and attitude of religious believers that the religion’s teachings are the only way that believers would know what is right and wrong, often based on the claim that the religion knows what is expected by the deity and that anything the deity directs must be right and not wrong.  Compliance with the wishes of the deity is paramount, as when Abraham was directed by God to kill (sacrifice) his son (until a last minute reprieve).  God wanted Abraham to do as God directed, without questioning the rightness or wrongness of the directive.  Thus, we can observe that most deities want compliance and submission to their will (giving up of the believer’s will), which implies that human beings should not try to figure out on their own what is right and what is wrong.  Much effort by religious leaders and scholars goes into exegesis or interpretation of what has been revealed in order to give more detailed behavioral rules or directives to believers (and perhaps also to reconcile any overtly troubling directive with common sense by finding subtle, additional interpretations).

Some people feel or believe that if God did not exist, then they could morally do anything they wanted to do, as if the only reason to try to do right was that someone was watching and might punish wrong behavior.  (This would be termed an extreme example of the failure to “internalize” a sense of right and wrong, since the person depends totally on external direction and control.  It would also illustrate an extreme ignorance or denial of the fact that one’s behavior toward others partially determines how they behave toward one.)  Besides complying with a deity’s wishes, there are other important reasons for doing right as detailed above, including that doing right makes those we care about feel better and that doing right induces others to treat us better.


Experience offers us several sources of information relevant to right and wrong.  (1) We experience in our feelings and emotions the impact on us of various behaviors of others (and of how we treat ourselves).  This is how we “know” how we want to be treated.  (2) We observe how others experience how they are treated, and with empathy, we can feel something of how they feel.  (3) We try out certain behaviors that we think might be “right” or “wrong,” and we can observe the results, which gives us feedback confirming or calling into question our original labeling of these behaviors as “right” or “wrong.”  What we learn from experience leads us to ask others to treat us in certain ways and to negotiate with others regarding rules for conduct.


It is useful to use a developmental perspective to examine why people would seek to live morally and ethically.  Psychologists and theologians have identified levels of moral development.  The most primitive of these is conforming simply to avoid punishment (and not conforming if one can avoid detection).  Somewhere in the middle are people who conform in order to look good to others (and to be able to feel superior to others who fail to conform).  The highest level of moral development is generally agreed to be living by moral and ethical principles that enhance the “good” for others, even if this results sometimes in things not going our way.  One accepts the outcomes for oneself of following the rules or conforming to the principles because one believes in the importance and long-term benefits of the rules and principles for everyone, including oneself.  This highest level is viewed by some as having reduced concern about one’s own benefit, and following the principles that one believes in (whether those are religiously based or experientially based), regardless of the outcomes for oneself. 

In the first two or three years of life, a child receives but gives little, viewing the world as existing to meet his needs and others as objects that either give to him or interfere with his desires.  He can respond positively to others when they are giving to him, but he has no qualms about using force to get what he wants (e.g., take a toy away from another).  Requests to others are largely in terms of communicating felt bodily needs (often inchoately, by crying, etc.) and demonstrating desires for objects (by pointing, etc.).

In the first years of life, children are quite self-centered and motivated simply to get as much as they can, which they come to understand depends greatly on pleasing parents and other authority figures.  Giving and receiving are largely concrete (objects), although the child is learning to express love and concern,  She develops signaling behaviors to indicate desires to others without having to use words, and she develops resistance behaviors to try to avoid doing what she doesn’t want to do (whining, pretending to be sick, etc.).

As a child grows, she comes to conceptualize others as being entities like herself, with their own needs, desires, and moral codes.  The beginnings of empathy arise, and the value of principles of sharing and reciprocity start to become apparent.

Also, in years two to five we all develop a strong desire to be treated “fairly,” and for the rest of our lives we respond with anger and distress if things are not “fair” (which largely means equitable and appropriate as we view these criteria).  We see this insistence on fairness when survivors of a murdered person seek certain punishments of the murderer, when they confront God about why the murder was allowed to happen, and when disadvantaged groups (slaves, women) seek equality over a course of many years until it is achieved.  The motives for children and adults to please parents or God are gaining rewards and favor from parents and God, seeking to quell fear of parents and God by conforming, seeking to avoid punishments from parents and God, and seeking to avoid their own conditioned unpleasant emotions, such as fear, shame, and guilt, that they (we) feel when they (we) behave in disapproved ways. 

Our earliest moral/ethical training involves the conditioning of fear, shame, and/or guilt to certain disapproved behaviors, so that we learn to feel these unpleasant emotions in an anticipatory way even before carrying out a contemplated, disapproved behavior.  This can be a relatively effective method of control, and it may even be the only effective method of control at early ages, since children can be trained in this way to control their behavior at a time when empathy and knowledge of consequences cannot be used effectively for this purpose.  However, this emotional conditioning method tends to limit later development of abilities to analyze consequences and to appreciate finer nuances of right and wrong, since this conditioned pain causes people to want to escape from these feelings as soon as possible and not to risk or tolerate these feelings while they reflect on and think through their moral/ethical decisions.

Adolescents develop a range of abilities to interact psychologically as well as concretely.  They learn how to purposely manipulate others to get what they want, if they choose to.  This is the stage when a choice is made between (1) an assumption that one should always be trying to get what one wants regardless of the impact on others and (2) a belief that one will get sufficient (or greater) rewards in life by emphasizing principles of fairness and equality in interacting with others.  Both of these orientations are chosen on the assumption that they will provide the greatest rewards and the fewest costs (punishments, loss of relationships, etc.).

In the latency and adolescent phases of life, acting in “good” ways and being a good person can be used to curry favor with peers and as tools to preserve one’s social position and rewards.  Through childhood and early adolescence, many children view rules quite literally, rather than as principles to use to arrive at appropriate behavior.  Whether adolescents use being moral and ethical as an adaptive tool depends on the attitudes of their particular peer groups.

In adolescence, most of us come to have a greater appreciation for the feelings of others, through some degree of development of empathy.  This awareness that there are two sides to every interaction helps some adolescents to grasp the concept of appropriate behavior being specified in a social contract with others, in which everyone is expected to agree to and to follow certain rules of behavior, because if everyone follows them, everyone will benefit and have a better life.  Examples of standard ethical rules are to tell the truth and to be responsible.  Important principles include reciprocity (the golden rule) and fairness.  (Social contracts can include far more than ethics, of course, such as form of government, sexual mores, etc.)  The idea that being consistent in one’s behavior is part of honoring the social contract arises also–that one feels some obligation to follow the rules even when one could break them and not be caught, which takes morals and ethics into the realm of personal principles rather than simply external rules.  At this stage, people begin to grasp the complexity of moral/ethical decisions and to realize that a literal use of rules is not always an adequate approach.  Translating rules into principles occurs for some, who will then struggle with arriving at what will be the most desirable, most appropriate behavior, given all of the circumstances, relationships, and competing duties, rather than seeking the automatically “right” behavior according to simple rules or dictates of others.

As a young adult, a person solidifies beliefs about right and wrong and about how people “should” treat each other.  The choice regarding whether or not to utilize a “social contract” (reciprocal expectations and behaviors) about how to interact is chief among these.  The young adult begins to try to express these beliefs in words and to urge others to conform to his or her model of morals and relationships.  The application of these beliefs and assumptions is largely limited to those in one’s immediate environment.

A further step in moral/ethical development occurs when the individual reconsiders and reformulates rules and principles for himself by evaluating their impact on self and others.  This growth requires some knowledge of the complexity of human motives, relationships, and decision-making and is based in empathy for others–recognizing and resonating with how others are affected when people do or do not follow moral and ethical rules and principles.  To some extent, one feels good when others feel good and bad when others feel bad.  There is recognition that rules are made by imperfect human beings and may themselves be flawed.  This is usually accompanied by a shift in motivation, from following rules and principles out of fear and hope for personal advantage to following rules and principles because of both the short-term and long-term positive effects on self and others of following them and the short-term and long-term negative effects of not following them.  In the short term, someone is hurt (robbed, shot, insulted) when someone else doesn’t follow the rules.  In the long term, the more people ignore the rules, the more distrust there is between everyone, the more we dislike others, and the more difficult it becomes to cooperate with others to reach long-term goals that require the efforts of many. 

As a maturing adult, a person can broaden the application of moral and relationship principles to those beyond the immediate environment, having concern for all people and refining his principles to apply to cross-cultural interactions.

Progress from one level to the next follows our developmental path.  Children conform mostly to avoid punishment, but as they grow they come to value the good will of others more, and a few of them eventually see the “big picture” of long-term costs and benefits and begin to follow rules or principles in order to seek the best possible outcomes for themselves and for others.  Moral/ethical maturation is greatly aided by developing empathy for others, so that to harm others becomes somewhat painful to oneself.

(This general description is consonant with the writings of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg—see Appendix for a summary.)

The positive results of following moral/ethical rules and principles are that others trust us more and are more cooperative with us; we avoid the pain of a nagging conscience or superego; and if we identify with our moral/ethical beliefs, then we feel a sense of integrity for acting consistently with them–that who we are has been displayed accurately in our behavior.  The personal costs of following our rules and principles lie in sometimes denying ourselves some immediate selfish pleasure (with the compensating belief that we will benefit more over the long term through foregoing this pleasure).  (It is worth noting that the rewards of acting morally and ethically tend to be longer term, while the “rewards” of not following rules and principles tend to be immediate in terms of the selfish gain desired.)

To recap, as adults most people still view a good person as one who follows the rules and does what others, especially authority figures, want him to.  A further step in moral/ethical development is to “sign on” to the idea of a social contract.  Even further along, one strives to embody one’s ideals, and yet a further step is to figure out what one really believes about how we should treat others and formulate accurate and useful principles that express those beliefs.  At all steps, moral/ethical growth involves a more complex understanding of the ways we treat others and how our treatment of others impacts our lives as well as those of others.

Going beyond simple dictates or rules (the Ten Commandments, what my father told me, what the priest says) to examine the complexities of moral/ethical choices is decried by some as “moral relativism” or “situational ethics” (making morality and ethics “relative” to the circumstances).  They assert that people who do this usually find in these complexities some excuse for not following fundamental moral and ethical principles (some excuse for doing what they want to do, instead of what is “right”).  Those who wish to fit the moral/ethical action to each particular circumstance sometimes do so because they have recognized that sometimes fathers or priests are wrong in what they tell us, either through misunderstanding or because they are biased toward getting what they want instead of reinforcing what is right to do.  Also, advocates of the sanctity of the Ten Commandments fail to see the moral inconsistency of thinking it perfectly OK for their nation at war to violate the commandment not to kill, which is itself an example of situational ethics. 

Instructive examples for helping people to understand moral relativism often come from other cultures.  For example, some Muslim communities apply their notion of morality to decide to cut off the hand of a thief as punishment or to stone an adulteress to death.  This behavior (cutting off of a hand, stoning an adulteress) is “Biblical,” and one might think that Christians in Western societies would think that this was a good idea, but because they have been enculturated differently, they find it “barbaric” and simply ignore that it is in fact “Biblical” (in the sense of being included in Old Testament illustrations).  Similarly, in some cultures it is conventional for men to have more than one wife, just as it was common among the Jews in some periods of time, and people in those cultures generally think that this works all right for them.  Most in developed countries would think that this was immoral in some way, even though it is mentioned in the Bible and even though their own reasons for thinking it wrong come from their own culture and not from their religion.

Appreciating moral/ethical complexities does not have to mean abandoning or violating fundamental principles, of course, but it is necessary for those who think about morals and ethics comprehensively and relative to the circumstances to ensure that in every case their final choices of behavior both honor the fundamental principles (do not kill, do not harm, accord equality to all, etc.) and frame the moral/ethical issues in ways that will best solve the current dilemma (with “best” being understood as the solution that applies a sincere, honest, in-depth, and comprehensive analysis of the situation and persons involved and then most upholds the rules and principles and arrives at a decision/solution that is most “right” for all involved).

Growth in moral/ethical understanding and behavior is limited only by intellectual capacity, empathy capacity, and one’s willingness to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, since once one leaves the certainty of revealed and simple rules for behavior, there are no real certainties, and as moral agents we must responsibly choose what we think is the “most right and appropriate” behavior.  Once again, an important element in this higher system is that everyone must abide by the agreed upon rules and principles regardless of whether one could “get away with” violating them.      

The capstone in this process of moral/ethical development is that “being a good person” becomes an important part of one’s identity, so that it would not only violate one’s sense of right and wrong to knowingly go against one’s moral/ethical rules and principles, but it would also call into question who one is and whether one was “being true to oneself.”  This is another factor that persuades us to follow our rules and principles even when others are not doing so.


The three necessary and sufficient skills for making good moral/ethical decisions are having empathy for self and others, seeing reality clearly, and managing our emotions with relative ease and grace.

At least a moderate degree of empathy ability is needed, because without it we cannot adequately understand and define the consequences of our behavior.  In deciding whether to push someone down, it is not enough to know only that he will hit the ground if I push him in the back.  I must also appreciate empathically the emotional pain he will feel from being attacked or betrayed by me.  If I understand myself, I can also anticipate the various feelings I will feel in response to pushing him down.  Empathy also helps us to be aware of the range of human motives and of the convoluted and often incorrect chains of reasoning that humans employ.  It is fortunate that human beings around the world have the same basic motives (stay alive, minimize pain, be in a positive feeling state, have sex, nurture children, and defend and assist our groups and loved ones), since this makes it possible for us to “make sense” of their behavior.

In order to make good moral and ethical decisions, it is important to know how people operate—their needs and wants, their emotions, their motives, and how they view and understand themselves, others, and the world.  This knowledge allows us to grasp the range of feelings and views that people have, which determine their moral and ethical stances regarding right and wrong.  It is important to pay attention to everything that people do, all over the world, in order to gain this comprehensive understanding of people.  It works against this awareness if we ignore information that disturbs us about those we love or about people from other cultures who are different from us.  We must appreciate the capacity of all human beings (ourselves included) to harm others in order to get what we want and our infinite capacity to find ways to claim that it was OK.

Seeing reality clearly is needed so that we are not fooled by the excuses and justifications that we and others use to avoid acknowledging immoral and unethical behavior.  Starting in early childhood, we use every reason we can think of to justify actions that we contemplate taking (no one will know; I can lie if caught; no one will be hurt; no one will be hurt badly; I don’t care if he won’t be my friend any more; he hit me first;  etc.) and every statement we can think of that will mitigate punishments when we are caught (I didn’t do it; you can’t prove I did it; he made me do it; if he can do it, so can I; I didn’t know I was doing it; I was sick; your punishment is out of proportion to the crime; you’re punishing me more than you punish my sister for the same behavior; it isn’t fair; etc.).  Most people grow up accepting as normal or true the evasions and rationalizations that were accepted in their families or by those around them, so in order to conform our behavior to higher norms we must see the evasions of our families and others for what they were and stop using them ourselves.

The same argument applies to the rationalizations, evasions, and distortions used by our communities, our cultures, and our nations.  Many of these have to do with ascribing characteristics to one type of person in an attempt to justify our actions toward them.  Blacks are dumber so they don’t need schools that are as good as those of Whites.  I purchased him, so it is proper that he do what I tell him to do as a slave.  Indians are savages, so it is OK for us to take their land for our farms.  If they agree to sell us oil at the very low price that we insist on, then that is OK, regardless of how much we can sell it for later.  Might makes right.  The law of supply and demand says that if gasoline and bread become scarce, then I can increase the price I demand for these things to any price I want.  We need to execute this person as an example to others like him.  Country B is more like us culturally, so we will always take its side against country C that is more different from us.  This country was founded on Christianity, so it’s OK for Christian prayer to be used for school events.  Our civilization is superior to theirs, so it’s OK for us to take over their country and run it for them.  Winning is everything.  It’s OK, even expected, that we will lie or deceive in court to cover up our misdeeds (and that our lawyers will help us to do this).  The ocean is so big that it’s OK for us to put our raw sewage in it.  If they agree to work for these low wages, then I have no responsibility as an employer for their poverty.  She’s been a bitch lately, so it’s OK for me to have an affair.  Etc.  Etc.  Etc.

If we are to grow morally and ethically, we must recognize distortions such as these, and commit ourselves to what is actually right in these and other situations.  This is not easy, of course, since we may wish to use distortions and rationalizations just like these ourselves.  Sometimes we will be criticized and perhaps shunned by others, even family and friends, for standing up for a higher level of moral and ethical behavior.  Unfortunately we will get little help from our churches, since they usually avoid exposing the rationalizations of their members and of society, so as not to rock the boat (the other country’s leader is clearly a bad guy, so it’s OK for the U. S. to take over their country and remove him from power; the poor will always be with us, so it’s OK for our middle class church members to pay them low wages; God is on our side, so whatever we decide to do must be right; since none of our members would engage in sex outside marriage, AIDS must be punishment of gays by God; etc.).

If we are to carry out moral and ethical decisions, we must be able to manage our own emotions well.  Since in a more complex consideration of what is right and appropriate, there are rarely clear answers, we must tolerate the anxiety of not being certain, as well as the pain of bad results after sometimes making errors in our moral/ethical decision-making.  We must accept that honestly and sincerely doing the best we can has to be good enough, and that perfection is neither possible nor required.  Further, even when we know what is right to do, we may be tempted to do what is “wrong,” for our own benefit, so it will be necessary to manage our disappointment (and perhaps anger) when we refrain from violating our standards and refrain from doing something “wrong” that would have benefited us (at least in the short run).  One can comfort oneself by thinking of the benefits of doing what is right, both immediate and long-term, and with one’s belief that one will truly be better off for doing what is right.  If we care for others, it is satisfying to avoid hurting others by refraining from doing something “wrong,” and life is so much simpler when we do not have to maintain a series of lies to avoid being “caught” or blamed.  (Note that doing what is “wrong” always hurts others and usually hurts ourselves as well, although we may rationalize that these effects will never happen or never come to light.  It is part of seeing reality clearly that we be able to see how our actions harm others and ourselves, instead of ignoring these results of our behavior.)

Often, doing the right thing requires not acting—pausing to evaluate our feelings, holding back on expressing our thoughts and feelings, and simply not going ahead with “wrong” behavior.  This means that we must develop a strong ability to inhibit behavior, even behavior that we really “feel like” doing.  In a similar vein, if we believe that being a good person will “pay off” in the long run, we must be willing to wait for those more distant positive results, which means having considerable ability to delay gratification.

We must also be able to manage our feelings of fear and rejection when others turn on us because we have taken a stand that is contrary to what they would prefer.  If we have reasonably good self-esteem, it should be possible to express our opinions and support ourselves through at least brief periods of rejection.  It is not necessary to force our moral/ethical opinions on others or to condemn them for coming to different conclusions than we do, so overt conflict is not inevitable.


As noted above, our sense of what is right and what is wrong stems from our sense of what is “good,” and what people consider to be “good” stems from what they view as furthering their interests, while what is “bad” is that which is viewed as harming them or their interests.  Since the needs and motives of people are much the same all over the world, there is a certain amount of unanimity about what is “good” (having ample food, clothing, and shelter; being secure from harm by other people or from natural events; childbirth without death; living a long and happy life; etc.).  Each society has its own special “goods” as well that are consistent with its own understanding of people (for some, great wealth; for others, honor and respect; for others, increase in family; etc.). 

Religions and governments tend to encourage people to accept the views of what is “good” that are believed or assumed by those religions and governments, with varying degrees of forcefulness.  Individuals can still have their own personal views on what is “good,” even when they publicly espouse or live by what religion and government have decreed.

Since every societal choice of a “good” seems “good” to a fairly large number of people, we can be reasonably certain that most of these choices are to some degree “good,” even though those in other societies might not rank them as highly.  There are exceptions, however, so not every cultural element is necessarily “good” when viewed in comparison to other possibilities.  A society might consider it “good” that it forces all of its members to have the same religious beliefs, without making clear that this is done in order to ensure the degree of uniformity and conformity that all societies need in order to function in an organized way.  Since the establishment of cultural mores and other elements is difficult and full of conflict, and since societies are therefore loathe to allow these elements to be seriously questioned once established, the society that requires everyone to have the same religion does not recognize or discuss that there are other ways to ensure a sufficient degree of uniformity and conformity than to do it through enforced religious belief.  Another society might honor religious freedom, in order to promote a maximum degree of freedom in the society, but doing this will probably also result in somewhat more crime, less adherence to moral codes, and more open conflict in society.  One society might consider clitoral excision “good” (as a way of reducing adultery on the part of women), while other societies might believe that the harm done in reduction of female sexual pleasure is far worse than the amount of female adultery suffered without this procedure. 

People in general know only one way of believing or doing things, which is the way they were brought up believing and doing.  In-depth exposure to other societies that accomplish the same ends through different means is usually the only way that people gain the insight that there are more ways to accomplish those ends than the ones the individual grew up with, and even with that exposure, many people never gain this insight.  It is quite difficult for individuals to fully appreciate more than one way of culturally doing things and believing, even when they have some awareness of the phenomenon.  On the other hand, large numbers of people in a society can gradually change their priorities for what is “good” (“culture change,” “culture shift,” “cultural evolution”), as when a society shifts its priorities from religious adherence to gaining material wealth.  These shifts occur only when economic conditions permit, and when the shift will result, in the minds of most people, in greater sufficiency in meeting one or more of the universal human goals listed above.

Individuals are for the most part capable of judging whether the impact on themselves of every possible “good” and every “good” imposed on them by their society is truly “good,” if their judgment is allowed to be a free one.  These judgments may not be freely made, however, when there are status penalties or other social penalties for differing from those who believe that a particular “good” is in fact “good” (the police, the church, the patriarch of the family).  Many aspects of culture that are projected by that culture as “good” may still be viewed by large numbers of people in that culture as “not good.”  Societies vary, of course, in the amount of credence they place in the judgments of ordinary individuals as compared to the judgments of various authority figures. 

Societies also vary in how much energy they put into training members about what is to be seen as “good.”  Societal institutions (families, government, justice system, schools, churches, etc.) are used to do this training.  The more conformity and uniformity are viewed by the society as important, the greater the amount of effort that will be made to ensure that every new member sees things the same way.


“The good” is a phrase that identifies a conglomerate of “goods” in a single symbol, such as God or knowledge or morality or just “the good.”  It may have considerable emotional meaning for an individual, but every individual’s conception of “the good” is different, making it not a very useful construct to analyze.


The practical purpose of moral rules and ethical principles is to enhance the “good” in the lives of human beings, generally by avoiding harming others.  (Some might maintain that the purpose of moral rules and ethical principles is that by following them, we please a deity, or that we follow them because the deity told us to.)  Rules and principles are applied in daily life to assist us in making our lives better by avoiding doing harm to others.  They are useful because it is difficult for us as individuals to make good predictions about all possible consequences of various actions that we might take, partly through lack of experience with all possible situations that we face, and partly because human beings have a tendency to ignore information that suggests that they should not do what they want to do.  So, rules and principles act to “keep us honest.”

Systems of morals and ethics, if followed, produce people who appear to be orderly, civilized, and relatively safe to those around them.  It is instructive to imagine who we would be without these rules and principles, however, and if we are honest with ourselves, this shows us to be inherently selfish, aggressive, and quite willing to harm others to get what we want.  Following moral and ethical rules and principles (or at least believing that we follow them) allows us to “forget” these underlying realities about ourselves and to view ourselves as orderly, proper, and civilized.  When their survival is threatened, most people revert readily to being quite willing to harm others to get what they want.

Attention to rules and principles of morality and ethics is necessary because human beings have no built-in or inherent morality.  The species has evolved natural behavioral tendencies, such as to help others of the group who are hurt, to defend the group, and to put the welfare of those closer to us higher in importance than the welfare of more distant others, on the basis that these tendencies enhance the chances of comparative genetic survival and flourishing, but we have no inherent morality beyond that.  Every “negative” (see below) moral and ethical rule and principle addresses how to manage behaviors that we would sometimes like to do but that may harm others or bring retaliation from them, which further illustrates that we have no inherent morality (and that we are capable of almost any behavior, given certain stimuli or circumstances).

We are motivated to follow moral rules and conform to ethical principles in order to (1) avoid punishments or other negative consequences of our behavior, (2) please others (usually authority figures) so that they will treat us well or reward us, (3) avoid harming others and gain the good will of others, so that they will treat us as well as possible and cooperate with us, and (4) maintain a positive view of ourselves, which for most of us includes being moral or “good.”  Our view of morals and ethics always involves the reactions of others to us.  A person living alone would have no need of morals or ethics.  (For a person living alone, a behavioral instruction of a deity would be just that—a direct instruction, and not a moral rule or ethical principle.)

Most of us want to maintain at least an image of being “good” (in addition to being orderly, civilized, and relatively safe to be around) as opposed to being “bad,” since being “good” leads to being favored by others and having a good opinion of ourselves, while being “bad” leads to punishments and poor self-esteem.

Some would like to believe that “being good is its own reward,” but if we examine ourselves closely, we see that our benefit is always our chief concern.  The only exception might be a person who does not care any longer about what happens to himself, but if these people have no inner guidance system at all, then they are just as likely to harm others as to treat others well (which cannot be considered an acceptable moral position), and if they do have an inner guidance system, then they are acting for their own benefit in some way (since our guidance systems are constructed to always achieve some goal or other).  For example, a person who gives up his own benefit for that of others (1) believes that doing so will result in later benefit for himself, (2) does it because doing the right thing is important to his view of himself, (3) does it because the other person’s benefit is more important to him than his own benefit, and/or (4) does it in order to please others or God.

We can see historically that pleasing others, pleasing a deity, or conforming to a deity’s instructions have not worked particularly well for limiting the behavior of people to what is moral and ethical.  Even if pleasing others (or not displeasing them) is a concern, many people still do immoral and unethical things if they believe that they can do so undetected, and even if pleasing a deity (who presumably always knows when we misbehave) is a concern, human beings offer the excuse of being “weak” and plead for lenience and forgiveness.  Of course, human behavior could be a lot worse if these two motives (pleasing others or pleasing a deity) were not used to control behavior.


As human beings, our strongest motive is to act so as to benefit ourselves.  Since we are loathe to admit this, the motive for being moral and ethical by doing what benefits ourselves has not been utilized to its fullest to encourage moral and ethical behavior.  The reason for this is that doing what is moral and ethical is first (as children) viewed by most people as something that is not in their best interest at all but rather is something imposed on them and something that restricts them from doing many things that they would like to do.  Usually these restricted behaviors are immediate pleasures or behaviors that lead directly to pleasures. So, children conform to the rules only to avoid punishments and to maintain the good will of others or the deity, and not, in their view, to benefit themselves.  They ignore that acting morally and ethically does get them something (the good will of others and/or the deity, a view of themselves as “good”), because that is not what they would really prefer at the moment.  The key issue in this illogical position is our penchant for putting immediate, concrete benefits in a different class from more vague benefits expected or hoped for in the future.  Usually as people mature they become better able to understand future benefits and the principle of foregoing immediate pleasure for the sake of future gains.  

If the purpose of moral and ethical rules and principles is to make our lives better, then it makes them better by helping us to forego achieving immediate pleasures obtained in certain ways (having something through stealing it, gaining sexual pleasure through committing adultery, gaining something from cheating someone, etc.) so that we can have a better overall life, through having better relations with other people, avoiding punishments, revenge, and lawsuits, and feeling better about ourselves (better self-esteem, a “clear conscience”).

Many people, then, would not agree that being moral and ethical gives them a better life, because it keeps them from doing what they want, and they ignore the benefits they do or may get (avoiding punishments, a view of themselves as “good,” the good will of others and/or the deity).  The key issue is in the conceptualization of a better life.  Some people view their immediate gains and pleasures from immoral or unethical behaviors as being so much more desirable than the benefits of the “better life” that being moral and ethical would supposedly provide that they prefer to act immorally or unethically in order to get those inappropriately gained pleasures or goods.  A few people, of course, simply cannot control their behavior adequately, but failure to control behavior is more often the result of valuing the benefits of uncontrolled behavior more than the benefits of controlled behavior.

People will do what they believe is in their best interest, so if their viewpoints could change to believing that the benefits of being moral and ethical outweigh the benefits of acting immorally and unethically (and if they viewed the costs of being moral and ethical as being acceptable), then they would be much more likely to act morally and ethically.  As noted above, the benefits of being moral and ethical are (1) avoiding punishments or other negative consequences of our behavior, (2) being more pleasing to others (including authority figures) so that they treat us better or reward us more, (3) avoiding harming others and gaining the good will of others in general, so that they treat us as well as possible and cooperate with us, and (4) maintaining a positive view of ourselves.  Since if we treat them well (by acting in moral and ethical ways), people will then be more cooperative with us and more generous with us, we will gain some favors and material things through being moral and ethical, and we will be better able to get what we want through their help (or at least without their opposition).  The costs of acting morally and ethically are giving up opportunities, through acting immorally and unethically, to get what we want more easily and immediately. 

The benefits of acting immorally and unethically are thought to be getting what we want, getting more of it, and getting it more immediately.  The costs of acting immorally and unethically are possible punishments, harming others, causing others, including authority figures, to view us more negatively and to treat us less well, and having a more negative view of ourselves (as not being “good” persons).  These costs and benefits must be carefully compared and weighed against each other.

The only reasonable way that a person can feel that the benefits of acting morally and ethically are greater than the costs of giving up some opportunities to get what he wants, get more of it, and get it sooner, through acting immorally and unethically, is to believe that the gains from being in the good graces of others, avoiding harming others, avoiding punishments, and being able to view ourselves as “good” persons add up to more for us in the long run than the benefits of acting immorally and unethically.  The issues in this weighing of options are (1) how we compare immediate benefits with future and possible benefits, (2) the value that we place on not harming others, and (3) the value that we place on pleasing others.

Most people develop some degree of empathy for others as they grow up.  Empathy is the ability to sense and appreciate what others are experiencing without being told directly about it.  With regard to morals and ethics, this means that people with empathic capacity feel a little bit of the pain felt by those who are the victims of immoral or unethical behavior, and feeling their pain becomes a motive to not cause this pain, by refraining from acting immorally or unethically.  (See below for how to become more empathic.)

The value that one places on the approbation of others or on pleasing one’s deity partially determines how valuable it seems to one to guarantee this approbation by acting in moral and ethical ways.  Children vary somewhat in the importance they place on pleasing authority figures, probably based on how those authority figures have reacted to the children’s misbehavior and on the children’s degree of empathy with the pain they cause their parents when they misbehave.  People who have little experience with being loved or with the benefits of having others be positively disposed toward them will not place a high value on pleasing others, since they do not predict that they could please others or that even if they did, it would result in something good.  Experiences with caring others may possibly change this disbelief in the benefits of pleasing others.

Experience with reciprocity can be a factor in promoting moral and ethical behavior, if a person, for instance, valued the outcomes she had had with treating others well and finding that they treated her well in return.  It is true that how we treat others tends to elicit the same sort of behavior toward us.  On the other hand, if one’s experience is mostly with negative reciprocity (harming others promotes being harmed back), then one might not realize that reciprocity could be in a positive direction as well.  Treating others well in order to be treated well oneself, at least initially, also requires a “leap of faith” similar to that required in foregoing current benefits for the sake of greater future benefits, in that one must first take the positive action without knowing with certainty that one will get the response back that one wants.

It is not easy for human beings to objectively weigh future benefits against immediate benefits, since we have an evolutionary tendency to take what we can get when we can get it (the ant and the grasshopper), and this is what children and immature people always do.  However, in today’s complex and highly interdependent society, it is more valuable than ever to be able to “delay gratification”–to give up something now in order to get something else later (education, saving for retirement, the benefits of a healthy ecosystem, etc.).  Usually the later reward is more valuable (a college degree) than what we give up to get it (money for tuition, free time for four years), but to get it we must give up some smaller rewards for some period of time.   This ability to delay gratification can be learned—most easily by imitation but if necessary, it can be learned through experience.  The more it is practiced and results in good outcomes, the more comfortable we become with doing it, and this greater comfort with delaying gratification makes it less emotionally conflictful to give up an immediate gratification while hoping for a future gratification.

We tend to overvalue immediate benefits compared to future benefits, but one can overcome the tendency to overvalue the immediate by (1) making the imagining of one’s future reward state (when people are positively disposed toward one, when one has the college degree, when one is retired with adequate financial resources, etc.) as real in one’s imagination as the imagining of the immediate reward and (2) accurately assessing one’s ability to obtain the future reward.  Most people tend to discount future consequences of their actions as being uncertain and therefore not worth serious consideration, but one can make future reward states more real simply by concentrating on those delayed future times until they seem as “real” as the current situations that one hopes will eventuate.  One will only delay gratification if one believes that one can actually obtain the future, more valuable reward, so a person who has not had experience in achieving a more valuable reward by expending effort over time will tend not to believe that he can obtain the future reward.  Some practice at doing this can change this assumption, and the support and encouragement of others as we work toward the future reward can help greatly.

It is clear enough that treating others well is generally effective in inducing them to treat us well, but this is only true if those around us are not committed to a way of life that believes in treating others badly in order to get what one wants.  If one is surrounded by such people, one’s acting morally and ethically may have some small influence, but it may not be enough to make the total atmosphere more positive.  In that case, one may have to leave that milieu and seek others who are more inclined to be open to treating others well.  This is especially difficult if one’s family believes in treating others badly, but it may be necessary if one is to live comfortably with a positive and caring stance.  (A few people may be motivated to live as “missionaries,” so to speak, in a milieu of “bad” people, but most of us are not interested in giving up the rest of our lives to such an endeavor.)

Another difficulty in living a moral and ethical life is the presence of people who substitute appearances for commitment to gain advantage.  Such people latch onto behaviors that look good without being fully committed to moral and ethical actions.  They tend to publicly do things that look good, such as giving to charity but in a way that everyone knows it and following (or developing) rituals that seem to represent commitment.  (See Jesus’ parable of the Pharisees.)  When the situation calls for acting on one’s moral and ethical commitment, they cannot be found.  The rituals of our churches should reinforce in us a commitment to moral and ethical action, but the availability of forgiveness for just about anything invites people to act in ways that harm others and then “make it OK” by obtaining forgiveness from the church.


There are definite benefits to having and using a sense of right and wrong.  (1) We use knowing right and wrong to guide our own behavior, which allows us to benefit others through doing right and to avoid the negative responses of others and our own guilt and self-punishment for doing wrong.  (2) Doing right influences others to treat us better than they do if we do wrong.  (3) We use our sense of right and wrong to shape the behavior of others to be more right and less wrong, by the feedback we give them regarding their behavior.  (4) Doing right allows us to evaluate ourselves as “good” and to feel good about that.  Assuming that right and wrong are designed to make life more pleasant and less dangerous, the more group members act in right ways, the more pleasant and less dangerous life will be for all of them.  (5) Doing right makes those around us feel better than if we do wrong.  (6) A shared sense of right and wrong enables us to anticipate more accurately the future behavior of others (and helps them to more accurately anticipate ours), which allows people to relax around each other and possibly to trust others.  (7) A shared sense of right and wrong is a uniting factor for groups that share that sense.  (8) A shared sense of right and wrong is the basis for determining as a group what behaviors will be prohibited and punished by law. 

If our beliefs about right and wrong are turned into rules or statements, these are usually identified as morals or ethics.  Ethical statements are about how we treat each other, while moral statements are about what is thought to be inherently right or wrong, with no need of explanation (deception is ethically wrong; theft and murder are wrong both ethically and morally).

To do right and not wrong is an aspirational goal for individuals, and doing right and wrong are socially rewarded or punished by other individuals, while only behaviors that are declared unlawful by the group are formally punished by the group as a whole.


Doing what is right, once we have determined what that is, is often complicated by the fact that doing what we know is right may cost us something or cause us to give up something we want.  Also of concern is the fact that many times there is no perfect solution–whatever action we take will result in mixed help and harm to others, and we must still choose among the alternatives.

If we are to give up something we want in the present in order to do the right thing, we must believe that we will be better off in the long run by doing what is right, even though we are giving up something in the present.  Otherwise, doing what is right could go against our self-interest.  This is harder for children than for adults, since it is harder for children to envision and to forecast the future benefits of doing right.  Even some adults have a deficit in this regard, and unless fear keeps them from doing wrong, they are likely to do what benefits them in the present, whether it is right or wrong.  When faced with a moral or ethical choice, it helps to voice what you will be giving up.  If you say it out loud, it somehow doesn’t seem as important as when you keep it a secret within yourself.

There are fundamental psychological benefits and costs in play as well.  Most people identify with “being good,” since that was reinforced strongly in childhood by their parents (and hopefully has been strongly reinforced also by their empathic awareness of how others feel when treated rightly or wrongly), and most people fear “being bad” because of its external consequences.  (“Being good” is normally associated with doing right, and “being bad” is normally associated with doing wrong.)  This combination is powerful enough to result in a tendency in most of us to do what is right, unless the pull of some immediate, concrete advantage of doing wrong is too strong.  Conversely, doing wrong places those who want to be “good” in internal conflict, since we feel guilt or shame and find our sense of identity strained or threatened by viewing ourselves in this instance as being “bad.”

As an example of the cost of doing right, consider defending an unpopular person to your friends when they are making up lies about her.  You may lose popularity yourself for defending her, but you know that it is the right thing to do.  Another, more serious, situation would be being pressured to give false evidence against a person on trial, with the threat of being falsely charged yourself if you do not.  There is no sure guide to making these kinds of choices, but in these circumstances we (1) consider the potential positive and negative consequences of doing what we know is right; (2) consider the potential positive and negative consequences of doing what we believe is wrong; and (3) weigh these until we reach a decision.  Hopefully being clear about our assessment of consequences and about our feelings will allow us to feel relatively good about the decision, even if we are still somewhat unhappy with either choice.

Many moral/ethical choices have both positive and negative consequences for each alternative choice.  If we choose to do something that we know is wrong but which will save us from paying some price (e.g., if we are threatened with death if we do not convert to a different religion), we may avoid some immediate negative consequences, but we also damage our identity and our sense of right and wrong to some degree (and possibly our reputation with others).  In doing what is right, we may incur some negative consequences currently, but we keep our identity and sense of right and wrong intact (and hopefully would be seen by others, ultimately, as having been in the right and as being admirable for doing what is right).

Being unclear exactly what the positive and negative consequences will be of alternative actions can be another complication.  In the example above of being asked to give false testimony and threatened with being accused falsely if we do not comply, we cannot be sure that we would have to give the false testimony, even if we agree to do so, since trial strategy can change as a trial progresses.  We cannot know whether our false testimony could be discovered, which could result in a charge of perjury against us.  And, we cannot be sure that the threat of being charged ourselves for not complying would be carried out, since it could be just a leverage tactic.

The long-term advantages of doing what is right would seem to far outweigh the short-term advantages of doing wrong, and there is no question that a society of people doing right is more comfortable, more cooperative, more productive, and more peaceful than one in which a significant number of people are doing wrong.  We would all benefit from each of us thinking more seriously about the right or wrong of our behavior and, given the advantages of doing right, choosing to do what is right.


The main benefit of doing wrong is usually (potentially) getting what you want, since that is the goal of doing wrong.  You may also get it sooner than you otherwise would.

The main costs of doing wrong are (1) the immediate disapproval and punishment that you may get from others, (2) living with the risk of your secret wrong behavior being discovered in the future, (3) the bad feelings (shame, guilt, threat to identity) with which you may react to your own wrongdoing, and (4) the mistrust that others will have for you once they know that you are likely to do wrong.

There are some people who for selfish purposes do not want to “know” right and wrong, since to know right and wrong would interfere with their freedom to do what they want to do in the present.  There are several key methods of not knowing right and wrong and of then doing wrong.  (1) Don’t think about whether what you want to do is right or wrong.  Ignore anything anyone ever tried to teach you about right and wrong.  (2) Ignore how others will feel about how you are treating them.  (3) Ignore the possible negative consequences for yourself of doing wrong. 


The resistance to moral rules and principles is based on the individual differences between us in our views and understanding of the world (and, of course, our human resistance to being restricted from doing what we wish to do, by any source or power).  Each of us puts slightly different values on the various human behaviors that we would control via moral rules and principles, and our notions of what to prohibit in order to achieve a particular objective often differ.  (If our goal is to reduce harm of one person by another, is it more effective to prohibit murder, theft, etc., or is it more effective to criminalize or at least morally prohibit hatred, envy, jealousy, etc.?)  If put to a vote, each separate moral or ethical rule or principles would be supported by a certain percentage of people, and the closer that supporting percentage is to one hundred percent, the more “universal” that rule or principle is.  The lower that percentage is, the fewer people will take that rule or principle seriously and follow it.  This response by the population is complicated by the fact that moral and ethical rules and principles are seldom discussed in detail, so that the response of most people to them is based on their own individual “take” on a simplified (usually oversimplified) statement of the rule or principle, whereas if they were to participate in an in-depth discussion group on the rule or principles with objective and intelligent people, their views of that rule of principle could be quite different.

People tend to oppose rules that they view as restricting their freedom of action without providing a significant benefit to them, while they are more ready to restrict the behavior of others to gain that benefit, and people vary in the value that they put on the restricted behavior and on the benefits gained.  The general principle in democracy that the rules apply equally to everyone provides a rationale for accepting these restrictions on our freedom of action.

Further complicating the picture is our distrust of each other.  We know that people (including our parents) are prone to make rules that benefit them more than they benefit us, so we are wary of rules proposed by others.  It is easier for most people to accept rules that they can believe come from an impartial or perfect source, such as a deity. 


Moral systems state desirable and/or prohibited behaviors, usually with the flavor of what is “good” versus what is “bad” (e.g., murder, theft, adultery, mercy).  They tend to have more prohibitions of behaviors (“thou shalt not…) than requirements to do good.  Moral systems seem to stem from our emotional responses to what we deem to be “good” or “bad,” while ethical systems seem to deal more with how we should treat others (courtesy, fraudd, fairness, reciprocity), without as much of the good/bad and emotional flavor of morals.  Both morals and ethics have a clear or implied “should” regarding behavior (stemming either from what is “good” or from what is “right”). 

Thus, we teach children what is “right” and “wrong” according to what we feel is “good” and what is “bad.”  Children take moral rules seriously because of the emotional reactions of adults to good and bad behavior.  They learn these emotional reactions themselves as well.  We teach children how to deal with others with ethical principles.  Ethics codes of professions tell how members should treat clients.  Moral codes are usually enforced primarily through public censure (or religious excommunication).  Ethics codes are enforced through expulsion from membership in the group.  Moral and ethical rules that become institutionalized in the larger group’s laws are enforced through the group’s legal system.

Behavioral guidance can be couched in simple rules (murder is prohibited) or in principles (do not harm others).  The advantage of simpler rules is that they are more clear, although we see in murder trials that they are not as clear as we thought, since in addition to guilt or innocence, juries decide whether what appeared to be murder was actually murder and whether there were circumstances or strong social values that made murder justifiable even though the simple rule would prohibit it.

The advantage of principles is that they express our complex intentions better and they cover more circumstances.  Their disadvantage is that since they are stated more generally, they are subject to interpretation and to the objection from those who prefer rules over principles that anyone using moral principles can justify any behavior.  This is termed “moral relativism,” and it is the bane of those who subscribe to rules and principles dictated by a deity (and those who believe in duty as a basis for behavioral choice, as did Kant).  The more honest and objective one is, the less likely one is to distort principles for one’s benefit, but it is certainly true that self-serving distortions can occur.  (The government distorts the truth frequently, justifying it on the basis of needed outcomes.  Saddam Hussein needed to be removed from power in Iraq, so going to war was justified, even if his supposed weapons of mass destruction were found not to have existed.  Keeping taxes low will help us get elected, so we will say that we believe that lower taxes will result in a larger economy and therefore the same government income, even if historical evidence does not support this belief.)

There is no clear answer regarding whether simple rules or principles are better.  Some people prefer one and some the other.  Perhaps both are needed–making rules that are more teachable but turning to principles when we wish to consider a broader view of our moral and ethical efforts.

Another fundamental divide among moral and ethical systems is whether they focus on positive motives or negative motives.  Examples of “positive” motives for adhering to a moral or ethical system would be that to act morally will produce the best outcomes for oneself and for others (the least injury, the best cooperation, the biggest income) or that to act morally or ethically will be pleasing to an authority (God, parents) and will therefore result in benefit to oneself.  Negative motives relate to avoiding punishments (so that one might do the prohibited behavior if getting caught was unlikely) or wishing to cause harm to someone else by adhering to the rules (e.g., by adhering to the rules one can make one’s brother look bad, since he does not adhere to the rules very well).

Positive motive systems will tend to have rules or principles stated as positive goals (e.g., be trustworthy, treat others decently, help people when they need it), whereas negative motive systems will tend to have rules stated as prohibitions (do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery).  Most societies and most religions have systems that are a mix of positive and negative but usually with more negative than positive.  Perhaps this speaks to the need to create systems that everyone can understand and that can motivate everyone.

To take the idea of positive motives a step farther, it should be possible to identify a number of qualities, characteristics, and skills in a person that would result in moral and ethical behavior, whether or not the person was attempting to follow an established set of moral or ethical guidelines!  (See below for such a list.)


Most of us want to know what is right and what is wrong, so that we can guide our own behavior as well as shape the behavior of others to be more right and less wrong. 

Ultimately, the most general tests for determining whether a behavior is right or wrong are (1) whether the behavior makes life more pleasant or less pleasant for everyone (others as well as yourself) and (2) whether the behavior makes life more dangerous or less dangerous for everyone.  In answering these tests, it is necessary to include for evaluation all of the probable consequences of the behavior.  Thus, while using heroin might make life more pleasant in the short run, it very often leads to financial ruin and to failures to carry out key life responsibilities (like supporting oneself and one’s family), and quite possibly to crime as well (to enable purchasing more of the drug), and these factors also make life less pleasant and more dangerous for others as well as for oneself, so we would rightly conclude that using heroin is more wrong than right.

Some might object that the individual cannot determine right and wrong because what is right and wrong is given by a deity or because everyone should follow what they are taught by their parents and by society and not even consider whether those teachings were correct.  However, in all religions that believe in afterlife rewards or punishment for doing right and wrong, it is clear that the individual is responsible for what he does and that acting on the direction of others will be no excuse on Judgment Day.  With regard to “revealed morality”, I suggest that one’s deity (at least a beneficent deity) would never give a moral rule that did not conform to the two conditions cited above.  In Christianity, for example, God would never give a rule that made life more difficult overall or a rule that made life more dangerous.  If God appeared to give such a rule, it would be important to question whether God really gave that rule or whether certain men had established that rule and claimed that it was from God.

In trying to sort out the right or wrong of a behavior, both in the moment in daily life and when you are giving intense consideration to a moral/ethical question, a number of “process” factors should be considered and employed.

(1) Strive for complete but compassionate self-awareness.  Human beings have a great tendency to convince themselves of what they want to believe, and this includes finding justifications for what we want to do.  Thus we are adept at making what we want to do seem to be “right” when it really isn’t.  The greatest barrier to doing what is right consistently is that part of the time, to do what is right would mean giving up some immediate pleasure or goal for ourselves.  Pay attention to how you create justifications for what you want to do.  Stop and consider objectively (honestly) whether they are real reasons for doing the behavior or whether they are rationalizations that sound good but are intended to deceive yourself and others.  Learn your patterns of rationalization so that you recognize them more quickly.

(2) Examine why your culture or other cultures have labeled the behavior as right or wrong.  Don’t accept your own, your family’s, or your culture’s assumptions about what is right and wrong, without examination.  Assume that every assertion of right and wrong may be distorted and may employ self-serving rationalizations, and check every one of these as closely as you can.  See whether things that are identified as right really meet the requirements of (a) making life more pleasant for everyone (others as well as yourself) and/or (b) making life less dangerous for everyone.   

(3) Use the consistency of your observations of what really happens in the world and your experiences (who is helped or harmed and how much) over time to help you establish whether a behavior is right or wrong.

(4) Check out whether you have an internally consistent position on the question.  If your feelings are telling you one thing, while your mind says something else, it is time to suspend judgment until you can integrate these aspects of what you know.

(5) Check out how other people in general (relatives, friends, colleagues) understand the right or wrong of the behavior.

(6) Keep track of why you conclude that something is right or wrong.  Your assessment may change with further experience.  Also, note the degree of certainty of each conclusion that you reach.  This allows you to readily reexamine things that you only “know” with a low degree of certainty, and to be more resistant to influences from others to change understandings that you know from repeated, careful observation.

(7) Pay attention to your inner voice or inner wisdom–that part of us that has some awareness of what is fundamentally right and wrong and some awareness of when we are trying to fool ourselves.  Ask yourself how you will feel if you do certain actions.

(8) Ask others whose reality perceptions and honesty you trust (a friend, a pastor, an ethicist) to give you their opinion about the matter in question.

(9) Assess the outcomes for others of your understanding of a behavior as being right or wrong.  If others will end up unfairly or inappropriately disadvantaged if everyone follows your conclusion, then that is a reason to be especially careful about your conclusion.  The more harm an action is likely to cause, the more likely that behavior is to be wrong.  The more benefit and the less harm an action is likely to cause, the more likely that behavior is to be right.

(10) Make sure that your understanding of a behavior as right or wrong is consistent with your other conclusions and your understanding of reality.  (This is often done by looking at history and what has happened in the past when people have reached your particular conclusion and have lived by it.)

(11) Ask yourself if you would reach the same conclusion if you didn’t care about the outcome for yourself.  This will help to identify your self-interest in seeing or doing things a certain way.

(12) Imagine yourself expressing the same conclusion publically and then adding on an explanation of your motives.  This is another exercise to identify your self-serving interests.  (“I believe that … is right [or wrong], and the reasons I personally want it to be right [or wrong] are….”   

(13) When you cannot determine whether something is right or wrong, suspend judgment until you get more information one way or the other.  It’s OK not to be sure, and suspending judgment allows you to avoid compounding an error.  Sometime, of course, we must act without knowing everything we would like to know, but even then, we can act but also remember that our decision was based partly on an unproven assumption.  Don’t make public assertions about whether something is right or wrong if you don’t know, even when you must assume some things in order to act in the present.

These guidelines, if applied diligently, will improve the accuracy of your determinations of right and wrong (as well as your self-understanding).  You may not always like what you find, but striving to be honest and fair will lead to better behavior and a better society in the long run.

In stepping back from a group and judging whether the group’s consensus about what is right and wrong is really accurate, we would evaluate whether the moral and ethical rules effectively served the purpose of making life more pleasant and less dangerous for everyone.  (Note that if moral or ethical rules supposedly given to the group by a deity made life less pleasant and more dangerous, the group would invalidate and reject those rules, the only exception to this being when those rules serve to maintain group identity and cohesion even at the expense of making life less pleasant and more dangerous.  Group survival trumps all other considerations for human beings, and individuals pursue the universal human goals listed below only in the context of the group to which they belong.)  The key factors in whether a given behavior or principle makes life more pleasant and less dangerous are (1) whether they result in harm to others or promote avoiding harming others and (2) whether they produce “good” for others (“good” being what those persons view as being in their best interest).


Using principles of good relationships and using self-interest rather than authority as the motivational base, a general set of moral/ethical principles can be constructed, which can be used as a code of conduct and would lead toward positive relationships, trust, and freedom from harm by others.

1. Treat all others well.  (All other people, no matter who or

   where or what they have done, should be treated well.)

   Treat others–





            as basic equals

            with basic acceptance (allowing them “to be,” without

             interference, as long as one is not being harmed)

2. Refrain from harming others.  Do not injure, kill, or steal from them, and commit no

    act that could be predicted by a reasonable person to result in harm of any kind to


   This principle prohibits both direct harm (injure, kill, deceive, etc.) and indirect harm—

   e.g., malicious gossip, perpetrating a falsehood that harms the self-esteem of an

   identified group of other people, or dumping toxic waste in the water supply used by

   people downstream).

   The Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) is a useful

   reminder to use empathy and self-awareness to understand how others could be

   harmed, so that one may avoid harming them.  Make positive reciprocity a reinforcing

   support for the value of acting morally and ethically.

   Be totally honest about the harm you cause others, but be both compassionate and

   skeptical about the reports of people regarding “being harmed,” since many people

   will exaggerate or lie about being harmed in order to get what they want.

3. Be honest with others in all matters in which dishonesty or deception could lead to

    harm to others.  Honesty also promotes trust and empathic understanding between


4. Be responsible in your dealings with others (and in your dealings with yourself).  Do

    what you promise to do, and do what you are expected to do according to the

    moral/ethical principles that you and others have agreed to.

5. Treat others as if they are all basic equals with yourself, deserving of common

    courtesy and decent treatment, regardless of appearance, gender, age, wealth,

    fame, illness, ethnic or cultural background, or recent behavior.

6. Treat everyone fairly, so that all rules and agreements are

    administered without bias or favoritism.

7. Treat others with basic acceptance (letting them be without

    efforts to change them), regardless of appearance, gender, illness,

    ethnic and cultural background, age, or recent behavior.

Advanced principles of living, that improve the quality of life for everyone and are more characteristic of good persons than of moral and ethical persons, are–

8. Treat all others with a loving attitude, wanting the best for them and approaching

    them with a positive attitude.    

9. Live by your moral and ethical beliefs, even when it is difficult.  Cultivate sufficient

    autonomy that you can stand by your beliefs even when it leads to rejection.


Every system of ideas that promotes a way of living has a particular way of living in mind, whether that is openly made clear or not.  The principles promoted here for being a moral and ethical person and for being a “good” person will move you toward being a person who is honest, responsible, caring, accepting, cooperative, fair, self-aware, empathic, and compassionate, who has good self-control and can manage his or her emotions effectively, and who can stand alone when necessary in support of what is right.  They promote a way of being and an existence that has the greatest chance of maximizing equality among people, and minimizing conflict, hatred, and violence.  These principles help one to live effectively and at peace with oneself, others, and life. 

This set of principles promotes “good” or “positive” interactions among people, which are defined as interactions in which both parties feel comfortable and safe (as a result of understanding each other and feeling treated appropriately by the other person) and in which both parties are motivated to cooperate to achieve mutually agreeable goals when those goals are active.  These interactions succeed through understanding and cooperation and result in minimum amounts of conflict and violence between people.  People using this system of principles will approach others and life with positive expectations, will seek good outcomes for both self and others from all of their behavior (partly through “doing the right thing” in all circumstances), and will be calm, compassionate, and understanding with others.

These principles help to make possible achievement of the goals that every human being has in common–

  • life maintenance and support (sufficient goal attainment to enable one to take care of oneself and those legitimately dependent on one, and to meet one’s basic needs at least adequately)
  • having minimal internal conflict and emotional pain (though recognizing that some degree of conflict and pain are inherent in being human)
  • having some degree of pleasure and pleasant emotion in one’s life (including feeling some amounts of happiness and hope, and ultimately some amounts of

satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment)

  • having a good relationship with oneself (including loving oneself, respecting oneself, accepting oneself, and treating oneself well)
  • having gratifying relationships with others, including cooperating with others in order to achieve one’s goals, having a secure place in one’s family, and meeting one’s needs for connection, closeness, affection, love, and sex

(The amount and quality of the housing, clothing, and food that are viewed as “adequate”, for example, will vary with the economic status of a society and with its public views regarding pleasure.  Some societies promote more self-abnegation than others, and some put relationships with others above one’s relationship with oneself, but all people would naturally seek a positive relationship with the self if it were permitted to them.  To promote self-denial and self-injury as a method of controlling behavior leads to greater unhappiness in the society.)

(from wisdomselfmgmtbk)


Previously it was noted that it should be possible to identify a set of beliefs, attitudes, and skills that would allow a person to live morally and ethically (and make it likely that that person would live morally and ethically), even if he were not trying to follow an established code of morality and/or ethics.  If an individual had sufficient amounts of these listed items, I would argue that he or she would make good moral and ethical decisions, as a result of being the person he or she “is.”

ability to predict accurately all of the short-term and long-term effects of the

               various possible human actions on self and others

            thinking that being a good person will result in better outcomes in life for oneself

                in the long run,

empathically anticipating the experience that self and others will have as a result

     of one’s behavior,

            appreciating, through empathy, the pain of others when they suffer or are

                treated inappropriately and harmed,

           honesty with oneself regarding one’s own biases and desires

                 and regarding how one would like others to behave

           honesty with others in all matters that could affect them

            responsibility and trustworthiness, with respect to self and others

            believing in basic equality between all people

            treating others fairly at all times

            basically accepting others and their behavior, as long as no one is being harmed

           developing adequate self-control so that one can resist doing harm to self or

                others even in the heat of the moment

           developing adequate ability to manage one’s emotions so that one can

                tolerate the frustrations of giving up immediate gratifications for the sake of

                longer-term gains and so that one can resist doing harm to self or others even

                in the heat of the moment

            having basic social skills

            ability to cooperate comfortably with others in joint ventures for mutual benefit      having a positive attitude toward others

            knowing what is best to do and what is right to do

            believing in the possibility and desirability of a society in which people are

                trustworthy and responsible and in which everyone acts

                morally and ethically in order to gain the rewards of such shared behavior,

           appreciating the reciprocity effect (that when we treat others well, they are drawn

                to treat us similarly), and holding oneself to the Kantian imperative (that

                before acting, one must consider whether one would like the

                result if everyone acted in the same way).

(See the Appendices for explanations of honesty, responsibility, etc.)


First, identify everyone involved in the situation or potentially affected by the decision.

Then, identify the rights of everyone involved and any moral/ethical or legal duties that you owe to those involved.  These rights may derive from an applicable moral or ethical code or from generally accepted customs in the culture.

Identify all of the moral rules and ethical principles that are relevant to the situation, so that you can look at them as a whole and see whether they can all be satisfied by a particular course of action.  This might include considerations that you believe are important but that are not part of any moral or ethical code (e.g., to not embarrass anyone).

Assess how the welfare of each person will be affected by the various possible courses of action.  This includes not only those directly and currently involved but others whose lives may be affected later by the results of the current actions.  (Actions taken as a result of a dispute about water contamination will affect not only those who may bear monetary costs currently but all those using those water sources in the future.)

Consult, if needed, with advisers whose integrity allows them to offer input that is objective and unbiased

Assess how the relevant moral rules and ethical principles that you have identified will

  be followed or not followed by various courses of action.

Assess honestly how you want the situation to go and how you might be biasing your assessments above by your desire for it to go a certain way.  Seek the input of trusted and honest others on this point.

Choose actions based on—

            the good done and the harm done to each person involved or affected

            fulfillment or contradiction of relevant moral rules and ethical principles

            maximizing the welfare of all involved



It is proposed that being a moral person and being an ethical person can be subsumed in being a good person.  A good person can be defined as one who (1) knows what is right and does it, as long as it does not lead to harm for self or others, and (2) honors moral and ethical standards and principles but goes beyond them to live by an attitude of love and compassion for others.  A good person is a moral and an ethical person (although that may be in reference to the individual’s own sense of right and wrong, which may differ from commonly accepted notions).  A moral and ethical person is not always fully a good person.  Quite a few people act publically according to society’s morals and ethics but in private do not follow those rules and do not have an attitude of love and compassion for others.

Three meanings of “good person” must be distinguished:  (1) the good person (“good boy,” “good girl”) who behaves in ways that are pleasing to parents and other authority figures; (2) the good person who is pleasing to God (sometimes partly through ignoring what would please parents and other earthly authority figures); and (3) the good person who can be identified as good because of his or her attitudes and actions toward others, including caring about others, acting morally, being trustworthy and responsible, treating others appropriately and ethically, and carrying out activities that contribute to the well being of others such as socializing children to be emotionally healthy and good people and supporting the societal structures that make life bearable (being a good citizen).  I will be using “good person” in this third sense.  “Being good” applies to momentary decisions or individual actions to be good, while “being a good person” implies a more ongoing effort and condition that shows some consistency over time.

As noted above, what people consider to be “good” stems from what they view as furthering their interests, and what is “bad” is that which is viewed as harming them or their interests.  Applying this to the above differentiation of what it means to be a good person, we see that in the first two meanings, the good person is seen as good because he is furthering the interests of parents or God.  In the third meaning of the term, the good person is seen as good because his actions are furthering the interests of other people.  (In both cases, he is also furthering his own interests, as we all do in every action that we take.)

Pleasing parents and pleasing God as approaches to being good, while simplifying behavioral choice processes, if sustained into adulthood, create a narrow person who may not grow into meaningful maturity, because what is considered right or appropriate can only be revealed to that person by parents or God, depriving the person of the necessity for appreciating the difficulty of choices in real life between various “goods” and the necessity of learning to make her own decisions about what is most right and appropriate.  Most of us begin life trying to please our parents and somewhat later come to understand the importance of pleasing God.  The mature person internalizes and then refines these criteria for being good and from them creates his or her own set of principles and beliefs that allow appropriate continued pleasing of parents to some degree, living in accordance with universal religious truths (which may not be the same as conforming to the customs of established churches), and having a loving and positive impact on others.  (“Morals” are more oriented to what is “right” and “wrong,” while “ethics” speaks to how we should interact with our fellow human beings.) 

This process of examining and refining moral and ethical rules and principles usually involves recognizing their imperfection and ambiguities, as well as seeing how rules are sometimes created by individuals partly to benefit themselves at the expense of others (passing tax laws that benefit legislators only; requiring things other than citizenship before letting people vote; declaring that contributing money to the church through buying “indulgences” will help the individual or his relatives escape from purgatory and ascend to heaven; etc.).  Two guidelines for the development of ethical principles are (1) reciprocity (treating others as you would like to be treated by them, since when you treat others well, they are more likely to treat you the same) and (2) the “Kantian imperative”–that in choosing your behavior or creating a standard for yourself, you must consider whether it would a better world or a worse one if everyone else made the same choice.

The Actions of a Good Person

A good person treats others well, regardless of the circumstances and will do the right and appropriate thing to do even if it has immediate costs (even if he does not get everything he wants from the current situation).  It helps to make these costs more bearable that he believes that acting consistently over time in a moral/ethical manner will actually give him (and others) the greatest total rewards over the long haul.  He does the right and appropriate thing even if no one will know that he has done so and even if he could act inappropriately and unethically without anyone knowing, because he knows that his actions have consequences for everyone, even if they do not know that he is the cause.  He feels responsible for the consequences of his actions, even if others do not know of his actions.

As we all know, people sometimes do what is wrong rather than what is right.  Much of this inconsistency stems from the fact that while they acknowledge that someone else says it is right and good and may believe with part of themselves that it is right and good, other parts of themselves do not believe this at all (or the person has several inconsistent views on the matter, which vie for ascendancy), and these other parts or views press for action to get what the person wants right now regardless of whether the behavior will be “right” and “good.”  We call this self-centered behavior “selfish.”  This can also be viewed as the “split” between a somewhat more mature “ego” that tries to direct behavior and an “id” that wants what it wants regardless of the impact on others and has difficulty delaying gratification for any reason.  The “superego” or conscience, that causes unpleasant feelings when the principles it wishes the person to live by are violated, is not sufficient for most people to ensure “good” behavior.  The best solution for guaranteeing “good” behavior, therefore, is for the person to believe that acting in a “good” manner will result in the greatest rewards over the long term, even if immediate gratifications must sometimes be given up.  This removes the conflict between the part of the self that wants to “do good” and the part that doesn’t care about that but rather cares only about its own gratifications.  The “child” (id) part of the person must develop faith that the “adult” (ego) part of the person will actually maximize the benefits to the “child” part by following the strategy of “being good.”

A good person wants good for all people, not just for herself, her friends, and her family.  This desire is based on an empathic awareness of what it feels like to be injured by the immoral or unethical behavior of others, as well as a positive vision of what social relations could be like if everyone acted in a moral/ethical manner.  She makes the welfare of others as important as her own welfare.  She is forgiving, merciful, and compassionate because she understands how difficult it is both to arrive at moral/ethical decisions and to carry them out, sometimes in the face of one’s own selfish desires. 

A good person carries out responsibilities without having to be coerced and even if there are costs for doing so.  She views responsibilities as part of her moral/ethical contract with others, and she honors that contract without others’ urging or knowledge.

An individual in the highest stage of moral/ethical development decides on moral/ethical behavior based on all the short-term and the long-term results and consequences of his  behavior for everyone, including those in future generations who could be harmed or benefited by his current behavior.  He uses rules, principles, cultural traditions, and the consultative advice of trusted others to arrive at decisions about what is the “most right” thing to do.

A good person uses both information and emotional data to make moral/ethical decisions.  He uses his knowledge to predict what the consequences of his actions will be for everyone who could be impacted, and he uses empathy to appreciate what those consequences will feel like for those affected.  He considers how he himself will feel about himself and his behavior afterward (although he has moved beyond basic, unthinking guilt and shame controls to respond more to disappointment with self when he does not live up to his ideals).  Both sources of inner guidance are necessary.  A person who acts on cognitive data only (knowing what is right from instructions or principles) can get off course at times because he lacks the guidance of empathy, which tells him what the experiential impact of a contemplated behavior will be.  This impact must be congruent with the principle at issue, or there will be a resulting internal conflict.  On the other hand, a person who acts on empathy only (not using cognitive data to supplement this) makes errors by always trying to eliminate pain and engender pleasant feelings, when he could know through cognitive means when it is in the other person’s best interest to suffer or to experience the unpleasant consequences of his or her actions.

Some people act like good persons but are not sincerely and open-heartedly good persons, since their behavior is largely aimed at getting approval and rewards from those around them for being good or appearing to be a good person.  A sincerely good person feels good himself about his actions and his identification with the ideals of goodness and does not seek the admiration of others (“goodness is its own reward”).  (In some instances, of course, the good person gets the respect and approval of others for good and compassionate behaviors and for being a good person.)

No doubt some readers will object to this description of the good person because they want to think of themselves as good persons (and have generally thought of themselves as good persons), but they are not empathically oriented toward contributing to good outcomes for others, as is required by the description of the good person in this essay.  These people may be equating social acceptability with being a good person, as if everyone who is accepted as a member of the community or as a member of his or her social group must automatically be viewed as a good person.  Some of these people have lots of friends, with most of these relationships being relatively superficial and oriented toward mutual business gain.  They may sometimes contribute to gains for these friends but only if they themselves benefit as well.  Others may think that anyone who does not harm others on purpose must qualify as a good person.  Social bonhomie and holding back from harming others do not qualify as being a good person in the definition presented here, which calls for caring about the welfare of people in general and acting in ways that promote good outcomes for others. 

Another group of people pass as good most of the time, even though they frequently engage in “bad” behaviors (that harm others or the community).  They may think that they are in fact “good” as long as others assume that they are and don’t know of their “bad” behavior.

As primary tools in making moral/ethical decisions, a good person uses his predictive powers regarding the consequences of his actions, an empathic understanding of the consequences of his behavior (the Golden Rule), a view of ethical behavior as having reciprocal influence (that how one treats others determines at least in part how they treat him), and the Kantian imperative (that before acting, one must consider if one would be satisfied with the results if everyone acted like one does oneself).

To summarize, the identifying characteristics of a good person are–

            wanting good for all people,

            viewing the welfare of others as being nearly as important as one’s own (and in

                many cases, equal in importance to one’s own),

           appreciating, through empathy, the pain of others when they suffer or are

                treated inappropriately and harmed,

           honesty with others in all matters that could affect them

            responsibility and trustworthiness, with respect to self and others, even when

                there is significant personal cost

            believing in basic equality between all people

            treating others fairly at all times

            basically accepting others and their behavior, as long as no one is being harmed

            having a compassionate and loving attitude toward others

            knowing what is best to do and what is right to do

The methods used to be a good person are–

            thinking that being a good person will result in better outcomes in life for oneself

                in the long run,

            ability to predict accurately all of the short-term and long-term effects of the

               various possible human actions on self and others

empathically anticipating the experience that self and others will have as a result

     of one’s behavior,

           honesty with oneself regarding one’s own biases and desires

                 and regarding how one would like others to behave

           developing adequate self-control so that one can resist doing harm to self or

                others even in the heat of the moment

           developing adequate ability to manage one’s emotions so that one can

                tolerate the frustrations of giving up immediate gratifications for the sake of

                longer-term gains and so that one can resist doing harm to self or others even

                in the heat of the moment

            having basic social skills

            ability to cooperate comfortably with others in joint ventures for mutual benefit

            believing in the possibility and desirability of a society in which people are

                trustworthy and responsible and in which everyone acts

                morally and ethically in order to gain the rewards of such shared behavior,

           appreciating the reciprocity effect (that when we treat others well, they are drawn

                to treat us similarly), and holding oneself to the Kantian imperative (that

                before acting, one must consider whether one would like the

                result if everyone acted in the same way).

This list of defining and supportive elements is very much the same as the list above of characteristics and supportive elements for being a moral and ethical person.  The differences are that the moral and ethical person has a positive attitude toward others, while the good person has a compassionate and loving attitude toward others, wants good for all people, and views the welfare of others as being nearly as important as his

own (and in many cases, equal in importance to his own).  The difference, then, is that the good person has more love for others than is necessary to be a moral and ethical person.  Being a moral and ethical person is more oriented toward doing the right thing, while the good person is more oriented toward doing what is best for others.

Reasons To Seek to Be a Good Person

The benefits and costs of being a good person are similar but not identical to the benefits and costs of being moral and ethical, since the motives are different—i.e., in the one case conforming to rules of conduct and in the other acting in ways that will benefit and not harm others.  The benefits of being a good person (as distinguished from appearing to be a good person) begin with how others perceive us.  If we are honest and responsible and have empathic concern for how we affect others, then others will feel trust and respect toward us, will be inclined to cooperate and help us, and will have a generally positive attitude toward us.  This is surely a more comfortable way of living with others than fighting with them all the time about who did what to whom and whether various behaviors were “justified.”  Being a good person contributes to the general sense of trust and comfort in society in general (just as going against what is right and harming others as a result adds to the general mistrust and fear we experience among our fellow men and women).

By being a good person, we will generally fulfill the expectations of others for us, including parents and other authority figures.  It is certainly a good feeling for almost everyone to be who we think we are “supposed to be.”  Occasionally, doing what is truly right goes against what others wish from us, but by and large, parents are proud of children who are honest and responsible and who do not take advantage of others. 

Doing what is right minimizes the internal conflict we feel when conscience or superego tells us that we have violated important rules or principles.  Similarly, it minimizes any religious conflicts we feel about God knowing that we have done something that is “wrong.”

Keeping a clean conscience gives us a feeling of being “pure” and internally at peace, and it simplifies our lives from having to keep on telling lies and manipulating in order not to have our misdeeds found out.  (This would be true whether the expectations of one’s conscience were appropriate or not, but a conscience that had inappropriate expectations might be impossible to “keep clean”!)

Finally, if you are a good person, you can like and respect yourself and have good self-esteem (unless, of course, the rules you have for when you can feel good about yourself are inappropriate and overly demanding).  Being a good person should certainly be enough to enable one to feel some satisfaction and self-respect.

If you are truly a good person, then being a good person is part of your identity.  Assuming that the choice to be a good person has been your free choice, then you will value that aspect of yourself and will work hard to preserve it rather than allowing yourself to abrogate it by being a “bad” person.

Costs of Being a Good Person

While most people like the good persons around them, because they are trustworthy and safe and because their actions make everyone’s lives around them a little better, there are some costs to being a good person, both internal and external.  Internally, being a good person requires that we conform our behavior to what is good, even when we might still have personal desires that we wish to satisfy by means that are “wrong.”  We must keep our mouths shut when our fatigue prompts us to give an acid comment in response to someone’s unintended frustrating behavior, and we must turn in to the police the thousand dollars we found, even though keeping it would solve a current financial problem that we have.  In order to do these things with relative equanimity, it is necessary to believe that doing them (at least doing them consistently, over time) will lead us to better life outcomes than if we indulge our immediate needs and feelings.  You will note that the ability to delay gratification is a very important element in the mix of cognitive/emotional skills needed to be a good person.

Sometimes there is extra expense and difficulty to doing the right thing and being a good person.  After finding the thousand dollars, you have to make an extra trip to the police station, knowing that their suspicious minds will wonder if you stole it rather than found it.  When you vote your conscience, in the best interest of all citizens, your friends who wanted to benefit from a different vote at the expense of all citizens will likely be mad at you.

The good person may also be attacked (prissy, goody-two-shoes, mama’s boy, teacher’s pet, etc.) or shunned by others who view her “goodness” as (1) shaming to them (since parents often use comparisons to evoke conformity–“look at how your sister is so good; why can’t you be that way [so I could love you as much as your sister]?”) or (2) preventing them from doing the not so good things they would like to do because they dare not publicly go against her moral/ethical stance or principles.

Can The Number of Good Persons Be Increased?

If we agree that it is desirable to have more good persons around us, then we can choose to associate with more good persons ourselves, and we can consider actions that may influence more people to become good persons.  Perhaps the most influential action that we can take is to live consistently as good persons ourselves, since this will inspire others to be more like good persons themselves.  The concern for others, responsible relating, trustworthiness, and willingness to make the welfare of others as important as one’s own that good persons live out every day make others feel good and naturally move them toward acting in these ways themselves.

Many people do not commit themselves to being good persons because they confuse being a good person with “being good,” and they associate being good with giving in to unreasonable parental demands for “good” behavior as children.  They are still resisting these unreasonable demands as adults.  They believe that being good always means giving up your needs and rights to others, as when parents pressured them into letting the visiting child play with the toy, have the last piece of cake, or have their bed to sleep in. 

To be a good person is a mature choice (whether made by an adult or a child) to treat others well (as one would like to be treated by them), to act responsibly, and to make good moral/ethical choices by considering honestly all of the consequences and effects of one’s behavior.  It may be inspired by the behavior of those we admire or identify with, but once chosen, it is a path of our own.  It is not chosen to get the approval of others but because of a deep belief that we all owe each other fair and decent treatment.  Perhaps those who are still resisting the urging of parents to “be good” can be shown this distinction and offered the chance to leave that conflict behind and choose who they wish to be for the rest of their lives (independent of who their parents wanted them to be).

It is assumed that people can change from “not being a good person” to “being a good person” (according to the definition presented here).  Most people do not think about or consider their moral/ethical stance, even when faced with a moral/ethical conflict.  Most of us acquire our attitudes and beliefs about how to treat others by imitating our parents and others around us.  If those internalized attitudes and beliefs do not produce a good person, then the individual will only become a good person by realizing that he wants something different for his life and recognizing that treating others better may be an important part of that different life.  Usually this awareness is stimulated by painful social experiences of rejection and shame, as others respond to our not-so-good behavior, but it may also happen occasionally through significant exposure to someone who is a good person and whom we are drawn to imitate.

One might think that religions could inspire people to be good persons, and some people do find inspiration in the highest principles of religion, but most churches do not educate parishioners about the contrast described above between being good and being a good person, thus leaving most parishioners thinking that being good is the goal and responding to God as if he/she were a parent expecting “good” behavior from them (rather than autonomous responsibility and ethical behavior).  Secondary schools also place more emphasis on being good than on being good persons and do little to encourage mature ethical decision-making by students.  The best philosophy and religion classes in college can help students understand both the importance and the complexities of moral/ethical choices, and if this inspiration could be offered in evening classes for all adults, it would help some to make the decision to seek the path of being a good person.  Politics in this country has become so much about personal power and status (and buying influence) and so little about doing what is good and right for the country as a whole that it offers almost no examples that would inspire us toward being good persons.

Our laws could be changed to encourage truthfulness.  It could become a misdemeanor, for example, for a salesperson to misrepresent a product or to fail to mention an important negative aspect of the product.  It could become a misdemeanor for a political candidate to slant the truth or give only part of the truth about a topic (when the omitted aspects are both important for voters and already well known and the candidate actually knows better).  (Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but no one is entitled to represent his opinion as a fact or as the truth, unless it is indisputably the truth.  Even the President should say “In my opinion,…,” when he is asserting something about which reasonable people differ.  The ethical principle here is that no one has the right to influence another person to do something that may be harmful to that other person, when the first person knows or reasonably should know that the harm is likely.)

Discussion/study groups regarding how to be a good person, including exploration of complex ethical questions, could inspire some to try to become good persons and help others to become even better persons.

The bottom line for human beings is that they will only put their energies into causes in which they believe or that they are excited about.  Being a good person is a serious, long-term commitment that will only be made if the person believes that goodness will result in the best life possible and that being a good person is an important contribution to make to one’s fellow human beings.

essays\goodperson    finished 10-06,9-15


1. Kohlberg’s schema of moral development

2. Elaboration of Basic Moral/Ethical Attitudes and Skills

            knowledge of all of the results and consequences of a wide

                 range of human behaviors

            honesty with oneself regarding one’s own biases and desires

                 and regarding how one would like others to behave

            empathic appreciation for the feelings and experience of others


            assumption of basic equality between all people


            basic acceptance of others


            ability to manage emotions and thereby tolerate frustrations around

                  giving up immediate gratifications

            basic social skills



            knowing what is best to do and what is right to do

Appendix 1

The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, Ph.D., postulated a generally accepted stage system of moral development that occurs for most people in this order as they grow up.

1. In the “obedience and punishment orientation” a child understands what is wrong as being what is punished (in the terms of this essay, through feelings and experience).

2. In the “self-interest orientation” what is right is viewed as being whatever is in the person’s own immediate interest.

3. In the “interpersonal accord and conformity orientation” the individual views right and wrong as what others and society view as right and wrong, for the purpose of maintaining social approval (instruction from others and feelings).

4. In the “authority and social-order maintaining orientation” the individual views doing right and not wrong (as determined by society) as necessary for the maintenance of social order and social welfare (instruction from others, religion).

5. In the “social contract orientation” the individual thinks of right and wrong as principles determined by social groups and by individuals.  Different groups may derive different principles, and they all deserve some consideration, although those that are not “fair” and do not benefit everyone equally should be changed to be more “right” (reasoning, feelings, experience).

6. In the “universal moral principles orientation” the individual himself and herself determines through moral reasoning what is right and wrong, employing such principles as the Golden Rule and the Kantian imperative cited above.  The individual acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal, or previously agreed upon (reasoning, feelings experience).

This conception of moral development involves the elements described in this essay as important for learning about and knowing right and wrong–instruction from others, reason, feelings, religion, and experience.  The major motive identified in this stage system is self-interest, first conceived narrowly in terms of gaining approval and immediate benefits and avoiding punishments and later broadened to include the benefits of social approval and social order.  In the middle stages, conformity to rules determined by others (authority, religion) becomes important.  To the extent that the individual broadens his perspective to include the interests of others in his worldview and to make them equal in value to his own interests, he may “progress” on to viewing morality as a system of principles that must serve the interests of everyone and may even be seen as existing independently of human beings.

Appendix 2


            ability to predict accurately all of the short-term and long-term effects of the

               various possible human actions on self and others

            thinking that being a good person will result in better outcomes in life for oneself

                in the long run,

empathically anticipating the experience that self and others will have as a result

     of one’s behavior,

            appreciating, through empathy, the pain of others when they suffer or are

                treated inappropriately and harmed,

           honesty with oneself regarding one’s own biases and desires

                 and regarding how one would like others to behave

           honesty with others in all matters that could affect them

            responsibility and trustworthiness, with respect to self and others

            believing in basic equality between all people

            treating others fairly at all times

            basically accepting others and their behavior, as long as one is not being harmed

           developing adequate self-control so that one can resist doing harm to self or

                others even in the heat of the moment

           developing adequate ability to manage one’s emotions so that one can

                tolerate the frustrations of giving up immediate gratifications for the sake of

                longer-term gains and so that one can resist doing harm to self or others even

                in the heat of the moment

            having basic social skills

            ability to cooperate comfortably with others in joint ventures for mutual benefit      having a positive attitude toward others

            knowing what is best to do and what is right to do

            believing in the possibility and desirability of a society in which people are

                trustworthy and responsible and in which everyone acts

                morally and ethically in order to gain the rewards of such shared behavior,

           appreciating the reciprocity effect (that when we treat others well, they are drawn

                to treat us similarly), and holding oneself to the Kantian imperative (that

                before acting, one must consider whether one would like the

                result if everyone acted in the same way).


An important aspect of being wise is knowing accurately all of the results and consequences of various actions.  The more we understand about the consequences of human actions, the more wisely we can choose what to do and the more wisely we can advise others.  We usually know the significant immediate consequences of our actions, but we tend to ignore longer-term consequences (farther in the future), and many people ignore the reactions of others to us due to our impact on them.

First, in evaluating immediate consequences of their actions, many people downplay or ignore completely those consequences that might cause them not to do what they want to do.  When inviting other girls to a party, a young woman wants to have only popular friends attend, so she purposely does not invite her best friend of years past, who is not popular.  If she were realistic, she would acknowledge that her friend will be hurt, but because this might cause her to reconsider her plan, she downplays her friend’s reaction, thinking that her friend will forgive her or that possibly her friend won’t even hear about the party.  This way she can continue with her plan to get what she wants, without undue inner conflict.  If she does not invite her friend, in all likelihood the friend will be hurt, of course, which may damage the friendship.  In similar ways, we tend to focus on our vision of the outcomes we want when deciding on courses of action, while downplaying the outcomes that we don’t want.

Immediate consequences usually include our primary goals, so we naturally put more emphasis on them than we do on future consequences.  Future consequences of our actions are also harder to predict than immediate consequences, although that should not stop us from trying to understand them and get better at predicting them.  Personal and societal values also affect our relative emphasis on immediate versus future consequences.  For example, many people in our society today are seriously infected with the consuming habit, and they much prefer immediate consumption (borrowing to buy a new TV, a new house, etc.) to saving before spending or saving for retirement.  What can be saved, little by little, over time seems so boring and retirement so far in the future that people put off retirement saving or planning (not wanting to know the likely consequences of putting off saving).  They say they will start saving “later” (when it will probably be too late to save very much), and they hope vaguely that their children or the government will support them by that time (or that they can live on Social Security, the amount of which is usually much smaller than people imagine).  This denial of consequences is made possible by the fact that so many people around us have these consuming attitudes.  If most people favored saving before consuming, we would be more inclined to save before consuming, since much of our behavior is facilitated or inhibited by what we see people around us doing.  In other words, if everyone is doing it, then it must by OK.  People often do not analyze the realities of the situation in order to decide what to do—they just do what feels best, as long as everyone else is doing it.

Many people also ignore or downplay their impact on others, expecting conflict as a result of their actions but believing that others will not resist too much or will forgive them for selfish actions.  They ignore the fact that, even with family, harming others with our behavior (or routinely putting our interests ahead of those of others) will inevitably turn others against us and cause us to be seen as untrustworthy and as looking for opportunities to take advantage of them.

As with immediate consequences, we prefer to ignore likely longer-term consequences that would interfere with our immediate plans for gratification, and often we justify this by thinking that those longer-term consequences are uncertain even if they are likely, so that we will choose to hope that they simply don’t occur.  Of course, we cannot let uncertain future consequences stop us from every action, but we can learn to realistically estimate the likelihood of future consequences and add that to our considerations when choosing our actions (instead of just dismissing or downplaying them).  Sometimes, if we get what we want, it will mean that others won’t get what they want (e.g., when one person out of an applicant group is chosen for a job or other position), but if we are not acting directly to harm others and our actions are not contributing to a generally more harmful society, then it is not immoral to seek and get what we want.  However, we can also strive to develop our creativity at setting up situations in which everyone else benefits as well as ourselves (or is at least not harmed), whenever possible.


Being honest with ourselves leads to greater comfort with ourselves and to less inner conflict and worry for us.  Being honest with others leads to greater trust, cooperation, and liking.   Lying or distorting the truth leads to conflicts and roadblocks to good relations and to effective action.  In order to make good decisions and choices in life, people need to have an accurate view of reality, and if we have concern about others, then we will wish to help them to have an accurate view of reality, too.  We help each other with regard to reality by being honest with each other and by telling the truth.

We distort reality when we believe or present to someone else a description of reality that we know or should know (could readily know) is not the description of reality that is most likely to be true.  We “tell the truth” when we present to someone else a description of reality that we believe to be the most accurate description of reality that has been achieved up to this time.  In distorting, we ignore certain contrary information so that we can believe what we want to believe, we present a description to someone else that is what we want to believe rather than what we know to be more true, or we present a description to someone else that we know to be incomplete or erroneous (and that we usually hope will be misleading to that other person, so that we can benefit).  The latter is commonly known as lying.  Ignoring or purposely distorting information to oneself to ensure a certain outcome or belief for oneself is “lying” to oneself.

Being honest with yourself is fully admitting to awareness everything that you know about reality.  Being honest with others is answering their questions truthfully and letting others know all of the information that you know to be true that could affect their welfare.  Telling the truth is accurately conveying (and appropriately qualifying) what you believe to be reality (what actually happened or the current state of something), even though you may not know the truth or the reality of things correctly.  Determining what is true is essential to being honest and telling the truth, and the process of determining what is true is complicated and deserves our best efforts.

Human beings are limited in what we can understand, and we sometimes misunderstand reality and therefore cannot represent it accurately to others.  Of course this is an inherent limitation for all of us and is not an excuse for not telling the truth as near as we know it.

In general, self-deception occurs because we believe that with respect to that particular piece of reality, we will come out ahead by not knowing the truth.  One may fear the changes that knowing would require, and one may wish not to know in order not to upset current relationships or in order to avoid the internal conflict that can come from thinking, feeling, or doing something that violates one’s conscience or calls one’s valued identity into question.

Besides ignorance, three factors interfere with our telling of the truth.  We are tempted to distort the truth when we think that doing so will help us (1) to avoid punishments (“I didn’t do it”), (2) to get what we want (“He had two pieces of candy, and I only got one” when in fact the speaker had already had three), or (3) to ease and avoid emotional pain (e.g., when a person could know from the evidence that her husband is unfaithful, but she avoids thinking about it at all in order to avoid the pain).  We all experiment with these lies as children, and many of us continue to distort reality as adults whenever we think it could help us to avoid pain or give us other advantages. 

We do not usually lie to each other about most “factual” things (usually things that we can all agree on), but we are tempted to lie to others about things that they cannot readily confirm, in order to avoid negative consequences (shame, guilt, punishment) and in order to deceive others so that they will do something we want them to do.  We practically expect car salesmen to lie about the qualities of a car so that a prospective buyer will buy it.  (These car salesmen may be honest with themselves, but they are not honest with others, and they do not tell the truth.)  Both kinds of lies cause problems for other people, the first because avoiding responsibility for ourselves tends to give others wrong information, as well as giving them a distorted picture of ourselves, and the second because the distortions cause economic or other practical disadvantages for others stemming from making decisions that lead to losses or other harm.

Lying by omission (what we don’t say) can be just as harmful to others as lying by what we say.  Not mentioning that the road ahead has no gas stations for 100 miles can be quite harmful if we answer a question about the status of the road ahead with only “The road is fine.”  We did not lie, “technically,” if the road surface and signage are adequate, but our failure to expand the question from “what they asked” to “related things that they need to know” may cost them significantly.  A car salesman who answers a question from a potential buyer of  “Is this car safe?” with “Sure, it’s safe,” when what he means is “It’s as safe as most other cars,” is ignoring what the customer needs to know if part of the safety picture is that like many cars, this car rolls over easily.  It may be true that the car is almost as safe as most other cars, and it may be true that a number of other cars also roll over readily, but the salesman is distorting the reality that the customer needs to or should assess by not giving the customer all of the relevant information, and he does this hoping to make it more likely that the customer will buy the car.  He lies by omission to gain advantage for himself.

In order to be honest with ourselves and others, we must believe that knowing the truth and seeing reality clearly will lead to a better life than ignorance and self-deception.  The arguments supporting this belief are that knowing the truth and seeing reality clearly allow us to make better choices and decisions, which will lead to more effective goal-attainment efforts and to minimization of suffering and pain in life, and that telling the truth will result in greater trust and comfortableness between people.

The key to honesty with oneself is being willing to accept the pain of knowing in return for its benefits, and this can only be done if one believes that the benefits will outweigh the pain, at least over time.  The keys to honesty with others are believing that our relationships will be happier and more productive if we are honest and believing that others will be better off in general if we are honest with them.  These beliefs rest on caring about what happens to others and on knowing that honesty leads to deeper and stronger connections with others.  More superficial relationships include and can tolerate more withholding of truth, but deeper and more meaningful relationships require that we really “know” the other person (which means that we know what is going on inside them) and that they “know” us.  (Honest self-disclosure risks vulnerability for ourselves and generates greater trust in others.)

Sometimes the “pain” of being honest lies in giving up something that we want.  For example, if we acknowledge and do not deny to ourselves that our frequent snacking acts against our efforts to lose weight, we may “have to” rein in our snacking, thus “forcing ourselves” to do without the pleasure of the snacking.

We can learn to be strong enough to tolerate unpleasant truths, and when the content is unpleasant or hurtful to others, we can exercise discretion while not losing sight of what is true.  It is not necessary to beat others over the head with truth, and an accepting atmosphere leads more readily to change than a critical atmosphere.

You can help yourself and others to a better life by making a commitment to know and tell the truth and not to distort reality for your own benefit or to make yourself feel better.  Notice when you distort reality or tell little lies, especially when you distort what you say in order to get the other person to do what you want.  Think seriously about telling the truth instead.  Telling the truth sometimes means that you will feel embarrassment or suffer a temporary breach in a relationship, but others will respect you for your willingness to feel those things for the sake of being honest with them.


Empathy (the ability to feel, know, and/or appreciate what another person is feeling, thinking, or experiencing without being directly informed of it by the other person) is the human ability that helps us most to have good relations with others and to live together harmoniously and productively.  If we could not appreciate what others are feeling, we would not care about them as we do.  If we could not intuit or “interpret” what others are thinking, we would not feel comfortable around them, because we could not predict what they would do next (and could therefore not “trust” them).  Having accurate empathy for others is essential for living together harmoniously and productively. Empathy allows us to recognize our basic similarity to other people and therefore become willing to give them the same rights that we have.  Empathy also helps us to anticipate the reactions of others to various behaviors we might choose to do, so that we can then choose behaviors that will be most to our advantage. Empathy makes possible accepting others as they are, and it also makes possible (but is not sufficient for) choosing as your behaviors those that do not harm others and behaviors that benefit both yourself and others.  (Without this empathic appreciation of others’ subjective experience, reason easily gets off course.)

Empathy is a key skill for coming to understand the deeper and comprehensive truth about human beings, since the more accurate information we have about people, the better we can understand them.  This includes understanding ourselves as well, since we often come to understand ourselves through understanding others. 

Being able to understand how people fail or make mistakes (and therefore understanding how they could avoid failing and making mistakes) is critical to being able to advise them or help them to do better.  Failures and mistakes usually flow from misunderstanding information about the environment, about oneself, or about others, and from purposive (though often unconscious) distortions of reality in order to avoid emotions or to justify desired actions.   A person is wise or mature partly to the extent that she accurately perceives these processes of misunderstanding and distortion in herself and in others.

Having empathy involves both emotional and cognitive components. We resonate with the other person’s expressions of emotions, and we also perceive the other person’s situation and place ourselves in that situation in order to imagine what the other person is feeling or otherwise experiencing.  We observe the cues from others in words, voice patterns, posture, movements, and facial expressions, and putting this together with what we perceive and what we know historically about the person’s current situation and concerns, we intuit or imagine and partially experience what that person is feeling and thinking.  This is a complicated process, and empathy is often only partially accurate and sometimes wrong.  Our internal processes are so complex that empathy generally captures only the highlights of what is happening for the other person, but the more we know about the cues that we see in a particular person and the more we know about his circumstances, the deeper and more accurate our empathy can be. 

It should be clear that in order to have empathy for others, we must we willing to experience, at least to some degree, what the other person is experiencing.  Also, in order for us to make sense of what we experience of another person’s experience, we must have some familiarity with the sort of things that the other person is experiencing.  Therefore, self-awareness provides the foundation for empathy, since in empathy we respond from our own past experience to cues that we think are telling us what others are thinking and feeling.   If we are not in touch with our own emotional experience, then we cannot make sense of the other person’s emotions. 

Empathy allows us to view firsthand the tendency that we have to view the world the way we want the world to be, as well as distorting reality in order to avoid unpleasant emotions and improve security and self-esteem.  (This concept of how we want the world to be, or how the world “should” be, is one way we have of preserving hope and of preserving the belief that there is some order and fairness to life.)

It takes us years of observing and trying to make sense of ourselves and others to develop accurate empathy, and it is critical that empathy be accurate if our actions based on our conclusions from that empathy are to be beneficent and if our advice based on that empathy is to be helpful.  In this process of developing accurate empathy, the skill of facing reality squarely and not distorting our understanding in order to feel better ourselves or to spare others is clearly essential.

The typical difficulties we encounter in having accurate empathy are (1) not correctly perceiving another person’s situation, (2) not being familiar with the feelings likely to be associated with that situation (3) not wanting to feel the same painful or unpleasant feelings that the other person is feeling, (4) being afraid of being too close to others, (5) fearing that having empathy will mean that one will always give in to others’ needs, and (6) assuming that others feel and think the same way we do about the world (which they do not),

Accuracy of perception depends on paying attention, attending to all of the relevant factors in a situation (emotions, thoughts, others involved, the history of the person with similar situations, cultural context, etc.), and having some familiarity with the type of situation in which the other person finds herself.  We can choose to pay attention, to take seriously what is happening, and to learn enough about the world and its peoples to have some familiarity with a wide variety of situations.  (If we do not care enough to pay serious attention, we can only ask ourselves why knowing about and understanding others is not important to us.)

We should assess whether we have sufficient familiarity with the situation before we enter an empathic connection, whether it deals with relationships, expectations, customs, or coping with the world around us.  Fortunately, most situations are common to us all (getting along with others, doing our daily work), but many of us shy away from familiarity with internal situations such as dealing with depression or anguish.  Most of us could broaden and deepen our human awareness by learning more about dealing with emotions.  Learning about other cultures and knowing that our own culture’s customs are only one way to live can also help us to understand a broader array of people and situations.

Being empathic requires that we be willing to partially experience what others are feeling, both in terms of letting another person’s experience into ourselves and in terms of allowing ourselves to experience whatever emotions the other person is actually feeling.  If a person is not secure in his own boundaries, he is likely to avoid experiencing the feelings of others, since this could lead to uncertainty about identity and difficulty in making decisions.

Some people resist empathy because they do not wish to deal with emotional pain, whether it is their own or that of others.  They do their best to deny or otherwise avoid their own painful emotions, instead of dealing with them or managing them.  Such people are cut off from an important area of human experience, since if we cannot appreciate emotional pain, we are cut off from the information that such pain can give us about what needs to be done or improved in our lives.  Learning to accept and manage our own emotional pain can lead to greater ability to empathize with others (and to closer, more satisfying relationships with them).  This requires working to become more tolerant of the full range of your feelings.

Some people fear that closeness will result in “engulfment” (the primitive fear that if one is close with someone, one will be taken in or taken over and completely controlled by that person).  Engulfment fears may require psychotherapy if they are to be overcome.  Some people fear closeness because they fear being hurt or rejected in a close relationship, but this can be overcome by becoming more supportive and loving toward oneself, to help one better tolerate the negative things that others can sometimes do.

Some people resist having empathy for others because they think that it will mean being overly sympathetic toward others and giving in to others all the time.  Fortunately, this is not true.  Appreciating what others experience simply gives us more options.  We may decide to let others have their way or to help them, or we may decide that it is appropriate or necessary for us to have what we want and for them to give way to us.  Being appropriately assertive in taking good care of ourselves is an essential skill in getting along with others, for we cannot get along well with others if we resent them for what we give to them.

Many errors in empathy arise from incorrectly interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because we believe that they react to stimuli and situations more or less as we do ourselves.  In terms of some basic life situations in our own culture, this may be true, but even within our own culture each person is unique, and the picture that each of us has in his or her head of the world is somewhat different.  We must realize that others may feel differently about things than we do and not assume that they feel the same as we do.  We imagine ourselves in their situation and note how we would feel, but we must then adjust our empathic understanding for the ways in which the other person is different from us.  Taking differences into account is especially important with a person from another culture or background, since that person will almost certainly have different assumptions than we do about the meaning of events and about how people are expected to feel about them.  The more ways in which the other person is different from us that we can take into account, the more accurate our empathy will be.

Having too little empathy is socially maladaptive, but some people have too much of it, as when they cannot escape from the feelings of others or when they suffer so much for others (in regard to what they understand to be the experience of those others) that they become dysfunctional themselves.   People with too much empathy will benefit from toning it down, but in order to do this they may have to deal with why others’ feelings are so influential with them, which may have resulted from their own permeable personal boundaries but may also be part of a pattern of putting others ahead of themselves in life in general.

Perhaps the key in this regard is that while using empathy, we partially experience (at a lower intensity) the experience of others, but at the same time we keep hold of our own experience and know clearly that what we label empathy is actually a part of our own experience.  In other words, when we experience something empathically, it is still ourselves processing and experiencing the information and emotions.  In empathy we are not “taken over” by the experience of others so that we become those others and think and feel exactly what those others are thinking and feeling.  We are ourselves putting ourselves into the shoes of others to understand better what others are experiencing.

The “proper” amount of empathy allows us to gladly join with others in their experience when we want to and withdraw from it when we wish.  It allows us to feel gratified when we affect the experience of others positively by our behavior, and it helps us to remember that we are basically similar to each other, having the same needs and emotions as everyone else.

Expand and deepen your empathy by paying more attention to others’ feelings and thoughts and relating them, as appropriate, to your own feelings and thoughts.  Purposely imagine what you believe they feel and think, based on your observations of them, and using both your emotional resonance with them and your interpretations of what they say and what they do.  Don’t fight the awareness that these practices will bring.  Allow yourself to accept others for who they are (which does not mean that you like everything about them or allow them to take advantage of you).


The wise person and the mature person choose to be responsible (to always act as promised, as could be reasonably expected, and/or as appropriate), because she has observed that being responsible causes others to trust her and therefore to cooperate with her and relate more closely.  She sees that being responsible makes everything go more smoothly.  The wise person takes care of responsibilities on her own volition, without complaining or doing it only to avoid the criticism of others.  She truly sees them as responsibilities rather than as unfair and excessive demands.  She is also willing to tolerate considerable discomfort, pain, or disadvantage in order to be responsible.  The unwise or immature person puts off taking care of responsibilities as long as possible and fail to appreciate the impact that this may have on others.  She perceives responsibilities as extra demands, does not accept them as being her own, and makes no demands on herself.  She tries to get others to take care of her welfare and her painful feelings rather than being responsible for herself.

If you have concern for others, you can benefit them significantly by being responsible.  This means (1) doing what you have promised, what you said that you will do, and what you are assigned to do, and (2) acting appropriately for the circumstances.  If you tell someone you will do something, then you do it without fail, even if you have not formally promised, and if you are appropriately assigned a task, you carry it out in such a way as to meet appropriate expectations for your task.  In addition, you act “responsibly” in all circumstances—driving safely, doing your homework, not taking money from your mother’s purse, paying your debts on time, actually watching the child you are babysitting rather than the TV, etc., etc.  This aspect of responsibility encompasses doing “the right thing” and acting in accord with the reasonable expectations that other have for you.

You minimize trouble and difficulties for others and for yourself by keeping your promises and carrying out your responsibilities, because others have based their expectations and actions on what you have promised or been assigned, and if you fail to do what you have said or what you have been assigned, you will make things more confusing and difficult for them.

The reasons for most irresponsibility are (1) not “feeling like” doing the responsible thing at the time and (2) believing that it will be personally advantageous not to do the responsible thing.  You are tired and don’t “feel like” doing your homework, so you lie to your mother that you have done it, go to bed, and figure you’ll make some excuse to the teacher tomorrow and somehow get by.  Instead of going by the rules of your Little League as a coach, you lie about the age of a particularly good player so that he can play on your team.  (There are a few, more complicated reasons for not being responsible, such as acting irresponsibly for the purpose of hurting a parent, but these two encompass most irresponsibility.)

The argument for being responsible and acting responsibly is the same as that presented above for being honest and truthful.  Over the long haul, you will get more from others, get more out of life, and be happier if you are responsible, even though that means that you will do things when promised, even if you don’t feel like it or have to stay up late, and even though being responsible means that you will give up opportunities to take advantage of others by acting irresponsibly.  Children have the illusion that they need to get all they can right now, but as adults we can see the bigger picture and realize that we benefit more over time from treating people well than we benefit from taking advantage of them whenever we can.

Some people believe that lots of people “out there” are having great lives from taking advantage of others, but they are not taking into account that those people have no real friends (because no one can trust them) and poor marriages (because they are not trustworthy and don’t care about others), so their “great lives” appear to be great only superficially.  They may get a thrill out of successfully taking advantage of others, and they may get some financial advantage at the moment, but they are giving up a great deal by being that kind of person.   Everything significant that we have or get in life must be earned, and there is no free lunch!

A particular aspect of responsibility that is worth highlighting is taking care of oneself (appropriate autonomy), to the extent that doing so is possible and appropriate for one.  (See “Supporting Oneself” below.)

To be more responsible, examine what you believe about the benefits (to yourself and others) versus the costs (to yourself) of being responsible, and decide whether it is to your advantage to be more responsible.  Experiment with taking care of responsibilities correctly and on time (doing the job as it was meant to be done, doing the job in the time frame agreed to), and find out if the self-esteem that you get plus the appreciation that you get from others for acting responsibly is or is not more gratifying than the gratification you get from failing to carry out those responsibilities.


A wise person is described by others as an insightful and trustworthy person, one who can be counted on to use full knowledge of the truth in attempting to help others and to make his own needs no more important than those of others in choosing courses of action.  Being trustworthy means that others can count on you (1) to do what you have promised, what you said that you will do, and what you are assigned to do and (2) to act in ways that always honor the rights of all others.   If you tell someone you will do something, then you do it without fail, even if you have not formally promised, and if you are appropriately assigned a task, you carry it out in such a way as to meet appropriate expectations for your task.  If you are entrusted with the money or materials of others, you safeguard those things carefully, and if you contract to administer a joint ownership or agreement, you ensure that the rights of all parties are honored as appropriate.

The wise person and the mature person act in trustworthy ways because they have concluded that the subjective as well as the real-world consequences of being untrustworthy are worse over the long term than whatever consequences there are to being trustworthy.  The positive consequences of being trustworthy lie mostly in the appreciation and the positive attitudes of others toward us, plus their greater willingness to cooperate with us in joint projects, while the negative consequences of being trustworthy consist of the personal sacrifice sometimes involved in carrying out responsibilities, together with giving up the benefits of taking advantage of others unfairly.

The wise person and the mature person choose to act in trustworthy ways, since that promotes cooperation with others, induces others to be more trustworthy themselves, and fulfills explicit promises made as well as implicit elements of the general social contract.  Wise and mature persons like dealing with trustworthy persons and therefore are determined to be trustworthy themselves.  The unwise person and the immature person do not see beyond immediate results and choose whether or not to fulfill agreements based on perceived immediate benefit.

If you have problems with being trustworthy, seriously consider the benefits of being untrustworthy (benefiting from taking advantage of others) versus the costs of being untrustworthy, such as others not liking, not trusting, and not cooperating with you, and compare those with the benefits of being trustworthy (being liked, trusted, and cooperated with) versus its costs (carrying out responsibilities and acting appropriately, even when you don’t “feel like it.”), to see if you believe that it is worthwhile for you to become more trustworthy.


Many human problems could be resolved or at least eased if we lived according to the principle that human beings are all fundamentally equals.  You are fundamentally the equal of others, and they are fundamentally equal to you.  Everyone has the right to expect equal treatment from others, and this includes being treated fairly.  In order to have a democratic society, everyone must have elements of basic equality.  In order to have a cooperative and amicable society, everyone must be treated fairly. 

The alternative to general equality is a free-for-all in which everyone vies for a greater share and for more privileges than others have.  This free-for-all approach is more consistent than equality is with the general human tendency to always want and try to get more, but we have choice in the structural assumptions of our society, and we can choose greater equality, rather than the free-for-all, in order to maximize fairness and minimize conflict.  Over the centuries, we can see a slow progression of societal structures, moving from assigned and immutable roles (serf, peasant, master, slave, king, women as chattel) to greater social mobility and greater “rights” for previously disadvantaged groups, such as slaves, women, and those of ethnic backgrounds different from the majority.  It is clear that disadvantaged groups never lose their desire for greater equality and never give up their struggle toward greater equality

You deserve equal treatment with regard to the rules that apply to everyone in your status in any particular group.  As a member of the group of “citizens” you should have an equal right with all other “citizens” to vote, equal protection under the laws, etc.  As a member of your family, you should have equal respect and be accorded equal basic worth by the other family members.

Our attitudes about whether we are equal to others are established in childhood by how we are treated compared to others.  If a parent gives a child a lesser share (of food, toys, love, etc.) than that received by other family members (especially other children in the family), the child interprets this to mean that he is not as deserving or worthwhile as those who get more, and he feels inferior and of lesser value.  However, the fact that your parents gave you a smaller share or loved you less than others did not in fact mean that you deserved less or that you were not basically equal to others.

Being fundamentally equal to others does not, of course, imply that we are identical to others.  Every individual is unique, but we are all equal in terms of certain fundamental rights and in the ways that we should be treated by our fellow human beings.  Every person has the right to be treated equally with respect to rules and laws that apply to everyone of the same group (whether that group is the family, the school class, the work force, or society in general).  Every person should have an equal right to basic respect and acceptance, if the group is to function smoothly and with minimal conflict.

Neither does equality mean that we should all get exactly the same things in life. We are not identical to each other as individuals, and our circumstances are all different. You should not necessarily get the same number of toys as the children in some other family, but you should share in your own family’s wealth equally with the other children in your family. You should have equal opportunity to work, but if you choose not to work, then you have no right to expect others to supply you with an income equal to that of those who do work.

Status Hierarchies, Power, Superiority, and Inferiority

Human beings who are dominant over others get a larger share of the available goods than those they dominate.  Without assumptions about who will get more, efforts to sort out who is dominant could lead to constant conflicts and killings, so in order to stabilize these power arrangements, we create status hierarchies to define what share of the available goods each of us will receive.  People therefore strive to be above others in the status hierarchy in order to get more of what they want.  Those who get a larger share typically feel superior to and more highly deserving than those lower on the hierarchy, simply because they get a larger share.  (This derives from our childish reasoning that those who get more must deserve more and those who get less must be less deserving.)  People may also strive to be higher in the hierarchy simply to feel superior and thereby bolster shaky self-esteem.

Superiority and status inevitably damage the self-esteem of those placed in inferior (lower) positions.   People in inferior positions naturally attribute lesser value to themselves because they receive less of the available rewards.  This effect is enhanced if those in superior positions show contempt or demeaning attitudes toward them.

If we take basic equality seriously, then no nation, culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, vocational, or other group can assert that its members are automatically “better than” or worth more than any other persons based on those identifiers.  Everyone is basically equal.  There is no evidence from history or from our current individual observations that proves (or even indicates) that any of these attempted group differentiations are true.  Catholics are not automatically better than Protestants.  The young are not automatically worth more than the elderly.  Smarter people are not worth more than people who are less intelligent.  Wealthier people are not better than poor people.  Citizens of the United States are not automatically better than citizens of England.  Etc., etc.  We know that such attempted distinctions are done to boost the self-esteem or group identification of individuals, but it would be better to find other ways to help with self-esteem or group identification than claiming status or basic value distinctions.

Our individualistic, competitive society is a perfect setting for people to demonstrate superiority over others and “being better than” others, by winning or by having more money, a better job, a better education, a better car, etc.  Many in our society have some awareness of the silliness and immaturity of this striving for superiority through consumer goods.  The bumper sticker “He who dies with the most toys, wins” pokes fun at our foolishness (although it does not suggest that we stop it).

Equality is not the most natural state for human societies, as we can see from human history.  The first rule of human societies is rule by power and the subjugation of other human beings to the interests of those who are powerful.  This order is maintained by killing anyone who disagrees.  None of us is above such attitudes.  Many perfectly upstanding, moral citizens two hundred years ago believed that it was perfectly OK to enslave other human beings, and that this was acceptable in the eyes of God as well.  The historical subjugation of women and the rejection of gay persons are other examples.  The long history of struggles for human rights demonstrates that those who are made inferior, whether that is in families or in society in general, do not rest until the inferiority is erased.

Since a situation of forced inequality is fundamentally unstable, since people will continue to strive to achieve equality until they reach it, and since fundamental equality is more fair than inequality, equality would seem to be the best choice of a social ethic (assuming that most people do wish to minimize inequality and unfairness).  It is my personal belief that superiority-inferiority systems, including our own society, have a basically immoral quality, partly because they reliably establish negative self-esteem in those who are inferior.  It would be a much better world if we gave up striving for superiority completely and turned our attention to accepting ourselves as we are and enjoying the fruits of being who we are (without comparing ourselves with others).


We develop a sense and concept of fairness quite early in childhood, as we realize that there are limited resources and that others may well get what we want if we do not compete for it.  At first we compete simply by asserting ourselves, with no idea of rules, but parents usually impose some family rules, even if in some families these rules are inconsistent or favor certain children over others.  Fairness is the attitude and concept of having rules that deal with appropriate distribution of both physical and emotional resources among people and making these rules be appropriate, acceptable, and enforced.  Fairness applies to how the ice cream is divided up, how much quality time each child has with mother, whose college education the family will pay for, how games are refereed, how elections are conducted, and any other activity where the “rights” and outcomes for more than one person are involved.  We judge whether we are being treated fairly by noting whether our outcomes are appropriate when compared with those of others in the same situation.

The most basic notion of fairness is equality, with everyone getting an equal share, either in the moment or on a taking-turns basis, but sometimes in a family or in society there are rules that favor some over others in ways that are consistent with the overall beliefs and assumptions of the group and that are therefore “accepted” by everyone as the way things are to be done, even if those who are disadvantaged by the rules continue to push for change to make things more equal.  Slavery is an example of a rule that severely disadvantaged some people but was viewed as “fair” by the overall society. 

Politics is the province within which societal rules are made and within which people vie for advantage, and in this competition we see that many people still wish to have rules made that favor them over others, even when this contributes to inequality and unfairness.  Many people are willing to overlook fairness concerns (their own and others’) when they themselves are unfairly advantaged!

All people seem to have a strong and abiding sense of fairness, and people are generally upset when their notions of fairness are violated by others or by the established rules.  The key to having more fairness in the world is commitment on the part of more people to honor and abide by what is fair, even when it is not to their immediate advantage.  This is similar to knowing that you are going to get more from your relationships with others if you honor their needs and feelings, rather than taking advantage of them whenever you can, even though that benefit may be in the future or in terms of various forms of good will.  In order to be satisfied with being consistently fair, we must believe that we will get a “fair shake” over the long haul, even if we let others have their way for the moment.  Others respect those who “play by the rules” and who apply the same rules to themselves that they do to everyone else.  You can become one of the “good guys” by being fair with everyone.

“Win-Win” Solutions Lead to Greater Equality and to Greater Happiness in the World

The world could be a much different place if we all believed that we would get more by helping everyone benefit from any given transaction than we get by always trying to win and get more than others.  The fact that the world is the way it is indicates that many people still believe that they can get more by looking for opportunities to take from others and to be superior to others.  Examine your own attitudes about winning, being better than others, getting what you want even at the expense of others, etc.  (Saying that “everyone else is doing it,” “let the buyer beware,” or “that’s just business” are not acceptable reasons to treat others badly and are simply excuses that we use to try to justify our selfish behavior.) 

If we view others as being basically equal and of equal worth, then it will alter our attitudes about competition.  We would naturally stop trying to gain advantage over others simply so that we could feel that we are “better than” those others.  We might still compete in business to make a better product for a lower price, and we might still try our best to win on the football field, but these would no longer have the implication of making us better than our competitors.

Make it a rule for yourself that in all of your transactions with others you will attend to their benefit as well as your own.  Completely give up trying to get things from others without giving back, as well as trying to get things from others in circumstances where others will be harmed by giving you what you want (like selling someone a defective car without telling them).  You don’t have to ensure that you and others get equal benefit, but it will improve future relations with them if you don’t leave them with the impression, either now or later, that you have treated them badly.  In order to stop trying to gain advantage over others, you will have to feel good about yourself for things other than winning and besting others and stop relying on competition and superiority for your self-esteem.

In order to have greater equality and fairness in our society, we need a respected societal ethic that reinforces a more mature, cooperative stance toward relationships.  Our churches, being by and large strongly committed to the status quo and highly avoidant of internal conflict, have status hierarchies within themselves and have not provided us with much leadership in this regard.  We must come to respect strength more than power, benevolence more than domination, cooperation more than winning, success more than superiority, responsibility more than opportunism, and empathy more than manipulation.

A simple attitude and method of bringing more equality to your relationships and to society in general is to train yourself to think, for every decision and choice that you make, of how you could act so as to both get what you want and benefit others (or at least not inconvenience them) by your actions.  As children we cannot see ahead far enough to appreciate the benefits of cooperation and of taking others’ needs and feelings into account.  Hopefully we gain some insight about this as we grow up, but many people still operate on the principle of taking as much as they can get right now, even if it harms or inconveniences others and creates conflicts with them.  They calculate how much they can get away with, rather than considering how to get as much as they can while also benefiting others.  This follows from our basic childhood fear that we will not get enough if we leave everything to others and that if we don’t get something now, the opportunity to get it could disappear at any time.  These are normal fears for children but do not represent reality for adults.  Many people still view the world like children in this way.  The key point is that often, without much effort, we can take actions that will get us what we want and at the same time benefit or at least not harm others.

This approach makes life better for others, but more importantly it benefits us greatly as well.  We all like people who are aware of our needs and feelings and act in ways that take our needs and feelings into account.  So, by helping others and taking care not to harm them, we build positive connections with people, which makes them much more likely to act the same toward us, to treat us better, and to choose us as partners in mutually beneficial goal-seeking.  In this way, we gain future benefits that far outweigh the cost of our efforts to pay attention to others’ needs and feelings.  As adults we can realize, too, that not getting our way or not getting what we want just when we want it is rarely actually important (even though our immediate feelings, left over from childhood, are telling us differently).  Letting others have their way sometimes, or “taking turns” in this way, is a small price to pay for the good will that we build up between ourselves and others.  You can get more in life by appropriately balancing your needs with those of others than you can by taking whatever you can get regardless of how it affects others.

Everyone Has Equal Basic Worth

We are all equally valuable in terms of our basic worth as persons.  This precept is based on the belief that while we certainly do value every other person partly in terms of how we benefit from him or her, each person also has an inherent value or worth, just for being a person, and I am suggesting that this inherent worth is equal for all of us.  Your parents might be more important to you than anyone else in the world, but the fact that they are valuable to you does not make them better than or more valuable than anyone else in the world, in terms of their basic worth as persons.  We should remember that the personal importance that we ascribe to others, because of their position, fame, or relationship to us, are added in our minds on top of the basic equal worth that all people have.  If we begin to view people both in terms of their inherent worth and in terms of how they benefit us, we will also begin to treat them more as equals.

Everyone Deserves Equal Respect

To treat someone with respect means to act as if the person were worthy of high regard, to avoid interfering with that person’s legitimate efforts to meet his needs, and to avoid violating that person’s rights.  Our society aspires, at least on paper, that every person be treated with the same basic respect as every other person regardless of differences such as age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or handicap.  I believe the same basic respect is also due to everyone regardless of appearance, achievements, wealth, or social standing.  (We may admire someone because of his appearance, achievements, wealth, social standing, or anything else, but we should not respect him more than anyone else.)

In addition, everyone should be treated with the same basic respect even if we do not actually feel the same respect for him or her.  Thus, we should treat criminals and those who have injured us with that same basic respect, even though we dislike them or wish them harm.  It helps the civility of our society and the self-esteem of everyone if we always treat everyone with that same basic respect (treating them as if they were worthy of high regard and/or esteem). This is not hypocritical-it is simply a choice of whether to use disrespect as a punishment, and treating others with respect also exerts an influence on them to treat others better themselves.

The Needs of Each Person Are Just As Important As Those of Any Other Person

Since we are all basically equal, your needs are just as important as those of others, and theirs are just as important to them as yours are to you.  If there is a “bigger scheme of things,” then every other person’s needs are just as important as yours in that bigger picture.  Each person has just as much right as others to the good things available in life to everyone.  If you believe that others’ needs are more important than yours, you will naturally see yourself as inferior to them, and your self-esteem will be lowered.  Making your needs more important than those of others might seem better than having them be less important than others’ needs, but it is not a good solution overall, since this will lead to inferiority for someone else, as well as perpetuating an unending struggle for superiority.  The socially desirable and socially stable answer must lie in some form of equality.  Your needs must be as important as those of others-not more important and not less important.  It can be complicated to figure out how to make your needs and those of others equal when there are limited resources, but if we all feel basically equal, then we can cooperate in sharing what is available in whatever manner seems best.

Coming to Feel Equal To Others

If you do not feel basically equal to others, then in order to feel equal, it is essential to feel as deserving as others, and the best way to feel more deserving is to re-evaluate the experiences that caused you to feel less deserving and decide that you were not in fact less deserving but that you simply accepted that inferior role for yourself.  A person who does not feel equal must conclude that his experiences that led to feeling undeserving or unequal should not have been interpreted that way and that he is in fact a basic equal of others.  After changing his mind on this point, the newly equal person must accept that it is OK to receive good things and that he deserves whatever good things are available.  He then changes his interactions with others to reflect his new equal status and stops putting his needs below others’ needs in importance, including being appropriately assertive about his needs versus those of others in any given situation.  Those who have previously benefited from his inferior status (by getting a larger share themselves) will complain, but they have no rightful basis for complaining.

We cannot force others to treat us as an equal, but we must at least speak up, voicing our complaints and identifying the inequality as unfair and inappropriate.  It may be ultimately beneficial, though sad, to leave behind those who cannot accept us as equals.


The desire to be treated fairly is a fundamental aspect of human relations.  It arises in the first few years of life, as children note how the treatment they receive compares to how other children are treated.  Being treated fairly affirms our place in the social order.  Later in childhood, children are greatly interested in “the rules” and want the rules to be applied fairly.  Adults view the laws as supporting what is fair, and they use the legal system to try to ensure equal and fair treatment.  Laws, of course, do not cover every aspect of equality and fairness, and our beliefs about morals and ethics provide a more encompassing structure for evaluating and advocating for fairness and equality. 

Fundamentally, fairness is applying the rules and expectations to everyone equally and without bias.  In most regards, basic equality is a key implication of being treated fairly, but people also accept treatment as “fair” that stems from assignment of different status or value to various persons in society, if that system of assigning value applies to everyone and has been historically accepted.  In some societies, a caste system is historically accepted, and in the U.S., we say that everyone should have equality of opportunity and be treated equally under the law, while at the same time accepting that people’s status and possessions will in no way be equal.

Going beyond societal conventions about fairness, the wise person and the mature person treat others fairly, even when it means that they will not get exactly what they themselves want.  They empathize with how others feel about fairness and refuse to feel better or to benefit unfairly at the expense of others.  As a referee or umpire, a wise person and a mature person strive to make their calls according to reality, shorn of their preferences for either team to win.  As a boss, they do not give preference to the vacation requests of any one employee over those of others.  As a parent, they strive to give their children equally what they need to grow up and flourish.  As a sibling, they divide the candy equally, even if they would like to have more.  They treat everyone with the same consideration and fairness, regardless of their relatedness, social standing, or ethnicity, and regardless of what they might wish to get from the other person at the time.

The wise person is fair toward others since she no longer strives to gain unfair advantage over others and since she views herself as basically an equal to others and very much like others in desires, emotions, and life goals.

The key to treating others fairly is seeing them as basically equal to ourselves, deserving of the same treatment and benefits as ourselves.  Therefore we treat those equal others with the same consideration for their welfare and feelings that we want from others in their treatment of us.  Treating others as equals communicates our respect for them, and the good will and trust that flow from this minimize conflicts and allow others to feel comfortable with us.  Wise and mature persons perceive that treating others fairly and with respect builds positive relationships and makes for better cooperation in the larger group.

The unwise person and the immature person try to get as much as they can from others, by means that are fair or unfair, and are unable to recognize the social contract of mutually appropriate behavior that benefits everyone in the long run.  They change the rules or their morals whenever it seems to be to their immediate advantage.  The immature person always feels that unpleasant reality is unfair to him and lets everyone know about his unfair and terrible troubles and how difficult they are to tolerate.  He seeks compensation for difficulties through pretending to be ill or claiming the right to special treatment. 

The unwise or less mature person assigns different levels of how others will be treated, based on their prior relationships with them, their current importance, their relatedness (family, friend, etc.), and their assigned status (education, wealth, ethnicity, etc.).  They thus deny almost everyone else the status in their eyes of a basic equal, which justifies their patterns of differential treatment.  This differential treatment is always in the service of personal gain in social position or possessions—treating those from whom they want something better than they treat others, so that when those needs change, so does the importance of people to them and therefore also how they treat those others.

To become more mature and to gain in wisdom, examine your internal sense of fairness and equality and how you apply them in daily life.  Look at the emotional and social results when you treat people unequally or unfairly.  Consider the potential gains in good will and positive relations with others from treating everyone equally and fairly, against the possible losses you might suffer from giving up opportunities to take advantage of others by being unfair and assigning others value according to what you can get from them.  Consider how you feel when you are treated as an equal and fairly, versus how you feel when you are treated as inferior or unfairly.  Experiment with treating everyone you encounter in one day fairly and as a basic equal, and see how it works.


Understanding herself and others realistically and in depth leads the wise person and the mature person to be basically accepting of themselves and others, because knowing a person completely reveals that person’s faults and frailties (and we all have them!).  (The wise person goes beyond basic acceptance to complete acceptance of self.)  Understanding ourselves in depth also reveals how most of us avoid knowing ourselves completely because we fear that we would have to reject or even despise ourselves if we knew ourselves in depth, how much we reject ourselves daily through self-criticism and self-punishments, and how we fear accepting ourselves because it might lead us to look “bad” and to be “bad.” 

Being accepted is basically “being allowed”—being allowed to be yourself without rejection or attack.  Self-acceptance is therefore “allowing yourself to be” instead of rejecting and attacking yourself.  Unfortunately most people attack and reject themselves with alarming frequency.  Every time you harm yourself, criticize yourself, put yourself down, or compare yourself unfavorably to someone else, you are rejecting yourself.

To achieve acceptance, know yourself completely and intimately (so that you don’t pretend that certain things that you dislike about yourself don’t even exist); don’t react to any parts of yourself that you dislike with attack and rejection; and calmly decide either to work toward changing the disliked or harmful parts of yourself or to simply let them be (which is perfectly OK to do).  Stop criticizing yourself and hurting your own feelings. Stop rejecting yourself. The peace and calm of accepting yourself is wonderful.   Close your eyes and imagine accepting yourself completely.  You will feel an immediate calmness and relaxation (unless you are so firmly self-rejecting that you cannot even imagine accepting yourself).  (Beyond simple acceptance (letting be), also feeling loving kindness and compassion for yourself adds a positive, encouraging feeling to your life.)

If you are not accepting yourself (letting yourself be), then you are by definition rejecting yourself. The key to accepting yourself, then, is to stop rejecting yourself.  Think seriously about this, and try to identify the ways in which you reject yourself.  The most common types of self-rejecting behaviors are self-criticism, self-accusations, harming oneself, punishing oneself, routinely comparing oneself negatively to others, and demeaning oneself by calling oneself names or putting oneself in negative or inferior positions. How do you do these things to yourself? What do you criticize yourself for?  What do you hide from yourself that even you don’t want to know about yourself?

The primary reason that we reject ourselves is that we have learned from those around us to reject and criticize ourselves, either because we believe that we do not meet expected standards, that we have done something wrong, or that it is simply “wrong” to be ourselves. Some people also reject themselves because they believe that constantly rejecting themselves is the only way to control their “bad” behavior. These reasons for rejecting ourselves are false and unnecessary.

Self-critical and self-rejecting behaviors are learned from those around us, usually in childhood.  If significant others view us and treat us as if we deserve criticism and demeanment, for our behavior or simply for being ourselves, then as we grow up we imitate this and begin to criticize and demean ourselves.  Every time we “make a mistake” (every time we notice the displeased or disapproving reactions of others) we may tell ourselves something unrealistic and excessive, like “Boy, am I stupid,” “I’ll never get it right,” “I’m terrible,” “Guess that proves once again that I’m not good enough,” or some other self-demeaning statement.  The opinions of others about us gain force from the fact that most adults give more rewards to children who are favored than they do to children who are not.  As children, we know when we are not favored, it hurts to know this, and we often assume that we must be “bad” or wrong if we are not favored.  We blame ourselves for not being favored and begin to criticize and demean ourselves.   The key to change is recognizing that you do not deserve this self-criticism and demeanment—that your behavior is not “bad” or at least not bad enough to justify rejecting yourself, and that you are actually an OK person.

Acceptance is often confused with approval and other positive responses from others.  Being approved of involves being measured against the standards of others and being preferred or rejected by them, while acceptance is “being allowed to be” just as you are.  Being accepted does not imply that everything about you is OK with others (or is even OK with yourself).  You can be accepted without being approved of by others.

Many of us believe that if we don’t get the approval, or at least the acceptance, of certain important others, then we are worthless and should feel inferior and undeserving, but this is totally false.  Your value and your happiness do not depend on the approval or acceptance of specific other people. Since you are no longer a child, your survival and gratifications no longer depend primarily on certain other individuals, such as your parents.  You can do very well without any of those people who reject you, if you are only willing to do so.  Naturally you would very much like to have the acceptance and approval of significant others, but you can become your own source of acceptance.  If those significant others were suddenly to disappear for some reason, you would have to do it for yourself anyway, which suggests that you can become your own source of acceptance (and approval) even if they are still around.

Use your independent mind to realize that you are OK even without these other people.  Give up worrying about gaining their approval and acceptance (which you actually already deserve), and focus on your own acceptance of yourself and on making your life a good life to live.  Mourn for what you have not had, and mourn for the hope that you are now giving up of getting it from those people, and then rejoice in your new freedom to be yourself and to do what is good for you!

Human beings have probably through evolution developed a built-in tendency to seek the approval of others, since this acts to ensure sufficient conformity and responsiveness to authority to enable the group to survive and to function well.  In accepting yourself completely, you are going against this inbred tendency, and the fact that you have to go against this inbred tendency is part of what makes self-acceptance difficult.  The key to working out this difficulty is recognizing and accepting that others and even the group have some legitimate need to set rules for behaviors that are acceptable to express, but they have no legitimate authority to control who you are (with the exception of prohibiting certain behaviors by group members).  Your family or other individuals may decide on the basis of how they feel about and evaluate you not to associate with you, but they have no authority to tell you that you are “right” or “wrong” or “good” or “bad,” since these are only their individual attitudes and bear no relation to any higher authority.  Most people employ criticism and/or rejection as means of trying to control your behavior or even to control who you are, but you have no obligation to respond or conform.  Accepting yourself is so valuable that it may justify accepting, sadly, that some others may choose not to be around you if you will not bow to their demands.

To change your mind about yourself—to see yourself as basically OK rather than as a terrible person or a screw-up—requires questioning the standards and the attitudes of those who first rejected and criticized you.  You must be able to see that there was in fact nothing much wrong with you, even though certain adults may have had negative feelings and attitudes toward you, which were their own responsibility and were not really due to anything significant about you.  By itself, the fact that you were rejected proves nothing about you.  Realistically search your memory and your assumptions about yourself, and you will not find much really wrong with you.  In those few cases in which a part of yourself could lead to harm to others— e.g., a sexual interest exclusively in children, it will serve you best to accept that part of yourself within yourself, while at the same time ensuring that no one is harmed by it.   Things that you accept about yourself are not necessarily OK with others, and accepting something about yourself does not mean that you believe that you should be able to express it behaviorally.

People over-generalize a great deal about their lack of worth, with such false statements as:

“I’m terrible,”

“I’m not good enough,”

“I’m worthless”, and

“I’m not acceptable.”

 You must question and correct your over-generalizations. You may not have been accepted by your mother, your father, or certain other important people, but that does not mean that you are “not acceptable” in general.  You are acceptable just the way you are, even if your parents did not accept you.

Imagine again what it would feel like to cease criticizing yourself and finding fault with yourself.  The peace would be wonderful!  You could relax instead of always being on guard or always having to answer your own criticisms and doubts.  You could really live your life, instead of being perpetually distracted by your own internal criticisms.  Give it a try.  You are OK.  There is nothing really wrong with you.  Work on stopping your unnecessary self-criticism and self-demeanment.  “Let yourself be” (allow yourself to be), without self-criticism and self-­demeanment.  You will love yourself for it!

Some people justify rejecting themselves (and justify others’ rejection of them) on the basis that they are not “good enough” and therefore deserve to be criticized and rejected, but this idea is simply based on using inappropriate standards.  If appropriate standards are used, you are good enough!  Changing this requires questioning and changing the standards that you apply to yourself.  Some people hold onto patterns of self-rejection because they think that it is easier to reject themselves than it would be to fully recognize how they are being rejected by their parents or others they love.  They make their rejection of themselves their own fault, and as long as they continue to try to force themselves to be who they are “supposed to be,” they don’t have to recognize and deal with the pain of the actual rejection that they are getting.  If we stop rejecting ourselves, we will see more clearly the inappropriateness of how we are being rejected by others, and we will probably feel some sadness and anger about it.

People who have been rejected sometimes feel that they do not deserve to be members of their families or of society.  If you treat others decently, you do deserve to be accepted (allowed to be) as a member of your family and of society, regardless of the attitudes and reactions of anyone else to the contrary.  You are as good as anyone else deep down, and you deserve equal treatment just as much as anyone else.  Stand up for yourselfyou’re your equal rights.  Assert your right to be an equal member, and behave as a good group member should.

Controlling Yourself Through Self-Criticism and Self-Rejection

As children we all must learn to conform to adult social expectations, and one of the methods some people use to control their unacceptable behavior is constantly watching themselves for things to reject themselves for.  You think that if you constantly look for faults or something wrong with yourself, then you can “catch yourself” before you do anything wrong, and you won’t have much opportunity to engage in any really “bad” behavior (and therefore won’t be punished or rejected).  Unfortunately your suspicious habits of self-criticism and self-punishment will also cause you to be unable to accept yourself.

It is unnecessary to use self-rejection as a means of controlling your behavior, because as an adult you can choose your appropriate behaviors on the basis of what is in your best interest.  In fact, you should always do what is in your best interest!  (Some will disagree with this last statement, but they are invited to consider a change in perspective.  We always do what we perceive to be in our best interest—it’s just that we don’t always identify it that way, so that we won’t seem “selfish”.)  (See How To Feel Good About Yourself—12 Key Steps To Positive Self-Esteem by Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D. (2003) (Step 10) for a full explanation of this new method of controlling your behavior.)

Some people fear that if they accept themselves, they will accept their “bad” behavior as well (and will therefore do more bad behavior).  This is not a problem of acceptance but of knowing what is best for you.  We all do what we believe is best for us.  If you believe deep down that your bad behavior is best for you, then you will continue to do it (regardless of what you say and whether or not you accept it or pretend to accept it).  Your conflict is between what you believe you should do and what you really believe is best for you.  You will be more comfortable with yourself if you resolve this inner conflict.  If your bad behavior that you believe is best for you is actually bad for you, you must recognize this and decide whether you are going to do what is best for you or what is in fact bad for you. (If your bad behavior is actually good for you, then there is something wrong with the rules you are trying to live by!)  So, you do not engage in “bad” behavior because you accept it but rather because you actually believe that it is best for you and you therefore want to do it!

Some people fear that if they accept themselves they will become lazy and complacent and will never make any further improvements in themselves.  Actually, meaningful change is easier in an accepting climate than it is in a rejecting climate.  A rejecting, punishing climate motivates us to escape the punishment, but the anger and resentment that we feel about the rejection and punishment also cause us to stiffen up and refuse to change (since “giving in” to the pressure to change would be like completely giving up control and giving up self-respect).  In an accepting climate, we do not have to fight back, we are free to consider who we really want to be and what would be best for us, and we are free to make those changes if we wish.

Accepting Others

If you can accept yourself, then you are on the road to truly accepting others as they are, too, for you can see that they have their faults, frailties, and struggles, just as you do, and that they are, for the most part, just as worthy of acceptance as you are.  Have compassion for their struggles and their self-rejection, and you can consciously extend your feeling of self-acceptance to them as well. (Paradoxically, most people who do not accept themselves are more accepting of others than of themselves, but this is blind acceptance of superiors by an inferior, rather than true, empathic acceptance.)

Knowing the complexity of human beings, the wise person can accept that other peoples’ emotions and beliefs are different from his own.  These differences do not necessarily mean danger or require distancing. The wise person can see the good and the bad about a person without condemning that person.

The most difficult barrier to accepting others is wanting or needing things from them that they do not choose to give.  The common reaction to this is to keep trying to get the other person to give what is desired, and the usual result is frustration on both sides and often eventual dissolution of the relationship.  It is not possible to truly accept another person if you feel frustrated  about not getting what you want from them.  The answer to this is to accept that you are not going to get what you want from that person and then to either enjoy what you can get in that relationship (accepting that you won’t get some things you want) or find other sources for what you want or need.  Letting go can be difficult, and you may be sad and may need to mourn your loss of hope, but if you conclude sincerely that you are not going to get what you want or need from that person, then it is truly best for you to stop trying to force that person to give what you want, and you will benefit from letting go (and accepting that person as he or she really is).

Forgiving Yourself

It is typical for us to feel guilt or shame when we do something in conflict with our standards, harm ourselves or others, or reject ourselves.  Guilt (a combination of fear, anticipation of punishment, and painful self-criticism) is a primary barrier to self-acceptance, and in order to restore inner peace and accept ourselves fully once again, it is important to forgive ourselves.  Here are some steps that will help you in seeking forgiveness—from yourself or from others—so that you can accept yourself once again.

In dealing with guilt,

(1) Acknowledge fully and honestly what you have done, with no excuses, rationalizations, or attempts to shift the blame inappropriately to others.  (Of course, you should not take responsibility for things that you have not done!)

(2) Determine how your behavior has affected both yourself and others.  If no one has been harmed, then reconsider why you consider what you have done to be “wrong.”  (Even if no one was harmed, the behavior may still be dangerous enough and potentially harmful enough that you still think it best not to do it.)  If others act hurt, but this is because of their own inappropriate reactions to your behavior, then you must draw the line regarding what you will be responsible for.  If you decide that your behavior was not wrong, then you can accept it and consider whether you need to forgive yourself for your self-criticism and self-rejection regarding this behavior.

(3) Consciously accept what you did as part of your history now.  Don’t pretend that it didn’t happen, or that it really wasn’t you, or that you can wipe out your action by making up for it after the fact.

(4) Understand why you did what you did.  What needs, motives, weaknesses, and blind spots were involved?  Be totally honest with yourself.  This is where you are likely to see how you hurt yourself sometimes with your choices.

(5) Consider whether the standard you applied to yourself was appropriate, and consider whether you have been too hard on yourself.

 (6) If you believe that your standard is appropriate, and you still feel uncomfortable with your behavior, then you must next decide whether you want to change your behavior.  Carefully decide if it would really be better for you if you did not do that behavior again.  This is a crucial step, for if you really think, consciously or unconsciously, that it is better for you to keep doing the behavior, then you will keep on doing it (and keep on violating the standards that you say you believe in), even if it results in guilt over and over again.

(7) If you decide not to do the behavior again, resolve to take better care of yourself in the future by not repeating the behavior in question (because you believe that it is truly best for you not to engage in the behavior again), and commit yourself to this path.

(8) Decide whether you need to change some of your habits and ways of controlling your behavior in order to be able to avoid this particular behavior in the future.

(9) Consider taking actions to make up for what you have done, like apologizing or making something up to another person (or to yourself, if you were the one harmed).  Sometimes due to the passage of time or others’ attitudes and feelings, you cannot make up for harm caused to others.

(10) You have now done all you can do to take care of what you have done and to avoid doing such things in the future.  The last step is to accept the above actions as adequate grounds for letting go of that past behavior, letting go of any guilt that you feel, receiving the forgiveness of the other person if that is offered, and forgiving yourself— which means accepting yourself as OK again.

If you have trouble forgiving yourself, or finding forgiveness from others, identify the conditions that you require in order to be forgiven.  Do you have some unrealistic requirements that are not likely to be met, such as requiring that you repay the injured party double value before you can forgive yourself, or requiring that the person injured tell you that you are OK?  Remember that forgiving is not forgetting.  Also, you may need to accept that sometimes the injured party is simply refuses to forgive.  Sometimes forgiving yourself is your only option.

You can forgive yourself for harming yourself accidentally if you sincerely intend not to continue harming yourself, but if you are fooling yourself when you promise yourself not to repeat the self-harming behavior, eventually this will become an issue of bad faith with yourself.  You will be unable to fool yourself any longer and unable to accept yourself.

In forgiving ourselves, we see clearly what we have done, we right wrongs that can be righted, we improve our behavior for the future so that we will not harm ourselves or others in the same way again, and then we let go of guilt and self-hatred and move forward into the future with a positive, though realistic attitude.

Adjusting to Accepting Yourself

If you fully accept that you were OK and that you have not really deserved to feel bad about yourself all these years, you will feel much sadness, and you may feel anger toward those who convinced you that you were “bad” or inferior.  Both of these feelings are normal, and it is best that you let yourself feel them fully and wait for them to pass.  This sadness is both a release of a tremendous amount of stored up pain and a readjustment to a new identity.  For years you have been whipping yourself to be someone else, because you thought that you were not good enough or were not who you were supposed to be.  Now you are accepting that you will never be good enough according to those previous, inappropriate requirements and that you will never please those whom you have been striving to please.  Naturally you will feel sadness at giving this up, but you will also feel release and relaxation at letting go of the pressure of these impossible expectations and accepting that you are OK just the way you are.  As to the anger, just because you feel anger does not mean that you must act on it.  If you do feel impelled to act, it will be enough to tell those who have not accepted you that in your opinion they were wrong about you and that they harmed you greatly.  Let yourself feel these feelings, take action if you need to, and wait for the feelings to pass, for they will pass.

Startling Conclusion

The following fact is so amazing that it must be stated over and over-all you need to do in order to accept yourself is to stop rejecting yourself and allow yourself to be.  Stop criticizing and demeaning yourself.  Accept the fact that it is OK not to be totally OK even if certain other people are not happy with you.  It is not true that you are unacceptable because there is “something wrong with you.”  There is nothing wrong with you.  You have adopted the irrational and idiosyncratic negative responses of certain others to you, and you have been rejecting yourself without good reason.  There is nothing so wrong with you that you deserve this rejection.  Lighten up.  Work on seeing yourself more realistically—not through the eyes of those rejecting adults of your childhood, but through your more realistic and understanding eyes.  Let yourself be (while still refraining from harming yourself and others).  Take the risk of accepting an imperfect but perfectly OK human being—yourself.  (Remember, though, if you are harming yourself through your choices and behaviors, you will very naturally be unable to accept yourself.)

In place of criticizing yourself, give yourself support and love.  In place of demeaning yourself, appreciate your many good qualities and learn to do a good job of deciding and doing what is best for you.  In place of punishing yourself, have compassion for yourself and forgive and comfort yourself.  Treat yourself with the same caring, consideration, and thoughtfulness that you would another person whom you love.  Redefine yourself as OK and worthy of inclusion with others.  Forgive yourself for the pain you have caused yourself by rejecting yourself.  Give yourself the gift of believing that it is really OK to be who you are!  Allow yourself to be!


Due to her good understanding of the consequences of her behavior and its impact on others, the mature person has cultivates self-control through the years, since good judgment and acting responsibly sometimes require not acting, delaying action, and/or not doing what one would most like to do at the moment.  She knows that the harm to self and others from acting in impulsive, erratic, or out-of-control ways exceeds any cost of being self-controlling.  The wise person recognizes the value to everyone of acting in the best interest of those around her as well as in her own best interest, and she knows that acting with appropriate self-control induces those around her to do so as well.  She tends, therefore, to act appropriately and to take care of legitimate responsibilities without having to be coerced.  Due to ignoring unwanted behavioral consequences and refusing to see her impact on others, the immature person has no interest in self-control, unless it promises immediate reward.

All mammals have some capacity for inhibiting behavior, which is the most fundamental form of self-control, often motivated subjectively by fear or by the wish to be invisible to predators.  This basic inhibition of action can give you the chance to reflect on your choices before acting and thereby to have the opportunity to consciously choose to do what is right to do and what is best for those affected (the basic definition of good judgment).  Practice pausing to reflect in your decision-making process before acting, and think about the appropriateness of your various choices and their impact on everyone involved.

As we grow up, most of us are motivated to refrain from certain actions out of fear of punishment or parental disapproval, and many people continue as adults to have only fear as a motivator for self-control.  As adults, though, we can broaden our motivation to include empathic concern for the consequences to others of our various behavioral choices.  Thus, the anticipation of pain that we might cause to others can become a more important motive for self-control (and for doing what is best and what is right) than our fear of what they might do to us in response.  Developing our empathy is therefore an important source of improving self-control.

Learning to do what is truly best for ourselves is a third and perhaps most advanced motivator for self-control.  Doing what you believe is best for yourself turns self-control into simply another method of getting what you want, which minimizes any frustrations that you feel in controlling your behavior.  If you integrate all of the consequences of your actions (both short-term and long-term) and the impact of your actions on others (and their resultant actions toward you) into your decision-making process, then these factors, together with your various desires, will make a good basis for choosing an action.  Self-control then becomes primarily a method for taking effective action at the right time, rather than a struggle between what you want to do and what you think you should do.  The purpose of doing what is truly best for yourself is to seek what will be best in all respects for yourself over the long term, even if that means reframing what you consider gratifying and sometimes foregoing certain gratifications in the present.

If the issue is one of gratification, such as whether or not to eat less (or eat healthier foods), if you try to exercise self-control in order simply to refrain from eating more, another part of you wants to eat more, so it is you fighting yourself (actually trying to manage competing motives within yourself that strive for supremacy).  If, however, you can be clear within yourself about what is the best thing for you (whether that is eating more or not eating more), then it is much easier to choose which option to take, and self-control is no longer such a struggle.  The keys are (1) focusing not on what you should do but on what is best for you and (2) truly wanting what is best for yourself, so that doing what is best for you feels like you are doing something good for yourself, even if doing that involves refraining from doing something that itself would feel good.  If you choose to go against what you say is truly best for yourself, then you must reconsider your assessment of what is truly best for yourself, since your actions have indicated that you actually think that something else is better for you!

To cultivate better and easier self-control, learn to pause before acting so that you can adequately consider your alternatives; develop empathy sufficient that you can appreciate your impact on others and value it relatively equally with your own subjective welfare; and clarify what you think is truly best for yourself and pursue that as ultimately giving you a better life than acting in each moment toward what will feel good in that moment.


The moral and ethical must manage her emotions, partly through understanding how they operate and knowing that they do not necessarily represent reality.  She is able to pause before acting in order to allow emotions and their implications to be clarified.

Since knowing the truth and seeing reality clearly sometimes involves knowing things that are unpleasant to know, in order to continue our search for truth we must have an adequate ability to manage our emotions.  The most common ways that people respond to unpleasant feelings is deny the “reality” that leads to those feelings and to try to get whatever or whomever they blame for “causing” their unpleasant feelings to change so that they won’t continue to experience the unpleasant feeling.  Hence, we try to get our husband to “prove” that he loves us so that we won’t have to worry that he may not, or we suppress the knowledge that the meat that we buy at the supermarket has come to us as a result of someone killing the animal whose meat it was.  The wise or mature person must keep her knowledge of the truth and find ways to feel OK as well.  The first condition of doing this is that we do it for ourselves, rather than try to get others to change (or deny reality) so that we won’t have to feel. 

A crucial skill for being able to see reality clearly and know the truth is being able to use the information in your emotions to learn more about the reality in question but not to allow your emotions to cause you to distort your view of reality.  We need to be able to see the truth, even though we are tempted to change or distort it for the sake of our emotions.  A wise mother, for instance, might know clearly that her child had committed a crime even though she would like to deny that fact and might even claim its opposite to those around her.  This is what makes managing your emotions so important to reality perception.

Don’t reject any painful feelings that seeing reality arouses in you, but rather work gradually on tolerating them and becoming more comfortable with them.  “The truth is” that everyone is a mixture of adaptive and maladaptive tendencies, and everyone is capable of hurting those we love.  No one is perfect (including your parents and your leaders).  Many situations in the world are deplorable (people suffering in floods or famines, being killed for their religion, etc.), but  you can learn to have empathy and sympathy for those who suffer and do what you can to help while at the same time continuing to do what you must do every day for your own life.  You can see reality clearly, feel for others (and for yourself), and still know the truth and act effectively in the world.

Important guidance for managing your emotions are listed below.  (These guidelines are worded such that they focus on dealing with painful and unpleasant emotions, but the ideas apply also to positive emotions if those should be causing disruption in your life, such as seeking too much pleasure or seeking pleasure to avoid pain, including addictions.)


(1)  Keep stimulus levels to a level the you can tolerate without resorting to maladaptive coping methods.

Adaptively manage all levels of stimulus input, including sensory/perceptual input,

            emotions, and needs/desires.

           If needed, expand or reduce your experiencing.  Most people err on the side of

           reducing their experiencing in general, but some “feel too much”, which means that                        

they are deficient in adaptive mechanisms that would make it possible for them to make use of the  information in their emotions.  Those who “feel too much” usually must reduce their emotional experiencing somewhat to allow greater awareness and 

           continued functioning while experiencing the emotion.


(2)  Be aware of all emotions.

            Allow awareness of all emotions aroused within you.   Accurately identify emotions

            in yourself and in others.


(3)  Accept all of your emotions (and do not identify any of them as “bad”).

            Believe that your emotions are essentially normal and acceptable.

            Stop criticizing and demeaning yourself for your feelings.

            Accept your emotions (just as you accept all of yourself) without

            responding to them with shame, guilt, embarrassment, etc.   (Emotions

            are simply conditioned internal signals to yourself and are nothing to be

            ashamed of.)

(4)  Take responsibility for your emotions, being clear that your emotions arise from within yourself and are not placed into you from outside.

Accept that your emotions are your own reactions to things and are not forced

upon you by others.  Even if others are trying to cause the emotion in question to occur within you, your emotion is still your reaction.

            Take responsibility for your emotions and for doing something about

            them, as opposed to blaming others or trying to get others to change

            so that you won’t have to feel undesired emotions (with the possible

            exception of when others are purposely attempting to induce the emotion).

            Distinguish accurately your own emotions from those of others.

            Be clear that each person is solely responsible for his/her own feeling

reactions to things (unless someone else is purposely causing the emotion).

            Understand which emotion-inducing behaviors (your actions that others may react

            to by feeling an emotion) are permissible in your culture and your group (and for

            which emotion-inducing behaviors you are viewed as being responsible for the

            results) .

(5)  Do not take responsibility for others’ emotions (unless you have deliberately attempted to cause them).

You can feel empathy for another’s emotional pain without feeling

            responsible for it or being responsible for it.

            Be clear that each person is solely responsible for his/her own feeling

            reactions to things (unless someone else is purposely causing the emotion).

(6)  Accept that emotional pain is inevitable and often useful and does not necessarily need to be avoided or altered.  When nothing can be done to alleviate or avoid a painful emotion, tolerate it with good grace.

            Accept and tolerate the unavoidable, inevitable pain of living.

           Tolerate, accept, and become comfortable with (if possible)–

                       the pain of the inevitable losses that we experience in life

                       the emotions resulting from the deaths of others and yourself

                       the inevitable feelings of inadequacy that we experience in life

                        all forms of rejection, including being excluded, ignored, criticized, left,

                        disregarded, discounted, and punished

                       disappointment and frustration of your need gratification efforts

           the disappointment that accompanies your needs not being met

                       the emotional pain of not knowing

the pain of unconfirmed expectations

                       the feelings resulting from differences between ourselves and others

                       the feelings resulting from the unknown and from not knowing

                       (instead of creating a distorted reality in efforts to cope)

                       the feelings resulting from ambiguity (instead of creating a

                       distorted reality in efforts to cope)

                       the feelings resulting from interpersonal conflict

                       the emotional pain of change

our inevitable feelings of vulnerability

                       our inevitable feelings of helplessness

                        the pain of knowing unpleasant things about yourself

                       your helplessness and need for others

                       the aloneness and sometimes loneliness of being separate and


                        your limited capacity to control events and subjective state

           Accept that there are emotions and emotionally-stimulating situations

           that you cannot alter enough to eliminate the troublesome emotion,

           (Find ways to allow the emotion without letting it disrupt your life.)

(7)  Do not distort reality or use other ultimately maladaptive defenses/avoidances in order to ease emotional pain (except in crisis overload situations).  (Be convinced that you will be better off dealing with emotional pain than you will be if you employ distortions.)

            Be constantly aware of how you might be distorting or defending

            against your emotional experience.

            Avoid emotions when to do so is necessary to functioning  (In

            general, better outcomes are obtained to the extent that all

            emotional experience can be processed fully, so long as this

            awareness and processing can be handled internally without self harm,

            but there are times–particularly crisis times–when simply avoiding

            or truncating emotional awareness is adaptive.)

                 (see Maladaptive Methods of Dealing with Emotion)

            Maintain reality contact and effective reality testing while

            experiencing and coping with your emotions and needs (which may

            motivate you to distort reality).

            Allow distortion of reality to assuage feelings only temporarily and

            in the service of survival.

            Return to partially experienced emotions at an appropriate time, and

            process them fully.

            Believe that you can get more out of life by adhering to reality than

            by distorting it.

            Have a higher commitment to truth than to your personal and

            immediate comfort, based on your belief that in the long run,

            adherence to reality will make for a less conflictful and a more

            productive life.


(8)  Experience the emotion fully (or at least fully enough to gain all of the useful information in the emotion).

            Allow full experiencing of an emotion (within the limit of

            maintaining an organized cognitive state) while delaying action until

            the full meaning of the emotion is understood.

            Be comfortable with (or at least tolerate) your emotions, even when

            they are unpleasant.

(9)  Temporarily suppress the emotional experience if necessary for current activities, and then return to it as soon as practicable for further processing.

(10) Let your emotions be, without needing to act on them except

by choice.  Delay acting in response to them until it is adaptive to act.

            Let emotions be and tolerate them without having to act.  (Emotions

            themselves will not harm you and with time most emotions dull or

            disappear through accommodation or habituation.)

            Step back and observe yourself experiencing the emotion.  (This distance

            can help you to view the emotion more objectively, not be overwhelmed

            by the emotion, and not have to react immediately to the emotion.)

            Use the ability to delay gratification to tolerate emotions.  (When you are trying to

            tolerate an unpleasant emotion, knowing that you will be better off soon can add

            motivation to tolerate the emotion.)

            Inhibit expression of emotions until appropriate.

            Tolerate reality and your emotional responses to it, however unpleasant.

(11) Do not distort reality or use other ultimately maladaptive defenses/avoidances in order to ease emotional pain (except in crisis overload situations).  (Be convinced that you will be better off dealing with emotional pain than you will be if you employ distortions.)  (same as 7 above)

            Be constantly aware of how you might be distorting or defending

            against your emotional experience.

            Avoid emotions when to do so is necessary to functioning.  (In

            general, better outcomes are obtained to the extent that all

            emotional experience can be processed fully, so long as this

            awareness and processing can be handled internally without self harm,

            but there are times–particularly crisis times–when simply avoiding

            or truncating emotional awareness is adaptive.)

                 (see Maladaptive Methods of Dealing with Emotion)

            Maintain reality contact and effective reality testing while

            experiencing and coping with your emotions and needs (which may

            motivate you to distort reality).

            Allow distortion of reality to assuage feelings only temporarily and

            in the service of survival.

            Return to partially experienced emotions at an appropriate time, and

            process them fully.

            Believe that you can get more out of life by adhering to reality than

            by distorting it.

            Have a higher commitment to truth than to your personal and

            immediate comfort, based on your belief that in the long run,

            adherence to reality will make for a less conflictful and a more

            productive life.

(12) Interpret and use the information in the emotion appropriately (realizing that your emotions may not be based on reality).

            Be open to learning changed attitudes toward and ways of

            handling your emotions.

            Understand emotions as your own internal signals to yourself,

            carrying information about what should be attended to, what is

            desirable, what should be avoided, what may be painful or dangerous,

            and what may be pleasant or unpleasant.

            Understand the emotion in terms of its origins and existential

            meaning (which may help you to tolerate it).

            Understand that emotions may be based on misperceptions and

            misunderstandings, so that they sometimes do not accurately represent

            reality or the truth about things.

            Use all of the available information in the emotional signal.

            Know the difference between perceiving reality accurately and making

            possibly inaccurate interpretations.

            Seek the counsel of others you trust in order to understand your

            emotional reactions.

(13) Understand and transcend your use of “cover” emotions (e.g., reacting with anger instead of the hurt that stimulated a reaction in the first place).

            Seek awareness of the fundamental emotion beneath the initial

            emotion or feeling (especially the fundamental emotions hidden by

            anger, anxiety, depression, shame, and guilt).

            Be willing to experience your emotional pain and be aware of what

            is causing it.

            Manage frustration, anger, and violence by appropriate handling of

            disappointment and other more fundamental emotions.

(14) Learn what you can about yourself from the emotion and from what stimulated it.

Let emotions be and tolerate them without having to act, as a means

            of learning more about what you feel and what you avoid.

            Understand why you reacted emotionally as you did, if the emotion’s

            implications do not match reality (understand the “meaning” of the

            emotion–what it attempts to communicate to you based on prior

            experience, “instinct,” or the natural functioning of the brain).

            Seek awareness of similar situations/reactions in the past that may

            be influencing you now via generalization.

            Allow yourself to free-associate to the feeling and to the current

            situation, in order to uncover unconscious associations.

            Recognize when you experience painful emotions that were used to train

            you to do what others wanted you to do that was not in your best interest.

            If a response that you have to an emotion, including avoidance of it,

            is not adaptive, reasonable, or good for you, allow yourself to

            experience and live the emotional state so as to learn more about

            what it means to you.

            Recognize when you have an “emotional problem” that needs correction

            (when something is significantly amiss in your functioning or subjective state as a

            result of inability to appropriately tolerate or manage an emotion).

(15) Correct emotion-based misperceptions or misinterpretations so that interpretations of reality can be more accurate in the future.

            Be open to more accurate perceptions of reality and to new ways of

            doing things.

            Accept and, as possible, maturely revise your expectations of self,

            others, and life, especially in dealing with disappointments and

            feelings of failure.

            Realistically and reasonably reinterpret events from the past, when

            previous false interpretations have caused emotional pain, so that

            you can change your automatic emotionally-based interpretations.

            Be able to perceive the “relativity” of all reality perceptions,

            including your individual views, your family’s views, and your culture’s

            agreed-upon views of and distortions of reality.

            Find out if the danger or reality predicted by an emotion actually

            occurs, so you can adapt.

            Recognize the false inferences you has been making from emotions.

            Learn to routinely recognize these false inferences in the future through reality

            testing and develop the capacity to both feel the emotion and at the

            same time know that the automatic interpretation of it is false.

Evaluate for yourself the reasonableness of an emotion in the light of


            Be able to know the more realistic interpretation of an event, even

            while you are experiencing an inaccurate interpretation based on your

            emotional conditioning from the past.

(16) After becoming clear about the reasons for the emotion, if the emotion is incongruent with how you want to respond to the situation or issue, then identify the beliefs, understanding, and/or conditioning that cause the undesired emotion or the undesired reaction to the emotion, and change those beliefs or understanding, or process those conditioning experiences in such a way that the desired emotional reaction becomes possible and appropriate to your beliefs and understanding of reality.

            Use improved and honest reality perception to identify what needs

            to be changed (see #20).

(17) Express emotions adaptively when this is needed to resolve

them and complete their work.

            Express emotions in order to legitimize them to yourself.

            Express emotions so that others can understand and empathize.

            Express emotions in ways that do not alienate or antagonize others.

            Use physical expression to discharge accumulated tension, including

            giving voice to emotions, singing, exercise, specific instrumental

            physical actions, and dancing.

(18) Provide various forms of self-support, including soothing and comforting yourself for your emotional pain.

            Give yourself needed support and reassurance regarding the future.

            Believe that you do deserve soothing/comforting.

            Experience soothing/comforting through touch, gaze, speech,

            attention, and emotional communication.

            Comfort yourself as needed (with memories, fantasies, or rewards, or

            with your good feelings about yourself).

            Accept and use your own self-soothing and self-comforting.

            Seek soothing/comforting from others when appropriate and needed.

            Maintain your basic sense of security despite rejections and losses.

            Maintain your basic sense of value despite rejections and losses.

(19) Share and discuss emotions with others, if that helps you to “process” them (through feeling understood, feeling accepted, gaining new insights and perspectives, etc.).

            Express emotions to others in order to feel understood, to

            legitimize the emotions, to be reassured that you are acceptable,

            to change the context from an emotion alone to a shared emotion,

            to gain the insights of others, and to discover that you are not

            alone in feeling the emotions.

            Express emotions so that others can understand and empathize.

            Express emotions in ways that do not alienate or antagonize others.

(20) “Process” persistent emotions until they fade (often through acceptance and forgiveness of self and/or others, or through accommodation or habituation).

Process reactions to experiences and events, so

            that you can leave the past behind and live in the present.

            After becoming clear about the reasons for the emotion, if the emotion is

            incongruent with how you want to respond to the situation or issue, then identify the

            beliefs, understanding, and/or conditioning that cause the undesired emotion or the

            undesired reaction to the emotion, and change those beliefs or understanding, or

            process those conditioning experiences in such a way that the desired emotional

            reaction becomes possible and appropriate to your beliefs and understanding of


            Use improved and honest reality perception to identify what needs

            to be changed.

            Forgive appropriately and start over.

            Let go of injuries received and mistakes made, after appropriate processing.

            Assess injuries and mistakes reasonably.

            Assign responsibility for injuries and mistakes reasonably.

            Accept your own degree and nature of responsibility for injuries/mistakes.

            Decide on how to prevent the injury or mistake and its negative impact on others

            and on yourself in the future.

            Commit to make any needed change in order to act differently in the future so as to

            prevent the injury or mistake in the future.

            Carry out any undoing or atonement you feel is needed.

            Trust yourself to carry out your plan for the future, and let go of the injury/mistake.

            Recover from trauma, through appropriate re-experiencing and

            expression of affect, through loving, comforting, and taking care of

            yourself, through realistically and reasonably reinterpreting events

            from the past (interpretations of which have caused you pain), 

            through reconceptualizing the environment and its risks relatively

            rationally, and through receiving the acceptance and support of others.


(21) If over-stimulation (emotions beyond your capacities for coping) is frequent, learn to keep stimulus levels to a level you can tolerate without resorting to maladaptive coping methods.  (same as #1 above)

(22) Make practical changes in your general coping skills and strategies that will reduce the natural occurrence of the unpleasant emotion.

            Learn more about the world so that your choices are more productive.

            Learn social skills that will gain you more of what you want in relation to others.

            Develop goal-attainment skills that will allow you more success.

            Change the context in which goal-attainment efforts take place, so you can be more


 (23) After becoming clear about the reasons for the emotion, if the emotion is incongruent with how you want to respond to the situation or issue, then identify the beliefs, understanding, and/or conditioning that cause the undesired emotion or reaction to the emotion, and change those beliefs or understanding, or process those conditioning experiences in such a way that the desired emotional reaction becomes possible and appropriate to your beliefs and understanding of reality.  (same as #16 above)

            Realize that you can shape your being and your future–that how

            things are is not necessarily the way they must be or should be.

            Accept yourself completely and without reservation, including, needs,

            wants, emotions, thoughts, motives, behavior, potentials, and body.

            Accept others completely as they are, and give up efforts to try to

            change them so that you can have what you want.

            Accept life completely as it is.

            Change maladaptive personality traits and habits.

            Let go of inappropriate or impossible goals.

            Recover from trauma, through appropriate re-experiencing and

            expression of affect, through loving, comforting, and taking care of

            yourself, through realistically and reasonably reinterpreting events

            from the past (interpretations of which have caused you pain), 

            through reconceptualizing the environment and its risks relatively

            rationally, and through receiving the acceptance and support of others.

(24) If an emotion is causing disruption in your life, despite your best coping efforts, employ methods that ease the pain even though they will not lead to resolution or improvement (while at the same time being careful to minimize any problems created by these methods).


            changing goals

            improving your pleasure balance to compensate

            engaging in gratifying activities

            expressing the emotion through an adaptive activity (sublimation)

            avoidance of concrete reminders (actual and symbolic)



            denial (pretending it didn’t happen or pretending you are not who you really are)

            repression (submerging awareness) (not needing it any more,

            not feeling it any more, or not knowing it any more)

(25) If an emotion is causing disruption in your life, despite your coping efforts, devise ways of avoiding or minimizing those problems or of compensating for them.

            Continue to seek better processing of the troublesome emotion that is

            causing problems despite your efforts to cope.

            Learn additional methods of coping with problems that result from

            your emotions, including taking good care of yourself, learning to apologize, etc.

(26) Cultivate self-esteem, reality, and interpersonal skills and ways of living that do not lead to unnecessary problematic emotions.

To summarize, strive first to understand what stimulates your emotions and then what they mean for you.  Gradually incorporate each of the suggestions above to your methods of responding to your emotions, which will allow you to gain new insights about yourself and others and to establish new and more healthful habits.


Cooperation leads to greater benefit for more people than does a system in which everyone tries individually to get his or own way or to maximize his or her own benefit regardless of the impact on others.  Cooperation allows for more effective accomplishment of mutual goals, and cooperation also makes for a happier society, since it creates a greater feeling of alliance, trust, and relationship than we have if we must always view others with suspicion because we know that they are out to maximize their outcomes, even at our expense. 

Children first want always to get their own way but may later realize that the benefits of sharing or taking turns, in terms of the reciprocity that results, are greater than always fighting to have everything for yourself or to get your way.  Mature adults know that they cannot have the lives that they want without a great deal of cooperation with others in their communities and in the economy.  Any activity that requires more than one person requires some sort of cooperation, so knowing how to cooperate in a way that enhances the chances of success is important.  On an even larger scale, our whole economy depends on groups of people (companies) producing things that other groups and individuals need to live or to make their own products.  If they were not all doing their part, many important aspects of your life would be missing.

In the struggle for status and popularity, many adults continue to compete, instead of cooperate, by harming others (gossip to hurt or help certain others; creating alliances with some against others; putting certain others down or acting superior; etc.).  Equality would be the cooperative solution in the status/popularity area—everyone agreeing that everyone has equal basic worth as persons so that there is no need to try to be superior and to make others inferior through putting them down or putting them in disadvantageous positions.  In the survival and material goods arenas, working together effectively is essential to having adequate security in our lives and adequate products and services.

You must believe that you will get more by cooperating than by competing if you are to sincerely and regularly employ cooperative skills and strategies.  While the case for this can easily be made rationally, it is difficult for people to believe it if their main experience in life has been having to struggle with others who were out for themselves and not inclined to cooperate (except perhaps cooperating temporarily with some to gain advantage over others).  Such people do not trust others to care about them and therefore are hesitant to trust them in cooperative efforts.  Cooperation among people who are basically out for themselves will always fall apart as soon as an immediate goal is reached, because the participants are inclined to look for the next competitive opportunity to take advantage of each other, rather than keeping the members positively disposed toward the next cooperative effort.  Cooperation among people who care at least basically for each other as human beings is a more stable arrangement and more satisfying, since the participants can trust each other.  We might call this a “positive cooperative milieu,” that is composed of people who want good things for each other in general as well as for themselves (because they cared) and who came together as needed to cooperate in seeking specific mutual goals.  You may have to experience a positive cooperative milieu in order to believe that this is possible.  The key, of course, is the caring in the context of cooperating.

Key skills for successful cooperation include first finding out what others’ needs are in the situation and then accepting rather than fighting over those needs.  Telling people that they don’t need something or that they shouldn’t feel something is sure to fail and will sabotage the carrying out of cooperative plans.  All parties must be sufficiently assertive to state their needs clearly, but overstating them, as some people do in order to gain a preferred bargaining position for a further negotiation, annoys and alienates other participants.  Being reasonable about needs tends to influence other parties to also be reasonable, and any party that exaggerates can be encouraged to be reasonable as well.  Any party that exaggerates its needs or attempts to take advantage of other parties is not actually cooperating at all and perhaps should be excluded from the cooperative effort and from its benefits if it is likely to be seeking its own advantage in every step of the cooperative effort.

After needs have been reasonably stated, goals must be chosen and stated clearly.  It is often not possible for every party to get all that it wants, so compromise will be needed.  The needs of every party should be met to roughly the same degree, or else some will see the situation as “unfair” and be tempted to withdraw from or sabotage the cooperation.

Next, possible cooperative actions are explored that can be expected to lead to achieving the chosen goals.  In order to maximize cooperation, the focus should be on actions that lead to meeting the needs of all parties to the maximum extent possible (the “win-win” approach).  Willingness to compromise with regard to adjustments in needs and goals and with respect to goal-related actions is necessary if willing agreement is to be reached and a positive milieu preserved.

The final step in cooperative efforts is to carry out your assigned actions responsibly and adequately.  It may be tempting to fail to do your part, hoping that others will pick up the slack, but this makes you unpopular as a partner in future cooperation.

After each cooperative project, the parties can review the process, to see if there are ways to make it work more smoothly and effectively (communicating, compromising, keeping promises, fulfilling tasks, sharing, supporting each other, etc.).

The moral aspect of cooperation can be seen in the principle of reciprocity.  It is a basic characteristic of human beings that we tend to imitate what we experience in others.  This is the way that children do much of their learning in early years, and it remains true for adults, too, although the imitation is more subtle.  More specifically for our purposes, how one person treats another person tends to induce the other person to react similarly.  If you treat others well, they will naturally be pulled to treat you well.  If you treat others poorly, they will tend to treat you poorly. 

In addition to this imitation factor, we learn ideas when growing up about behavior that is appropriate and behavior that is inappropriate, and we apply these “rules” and expectations in determining how to treat others and how to respond to others.  Most of us are taught to respond in kind.  One form of guidance in this respect is the “Golden Rule”—to treat others as we would have them treat us, which teaches the principle that if we want others to treat us well, we should treat them well.  (There are a few people who for personality and psychopathology reasons want others to treat them badly, but this was probably not part of the thinking when the Golden Rule was formulated.)

Sharing is taught to children as an adaptive tool and skill in human relations.  Sharing allows all parties to think that they are getting something from an interaction, and it therefore decreases open conflict and violence.  Sharing is especially effective if the sharing is viewed by all parties as an appropriate division of resources—i.e., that it is “fair.”

When cooperating, we will immediately have the benefits of smoother relations and reaching goals, but some of the benefits of treating others well will occur in the future.  In some circumstances, when we treat someone else well, that person is in a position to immediately return the favor (returning a greeting, cooperating with a proposal for joint action, etc.), but often this is not the case.  Our positive treatment of them pays off later because of the positive relationship that we have created with them by treating them in positive ways, so that when opportunity arises, they will be more likely to treat us positively than negatively.  This is an investment in our future while at the same time making things better in the present for everyone involved (a “win-win” situation).  Thus, by always treating others positively, we build up positive potential to be treated as well as possible by others.  We actually reap benefits of our efforts over a long period of time, however, so we must believe that the total benefit of treating others positively will be considerably greater than the immediate benefits we could get from taking advantage of them or harming them.  Fortunately, in almost all environments, the majority of people are ready to respond positively to us if we treat them positively, so even a little trial period of treating others positively will quickly show you that there are great immediate benefits to be had from that approach to relationships!  (The most trusting and enduring relationships result from treating others positively with a sincere, caring attitude, but even more superficial positivity (back-slapping, effusive greetings, giving favors, “buttering up”) will have some positive effects in gaining cooperation.)


In order to wish to be a reliably moral and ethical person (beyond just following moral and ethical rules), one must have a generally positive attitude toward other people.  This positive attitude is fostered by empathically appreciating the difficulties of coping with life, the inner struggles that we are each engaged in, and the imperfections of us all.  Important aspects of a positive attitude toward others are (1) a hope of positive relating with all others, (2) openness to positive relations with others, (3) approaching others in a manner that encourages positive relating, (4) interest in others’ lives and methods of coping, (5) treating others in ways that promote positive relating (honesty, responsibility for one’s emotions and behavior, acceptance, fairness, equality, compassion, self-control, autonomy), and (6) willingness to engage in cooperative, mutually beneficial projects and to be helpful to others, as possible.  “Positive relations” refers to the affective quality of the relating—i.e., that the relating is pleasant, comfortable, accepting, and encouraging—and does not require any other specific benefits.

One could be moral and ethical in the sense of scrupulously following moral and ethical rules, but to go beyond that and to want to be moral and ethical because it is good for self and others means being motivated by the wish for life to be good for self and for others.

(1) Positive relations with others are based most fundamentally in a desire for those relations to be positive.  We can appreciate the many benefits of having positive relations with others, including greater trust, greater comfort, and better cooperation.  Relations can be positive without involving specific, mutually beneficial projects or contracts, but an attitude that clearly hopes for positive relating is essential.  Most positive relating gives both parties significant psychological benefits, regardless of any concrete, external benefits.

(2) Relations will not be sincerely and openly positive unless both parties are open to positive relations.  This means being genuinely open to relating, without fears and other barriers blocking the way.  Many people develop habitual suspicion of others, various “relationship testing” procedures (like being nasty to see if the other person is nasty back, at which point the relationship can be abandoned), and other barriers that are used to ward off the harm that they expect from relating (based on past negative experiences).  Many of these people cannot ever let those barriers down, even if the other person proves trustworthy, and this makes positive relations impossible.  The keys to better relating for those who are fearful are (usually with the help and encouragement of certain others) (1) to take the risk of openness and discover that at least with one other person relating can be relaxed and positive and (2) to appreciate fully the good feelings that come from full and  deep contact with another, so that these good feelings come to justify continued openness to positive relations.

(3)  Positive relations require that you come across to others in a way that conveys your desire for positive relating.  Think of people who make you feel positive and comfortable when they approach you, and imitate what they do.  Smile and courteously recognize the presence of others.  (This is the underlying function of the usually otherwise meaningless greeting “How’s it going?”)  Use a look or a few words to put others at their ease around you.  Express interest in the other person.  Don’t wait for others to do these things; do them yourself proactively.  Most people will respond positively and appreciatively to these signals of possible positive relating, and you will feel effective and good about yourself for your efforts.  Approaching others with a neutral or negative attitude (neutrally waiting for them to show or prove themselves, or expecting negative relating and therefore giving nothing away or subtly warning others not to relate) kills most chances for positive relating and also “proves” what you feared–that it is too dangerous to relate.

(4)  The chances of having positive relations are increased significantly if we are interested in others’ lives and ways of coping, so that all of our encounters automatically have something of interest to us, even without the necessity of finding common interests or similarity connections.  Some people are naturally “psychologically minded” in this way, but the rest of us can at least to some extent develop this curiosity about others if we are willing.  Since human beings around the world all cope with the same feelings, the same bodily abilities, limitations, and infirmities, and basically the same environmental challenges, we can always potentially learn useful things from how others deal with life and its problems, if we are willing to look at what they know and how they cope, psychologically, physically, and culturally.  The solutions are varied across the world to such problems as how to institutionalize mating and childrearing, how to augment or supplement vision, and how to shape wood and metals into forms that are useful to us, and we can learn much from others, as long as we can overcome our inherent tendency to overvalue what we are familiar with and to denigrate everything else.

(5) In order both to create and to nurture positive relating, it is necessary to treat others in ways that promote positive relating.  Being honest with others and being responsible in our relating to them makes it possible for others to trust us and be comfortable being with us.  This includes being responsible for managing your emotions, rather than expecting others to change so that you won’t have to feel any unpleasant feelings.  Demonstrating empathy shows them that there is at least a chance that you can understand their experience and situation, and demonstrating appropriate self-control shows them that you may be able to manage your behavior so as not to harm them.  Accepting others as they are allows them to relax with you and to feel welcome and valued.  Treating others fairly tells them that you will apply the same rules to yourself that you apply to them, so that they don’t have to worry so much that you will take advantage of them.  Treating them basically as equals tells them that you understand that they have the same basic value in the world and the same rights as you do, which once again underscores that you recognize their basic value.  Treating others with compassion tells them that you understand their struggles and that you place a high value on their welfare.  Taking care of yourself happily and effectively shows them that you are not likely to seek to be dependent on them.

(6) Positive relations are nurtured by your willingness to engage in cooperative, mutually beneficial projects and to be helpful to others, as possible.  Whether it is simply helping to raise a stuck window, organizing a benefit dinner-dance, or fighting side by side in a war, working together for mutually desired goals is naturally (evolutionarily) rewarding to human beings and can cement positive relating into friendship.  Your empathy and compassion make helping a natural and enjoyable thing to do and even “justifies” some personal sacrifices for the sake of others’ welfare.  Of course, sharing your wisdom with others in ways that can benefit them is another possible cooperative, mutually beneficial project.


In order to have better relations with others, we must either have or develop requisite basic social skills, so that we can interact adaptively with others.  We must know when to insist on what we want, and when to let others have their way.  We must know how to engage with others at an appropriate level for the circumstances, how to communicate our respect, caring, and acceptance, and how to negotiate joint ventures.  The basic social skills required for good human relations are (1) the ability to communicate clearly our feelings, thoughts, intentions, and wishes; (2) the ability to empathize appropriately with others; (3) the ability to understand others’ needs and feelings; (4) displaying behaviors that communicate that others are safe with us and that we will not take advantage of them; (5) sufficient self-control that keep from harming others; and (6) the willingness to behave in ways that will get us what we want and will also get others what they want (so that they will continue to cooperate with us, rather than becoming simply adversaries). 

Most of us learn some degree and version of these skills as we grow up.  Adults can improve their skills by attention and self-discipline (if they believe that change will benefit them), and counseling or psychotherapy can also help a person to make changes in these skills.  Change is difficult for adults, and in order to be motivated to improve interactional skills, adults must (1) be willing to risk being more open to being affected by others and (2) be willing to share more of the good things in the world with others.  Our fears of others and our selfishness are the primary barriers to improved relations with others.

When we communicate with others, empathize with others, and strive to understand others, our picture of those others will naturally be more present to us, and we will feel that those others are “closer” to us (right next to us or even inside us, rather than at a distance).  This is unfamiliar and disconcerting at first, and we must “get used to” this new awareness.  With regard to sharing, in order to make human relations work smoothly, the desires and needs of everyone in the reference group of the moment must be fulfilled in a way that is equitable (not necessarily equal) in the eyes of everyone.  This means that changing from a more isolated position, concerned mostly about our own wishes and needs, to a more involved position, concerned about the wishes and needs of others as well, will feel like we are allowing others to have more than we used to allow them to have.  This may feel like we will be getting less, but this is not true.  We will be getting as much or more, with less conflict and violence, but it may be spaced out more in time, and it will be more at our choice, since we will sometimes decide to let others have their way when we could have forced them to give us what we wanted right then (in order to promote the kind of relations that will induce them to give us more in the future). 



Using his knowledge about human beings and their needs, his empathic understanding of others’ experience, his knowledge about the total consequences of various actions, his commitment to knowing the truth about others and about circumstances in the world, his knowledge of and ability to manage his emotions, his commitment to removing his own needs and emotions from consideration in determining what is true, and his commitment to maximizing benefit to all (in terms of gratifications, the value of benefiting others as well as oneself, and the value of supporting the best moral and ethical principles), the moral and ethical person arrives at decisions about what is the best thing to do and what is the right thing to do.  The best thing to do is the behavior that maximizes benefits to all and avoids unacceptable consequences.  The right thing to do is the behavior that maximizes benefits to all, supports the best moral and ethical principles, is appropriate (e.g., responsible), and avoids unacceptable consequences.   (These definitions of the best thing to do and the right thing to do are my own, but I believe that they capture, in brief, the essence of the goals of decision-making.)

Since a moral and ethical person empathically appreciates the feelings and needs of others and has a positive attitude toward others, he is quite likely to organize his life and behavior so as to benefit others when possible or at least not to harm others.  Knowing the consequences of his behaviors, he would naturally tend to choose those that benefited others as well as himself, whenever possible.

The thoughtful moral and ethical person’s deliberations include taking into account future as well as present consequences of an action being considered, as well as the impact of one’s actions on others, since it is in these areas that most unwise decisions are deficient.

Knowing what is appropriate involves knowledge of the surrounding cultures and sensitivity to how the feelings of others are affected by our actions.

The person who is truly moral and ethical does not lose sight of what is right and appropriate even if circumstances change or if his own involvement changes.  He will “do the right thing” even if it takes longer, is more difficult, or leads to his immediate disadvantage, because he places others’ interests on a par with his own, and he believes that consistently acting appropriately will bring more advantages to him in the long run than any other course of action.  The immoral and unethical person seeks his immediate advantage, does not value acting appropriately if it does not seem to be to his advantage, and is reluctant to share or allow others to get their way part of the time.

To become better at knowing what is best to do and what is right to do, expand your understanding of reality and of people, take all results and consequences of possible actions into account when deciding how to act, and evaluate every possible action with respect to the moral and ethical principles that you believe are the most useful and the most humane.  (Knowing what is best to do and what is right to do does not, of course, guarantee that one will act in that way!)




Wisdom, maturity, and compassion are the keys to living wisely, deeply, and compassionately (which in my opinion is a life with the greatest likelihood of including peacefulness, success, loving and gratifying relationships, good self-esteem, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment).

Compassion is an attitude and a feeling state composed of warm concern for another with regard to perceived negative feelings or life status of that other person, together with a desire for positive life status and outcomes for the person.  (Webster’s Ninth Collegiate dictionary defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”)  Compassion is based in an empathic understanding of the status and outcomes of that person or persons.  It implies that one will manage his behavior so that it will not lead to negative life status and outcomes for the person of concern, and it may (but need not) lead to actions designed to enhance the life status and outcomes of the person.  Theoretically one could also feel compassion for more than one person, as well as for non-human beings and for the earth (and even for oneself!).

Compassion is the sympathetic tug at our heartstrings that we feel upon observing or becoming aware of a person’s emotional pain, distress, or suffering.  We might feel compassion for the bereaved, for a rejected spouse or lover, for victims of an earthquake, or for a child disappointed in grades or sports accomplishments.  We might feel compassion for those suffering from living under a brutal government.  Compassion does not require that suffering be above a certain severity to qualify, and we can even feel compassion for those suffering from the results of their own poor choices, such as the genuine grief of a spouse being divorced for having an affair.  (Self-induced suffering can, of course, be a larger behavioral pattern in the person’s life that is causing him significant problems.)

If it is expanded to concern for all persons, compassion is like having a loving attitude toward the whole world, with the addition of wanting any suffering and distress to be alleviated.

How Compassion Is Valuable To Us All

Human beings thrive emotionally on being understood, having our feelings and concerns recognized by others, and knowing that others are positively disposed toward us—all elements of compassion.  We all warm to and value people who relate to us in these ways.  (Only those who are extremely afraid of losing love and being betrayed reject compassion and refuse to allow themselves to warm to it.)  The more people we have around us who have warm, positive concern for us, the more comfortable we are (and the more likely we are to also be compassionate ourselves).  Almost everyone would choose to have more rather than fewer compassionate persons as friends and associates.

The Processes of Compassion

Compassion occurs through an empathic process of being aware of the emotional state of another.  Deepening and sharpening our empathy capacities can therefore broaden and deepen our compassion.

Compassion is above all else a feeling of warm concern for the person and wanting the person’s distress or suffering to be reduced.  This requires that we be able to step outside of our personal concerns sufficiently to be genuinely concerned for another person—concerned for that person’s sake only and not for ourselves or regarding the impact of the situation on ourselves.  The desire for a positive outcome for another must flow from the warm, positive feeling of connection that we feel with the other person, even if we do not know that person.  This relationship may be the fellow-feeling that we can have with any other person, simply because we are both human beings.

The benefits of our feeling of positive concern for others is maximized if we can relate in this way to all others and not just to our closest friends and relatives.  If we are concerned only for those closest to us and not for more distant persons, compassion would in some cases be more appropriately termed love.

Using our capacities for empathy, we sense the psychological state of the other person and come to appreciate the subtleties and complexity of that person’s feelings and thoughts, including the distress that she feels.  This requires experiencing, albeit from a distance, the other person’s feelings and intuiting her thoughts, and doing this for long enough that we have time to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the person.

Using our empathic understanding of the other person and her distress or negative psychological state, we imagine a better state or outcome for the person, whether that is simply relief of suffering or the achievement of a positive feeling state.  The quality of our empathy will determine whether our imagined improved condition for that person is what the person would actually want or benefit from.  If we are motivated to possibly take action to help, it can be even more effective to find out directly from the person what outcomes she views as desirable.  (There will be times, of course, when we “know” that the outcomes desired by the person are in fact not in her best interest, which leaves us with a dilemma.)

Having compassion does not require that we act to create the desired positive outcome for the other person, but to do so would flow naturally from feeling compassion.

It is important that we not be envious of another person’s positive outcomes, or else we could not sincerely want positive outcomes for him.

What Compassion Is Not

Compassion is not simply concern, since it must also include desire that the other person’s distress be alleviated.

Compassion is not simply helping others, since it must also include felt concern.  Helping others may flow from compassion, but it can also be a way for the helper to avoid feeling another’s pain.

Compassion is not love, since love involves also (1) wanting to be close or closer to the loved one and (2) wanting and acting to bring about what is best for the loved one, in a proactive sense as well as by alleviating distress.  Compassion and love do share, however, a similar warm, positive feeling or stance toward the others involved, as well as a desire for those others to feel “good” rather than “bad.”

Feeling compassion for others does not aim at getting anything back.  It does not seek reciprocity.

Compassion is not pity, since pity is defined as “sympathetic sorrow…,” while compassion is awareness and concern regarding another’s distress.

Compassion is not feeling sorry for another, since feeling sorry for someone is often an isolating response rather than warm concern (along the lines of “I sure wouldn’t want to be that person”).  (In recent years, many people inaccurately understand pity to be feeling sorry for another.)

Compassion is not sympathy, which is defined (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary) as a relationship in which things affecting one person similarly affect the other, as emotional or intellectual accord, or as “the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another” (which is more similar to “empathy”).

Compassion is not felt from a consciously superior position, since that would probably not include a warm, positive feeling toward the other person.

Most people whom we perceive to be compassionate are stable and trustworthy in their compassion—i.e., if they have compassion for us today, they will have compassion for us another time also, given the same circumstances.  There are some, though, who mouth concern but whose feelings are capricious.  One test for this might be whether the person claiming to be concerned is actually in touch with the pain of the person he is concerned about.  To feel compassion involves feeling another’s pain empathically, though in diluted form.  The person feeling compassion chooses to pay this price because feeling concern for and relatedness with others is desirable.  Those who do not wish to pay this price skip the step of contemplation of the other person’s situation and pain, not living with it long enough to have a comprehensive empathic sense of the other person’s psychological state.  Some of these people, who wish not to feel the other person’s pain, immediately throw significant energy into alleviation of that pain.

Enhancing Compassion

Enhancing or maximizing compassion in us all is desirable because the more connection we feel with others (and especially with all others), the more giving, understanding, and trustworthy we are likely to be toward others (and they toward us).  The concern and positive relationship that we feel with others and the desire that we feel that they have positive (rather than negative) status and outcomes make it more likely that we will express that concern to others, and they make it more likely that, going beyond compassion, our concern will turn into action aiming to achieve positive outcomes for others.

Since compassion requires empathy, for appreciating the experience and psychological state of the other, enhancing our empathic capacities can increase our capacity for compassion.  The biggest barriers to better empathy are being inaccurate in our understanding of others, being unwilling to feel the negative feeling states of others, and judging and rejecting those whose behavior we dislike.  Having better empathy calls on us to (1) understand others in greater detail and more accurately, (2) be better able to tolerate first our own and then others’ negative states and distress so that we can truly understand them, and (3) accept others as they are, so that we can feel compassion even for those whose behavior we find repugnant.  It is easy to feel sorry for those who suffer because of “misfortune” but much harder to feel genuine concern about and to wish for a better state for those who have harmed others (e.g., those who have murdered or molested others) or those who suffer because of their own “bad” choices (anorexics, adulterers, etc.)!

Understanding others in greater detail and more accurately requires learning more about the subtleties of thoughts, feelings, and motives of people.  Paying greater attention to our own complexity is a first step—recognizing all of our emotions, even the unpleasant and embarrassing ones, noticing all of our thoughts, even those we don’t like, and acknowledging how we criticize, judge, and reject others.  Applying the same standards to ourselves that we apply to others can be enlightening!

Our ability to tolerate the negative states of others that we experience empathically can be enhanced by learning to tolerate and live with our own negative emotions better.  For most of us this means accepting these negative feelings and allowing ourselves to really experience them instead of automatically denying or repressing them before we process them or allow them to fade.  This does not mean liking negative states but simply allowing ourselves to experience them fully instead of immediately and automatically pushing them away or altering them.

Accepting others even when we don’t like them or like their behavior is a different approach to interpersonal relations than most of us learn growing up.  Most of us use rejection and harming others as our way of trying to get them to change their behavior (hurting, shaming, embarrassing, criticizing, ignoring, distancing, guilt-tripping), but a more positive approach is to accept everyone basically as a person but use communication and education to seek change in their behavior.  This means that we would state clearly what we don’t like to the other person (after considering honestly whether the other person’s behavior is truly harmful rather than just inconvenient for us).  We would ask the other person for the specific change of behavior that we want, and if possible we would suggest other behaviors that could achieve that person’s goals just as well or better.  This communication should be done with an accepting or neutral rather than a critical tone, since a critical tone is another method of punishing.  Many people will object that if you don’t punish such people, they will never change, but these people are assuming that the way they themselves were treated (punishment) is how others should be treated, and they may never have experienced the pull toward positive behavior that genuine acceptance creates.  It is a fact that an accepting atmosphere leads to more significant change than a punishing environment, partly because the target person has no need to fight against the request for change.

Compassion has as its motive power the desire for the alleviation of distress or suffering in others, so in order to have compassion, one must care about others and their experience.  Caring means that the feelings of others matter to one and that one is interested enough in others’ status that one is aware of their experience.  In our modern world many people restrict their caring only to those close to them, so compassion could be enhanced by expanding that circle of caring.  It might seem unbearably unpleasant to be aware of the distress of so many others when it seems so impossible to do anything meaningful about it, but an individual (such as yourself) who approaches everyone around him (acquainted or not) with compassion, does influence those others to be more caring and compassionate themselves, and this influence can spread.

Compassion is enhanced the more we are capable of selfless concern.  We are naturally motivated to take care of ourselves and do right by ourselves, but we can also consider the needs of others independent of how it might affect us, if we practice having this consideration, particularly by seeing things from the point of view of the other person (utilizing accurate empathy).  In any case, we would not be affected negatively by the diminished distress of the person for whom we feel compassion, as long as we were not envious of her improvement!

Compassion is enhanced through feeling kinship with all other persons.  We can care meaningfully about not only those we know and love but about everyone on the planet, if we consider and appreciate that every one of them has the same emotions, most of the same thoughts and fears, and the same desires and basic life goals that we do, even if those occur in a different language and a different culture.  We cannot influence the lives of all those other people separately, but we can through our attitude toward every individual make this a more comfortable and encouraging world for everyone.

In the “real world,” our interest in and concern for others often arises from a felt similarity (thinking or feeling that we are like the other person), but this will tend to restrict our compassion to those whom we perceive to be like ourselves.  It is quite possible to extend your compassion to everyone if your warm, positive regard for others includes everyone and you are willing to see deep enough into another person to realize that he or she is in fact just like you in many meaningful ways.

Since love and compassion have in common the desire for the distress of others to be alleviated, compassion can be enhanced by expanding your circle of love—i.e., feeling love even toward strangers.  This loving attitude toward strangers is another way to approach being compassionate.  It adds greatly to our own felt life experience to approach everyone with a loving attitude.

To practice compassion, identify some other person or persons to focus on.  Contact a place within yourself where you feel warm and positive, and focus on the other person while feeling that warm, positive feeling, including them in that warm, positive space.  Attend carefully to that person, with interest, in order to empathically understand his situation and feelings, particularly feelings of distress or suffering.  Take time to see the whole person and understand him comprehensively.  Relate to that person through your memory of having had similar feelings yourself.  Let concern for the other person arise in your feelings, and be aware of your desire for his distress to be alleviated.  Let this stance guide your future actions as they might affect that other person, whether or not you act directly to alleviate his distress of the moment. 

In order to make compassion a central part of your personality, try to maintain this concern and warm, positive stance toward everyone you interact with, as well the other people in the world.



Love is perhaps the most wonderful and treasured feeling we can have toward others and toward ourselves.  Our society is certainly preoccupied with love, or at least with what it calls love.  A majority of movies and books seem to attract people by dealing with love.  Most of us worry for some significant periods of our lives about whether we will “find somebody to love” or to love us.  The greatest fear and greatest pain of many people is being alone and without love. 

In thinking about love in their lives, most people think of loving or being loved by someone else, but love for oneself (and consequently treating oneself well) is a key asset for living a satisfying and fulfilling life.  It is often said that we cannot love others if we cannot love ourselves, though this is probably better understood as saying that if one feels unloved or mistreated, then it is much harder to love others.  It would also be true that if one truly does feel love for others (sincerely, comfortably, fully), then one will be the kind of person who naturally feels love for oneself.  Because of the importance of self-love, self-acceptance, and self-esteem for loving others, and because so many people do not love themselves, loving oneself and loving others will be presented in a parallel fashion here.

Because parents call us selfish and punish us for being good to ourselves while ignoring the needs of others, we are now fearful of loving ourselves.  However, feeling love for oneself (feeling warmly and positively toward ourselves, enjoying our awareness of ourselves, wanting to ensure the we are treated well and have our needs satisfied) does not at all preclude feeling the same way toward others, and it does not prevent us from doing good both for others and for ourselves at the same time.  Most people view love or good will as an either-or game (either I get the toy or the other child gets the toy), but adults can work toward getting toys for everyone.  A loving nature and attitude in life extends naturally to both others and oneself.


A useful working definition of love is “a positive, warm, affectionate feeling involving attachment feelings, identification with the loved one, desire to be close or closer with the loved one, the wish for good things for the loved one, and pleasure experienced in contact with or contemplation of the loved one.”  Love truly “makes our world go round,” and it provides most of us with our clearest reason for experiencing life as worthwhile.

It should be recognized that with love, as with all other feelings, we each have a somewhat different personal definition of this feeling, since we learn our concepts and definitions from how we observe that others define them and from our own experiences.  The definitions that we observe in those around us, as well as our personal experiences, are somewhat different for each of us.  Still, if we are to seriously think about love, we need to be “on the same page,” and the definition offered here will be useful for exploring how we love and how we have difficulties loving and being loved.

Love is a warm, positive (pleasant) feeling, as opposed to a neutral, cold, or negative feeling.  When we love someone we feel warmly toward him, and it feels good.  Similarly when we love ourselves, we feel warm toward ourselves, and it feels good.  We feel affection (tender attachment and fondness) for the loved one.  When we love ourselves, we feel tenderness and fondness for ourselves.

When we love, we want to attach to the loved one, to be connected.  We long to be with and even touching the loved one all the time.  We are convinced that the loved one is wonderful and lovable, and we readily ignore the loved one’s flaws and occasional failures.  When we love ourselves, we are firmly connected with ourselves, rather than keeping ourselves at arms length because we see ourselves as unworthy and undesirable to attach to. 

When we love, we identify with the loved one, as we do when we like someone.  We want to be like the loved one or identified with the loved one, since it feels good to be connected in this way and feels good to think of ourselves in terms of our similarities to the loved one.  In loving ourselves, we identify clearly with ourselves, knowing who we are and valuing and

affirming who we are by identifying with ourselves.  We enjoy being connected with ourselves, because we are worth being with. In loving, we want to be close to the loved one.  Being near feels good and is comforting.  Closeness implies the possibility of interaction, but simply being close by is satisfying in its own right.  In loving ourselves, we enjoy being close with ourselves.  Since we enjoy ourselves and find ourselves valuable, it is enjoyable to be close with ourselves.

When we love someone, we want good things for them.  We want them to be happy and fortunate in life.  We want things to go well for them.  We feel pain empathically when a loved person is hurt.  Similarly when we love ourselves, we want good things for ourselves.  We know that we deserve all the good in life that is available, and our wishes for ourselves are unequivocally positive.

We take great pleasure in our contact with the loved one, and we enjoy simply looking at or thinking about the loved person, even without interaction.  The loved person is a positive object for us which we value as a source of good feelings and pleasant experiences.  The loved person is interesting to us.  When we love ourselves, we enjoy being in contact with ourselves.  We enjoy being aware of ourselves, observing our actions and being aware of every feeling and thought inside.  (This is consistent with a definition of self-esteem as positive feelings in response to the awareness of ourselves.)     

The major definitional aspects of love in the current (11-2013) version of the Merriam-Webster online dictionary are consistent with the elements cited above: strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties;  attraction based on sexual desire; affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests; warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion; unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another.

It is instructive to reflect on the more differentiated view of love of the ancient Greeks.  “Eros” is generally what we think of as sexual desire or passion.  “Philia” is generally equivalent to friendship, seen with friends, family, colleagues, comrades in arms, etc.  Playful love, as between children or casual lovers, came to be called “ludus” in Latin.  “Pragma” referred to the deep connection and understanding possible between long-married spouses.  “Agape” or selfless love identified a general feeling of love for everyone, possibly extending to animals and the world itself.  “Philautia” referred to self-love.  As you will see, our working definition here focuses on all of these except eros, which our society has confused with the general concept of love due to the evolution over the last thousand years of the concept of a spousal relationship which is completely self-sufficient and needs nothing from outside.*



For contrast, let us look now at some of the things that love is not.  Our society’s current view is that the best love includes sex, and it downplays or ignores other forms of love.  This limited focus is so extreme that most people in our society think of love and sex as being the same thing.  As you will note regarding the Merriam-Webster elements above, they can be divided into two major groups of definitional elements, one having to do with affection and other warm but non-sexual feelings toward others, and the other being sexual attraction or desire.  Love, as we are defining it, is not passion or desire.  Pleasurable sexual interaction does result in positive feelings for one another, but these positive feelings fade in a day or two and must then be renewed through further pleasurable sexual interaction.  (A significant and longer term sexual relationship may result in permanent feelings of affection in some people.)  The term “lovemaking” suggests that sex is the same as love, but it is basically a euphemism for “having sex.”  People having sex may also, of course, feel love for each other, but engaging in sex is not motivated by loving the other person but rather by desire.  A sexual relationship is the most emotionally exciting connection that we can have, but that excitement usually does not last more than a few years, while love can continue to grow and become more satisfying and meaningful throughout our lifetimes.

Our society promotes this confusion of love and sex throughout the media.  Perhaps the most frequent theme in books and movies about relationships is unfulfilled sexual desire for another person.  A loves B, but B loves C, and A goes through agony trying to get B to notice or to love him or her.  This is always referred to as love and is never called desire, even though it is clearly desire and involves A’s wish for getting love from B (perhaps both sexual and non-sexual), not A’s love for B.  If A loved B and that were really the theme, then A would feel warm and affectionate toward B, rather than agony, and would be looking for ways to enhance the happiness of B in all appropriate ways.  This might involve finding out whether B would really prefer C or A, and if B preferred C, then A would help B improve his/her relationship with C.  (It is possible, of course, that A both loves B and desires B, but this gets all mixed up in our language, because we never separate these issues.  We say that A hurts so much because he/she loves B, not that A is happy because he/she loves B but at the same time hurts so much because his/her desire for B is being frustrated.) Spanish is a bit more helpful in this regard, since the phrase “te quiero” means “I want you,” not “I love you.”

Another insight on this is available by looking at what happens when a “love relationship” is “over.”  Usually A and B part and either forget each other and have no contact or complain about and criticize each other to their friends.  Could this have been love?  It clearly was some desire or want which was not satisfied or which ceased being satisfied.  If it had

been the warm, positive, affectionate feeling we are calling love, then that feeling could logically continue long after A and B were no longer spending all their time together (except for the disappointment that many feel when the desire has faded, which for them spoils the warm, positive feelings that were also there, if they were there at all).  We are so blind to this that those couples who do continue to feel love for each other, even though they are not primary love objects or sex partners for each other, are a mystery to others.  We don’t even have a word to describe this condition.  They end up having to say that they are “still friends,” but this often does not do justice to their feelings, which are feelings of love and not just friendship.  This illustrates just how narrow-minded we are about “love,” acting as if love is worthwhile only if it resides in a primary relationship with one other person that involves sex.  We have trouble communicating, then, about the love we have for our children, since it is certainly not like the passionate desire which we are taught is the love that we should all be looking for.

More of the same confusion is illustrated in our statements of the type “I just love my job.”  We don’t mean that we feel affection or even desire or passion toward our job.  We really mean that we like it strongly, but in our vernacular, liking that gets stronger and stronger has nowhere to go descriptively except into “love.” 

Our first experience of love, from our parents as they care for us as infants, certainly should not lead to the confusion between desire and love (even if both have roots in Freud’s “libido”).  Clearly parental love is not desire but is love as defined in our working definition for this essay.  It would be helpful if we all tried to use the right terms for what we are talking about, because the confusion leads to heartache and suffering.  It is an old and oft repeated story how the “loved one” takes “I love you” to mean something other than what the speaker really means.  Most usually in this everyday tragedy, the speaker means “I want you” or “I want something from you,” and the hearer wants it to mean and takes it to mean something more along the lines of affection and commitment.  Then when B deserts A, A wails, “But I thought you loved me!”  Be honest when you describe your feelings to others.  If you like them, say that.  If you want them or want something from them or with them, say that.  If you love them, say that.

This is not to say that there is not deception on both sides of this universal hunt for “love.”  It is another old story that men trade love for sex and women trade sex for love.  Many times, both “lovers” want to believe that desire and passion are the same as love and as long as they can maintain their passion then their longings for love will be fulfilled.  Sadly, passion is not love, and the “in love” type of passion changes over time, leaving the relationship exposed to decay if there is not also love present, either all along or developing over time.

The difference between passion/desire and love is perhaps most clearly seen by noticing that passion is wanting something from the “loved one” (in addition to the tremendous feeling of connection or twinship that is often felt) while love is wanting something for the loved one.  When people who are “in love” give to each other, it is usually in terms of their over-identification with each other, so that it is like giving to oneself–seeing oneself as part of this fusion with the lover.  In love as we are using it here there is also identification with the loved one but not this kind of fusion into one being that we see in “being in love” or that we feel in sexual union.  Love as desire frequently ends up as a contest or battle, as we try to get the response we want from the other person.   Concerns about whether the other person loves you, or loves you enough, or who loves who more, or who has given more (or given up more) frequently arise and can only make life harder for both parties rather than enriching the life of both.  In contrast, love as affection is a response to the loved one as he or she is right now, without a requirement that the loved one change or give something back.  Love which says, “I will love you if you will…,” is obviously not love but bribery.  Similarly, any test of love in the form of “if you loved me, you would…” is a statement of blackmail, since the speaker is using a “guilt trip” in order to get the other person to perform as desired.

Parenthetically, this discussion is an example of a more far-reaching principle that any emotion we have which requires a response or a change in someone else is going to cause trouble, because getting someone else to respond or change is only going to happen in a small percentage of cases, leaving us either frustrated or holding on endlessly to efforts to get the other person to respond or change.  This applies to any emotion–love, guilt, shame, loneliness, etc.  It works better to take responsibility for our own emotions, dealing with them ourselves, if possible, or perhaps seeking the desired response or change openly from someone else and then if it is not forthcoming, seeking what we need somewhere else or changing our own responses and interpretations of events instead of blaming the world.      

Some part of the physiological response which we identify with love may well have to do with wanting to return to a state of being taken care of completely, as when we were babies.  There is a similarity between the feelings of both love and passion and the feeling of complete satisfaction of all needs, as in childhood, perhaps because of this connection.  But love is not simply being satisfied, since it also involves affection and other emotional and cognitive responses to the loved one.

We could be more clear with each other about our feelings if we adopted the several Greek terms for various types of loving relationships, but for the moment let us simply separate sexual desire and passion from the other aspects of love.


Love is not selfish or self-centered, and self-love is not selfish or self-centered either.  As we have discussed the difference between desire and love, it is clear that desire is self-centered and gives to the loved one mainly to get back.  Love, however, with part of its definition being the impulse to give to the loved one in order to enhance the loved one’s well-being, cannot be called selfish or self-centered.  Usually this confusion between loving oneself and selfishness arises from selfish parents accusing the child of being selfish and self-centered, when he or she is loving toward himself or herself, because they want to be obeyed and use guilt-trips like this to bully the child into being more responsive.  Sometimes parents say this because they want all the child’s love for themselves and do not wish the child to love anyone else, including himself.

Everything that we do is self-motivated, because we can only do what we choose to do.  (Think about it if you are unsure of this.  Try to do something you are not choosing to do.  You will not be able to do it.)  L. S. Barksdale makes this point very well in his books on self-esteem.  In this sense, everything is “selfish.”  For the concept of selfishness to have meaning, that meaning must be something like “actions are selfish when the person performing them could reasonably be expected to choose another action–one which would take better account of others’ interests in addition to his own.”  If a person takes her lunch to work and then eats it, we rarely call this selfish.  If a person takes her lunch to work and someone else there has forgotten his lunch, it is usually not considered selfish if she eats her lunch and does not share it.  If that someone else is sitting there watching her eat and talks about how much he needs to eat something and how vexed he is that he forgot his lunch,  she could be thought by some people to be selfish if she does not offer to share her lunch with him.  Other people would not see this as selfish, but would see the other person as appropriately getting the consequences of forgetting his lunch by not having any lunch.  As stated above, selfish is when someone could be reasonably expected to do something different than he does–something that would respond to others’ needs or feelings more than the originally chosen action.


Love is not self-sacrifice, which is another source of confusion in our culture.  Very often we hear things to the effect that someone loves someone else a great deal as proved by the fact that the person sacrificed himself and his needs in some way for the loved one.  Our discussion just above puts the lie to this superficial understanding of people.  Everything you do is what you have chosen to do, and if that is true, then what is sacrifice?  Giving to others is to be commended, but if we choose to give to others, then that is what we are choosing to do, so how can it be sacrifice?  If a mother saves all her money for her children’s education and as a consequence does not live in as nice a house or have clothes that are not as nice as she could have had if she were not saving that money for her children, then she is making a choice of what to do with that money.  Her circumstances are changed by her choice, but the thing she has chosen to do–to save the money–she wants to do more than she wants to spend it on herself.  Is that sacrifice?  If she was responsible for her choice, then she did exactly what she wanted to do.  If she made that choice not just for her children but so that we would think her a good mother, then once again she is getting exactly what she wanted.  If she made that choice so that she would not feel guilty about spending the money on herself, then she is getting exactly what she wanted.   

Parents do not love their children for the sake of the children, but because it is natural to do so.  They are motivated by their own needs and feelings to love the children.  (Of course, the sight and sound of children and their needs may play an important role in eliciting this natural response on the part of parents.)  Someone who sacrifices for the sake of someone else actually does so in his or her own best interest.  A person who gives by choice benefits by that giving, through feeling good about himself or herself, through enjoying the pleasure of the receiver, or through other self-satisfactions.  Love is not self-sacrifice, since everyone benefits from love.

If a mother tells her children how much she loves them and how much she is giving up for them, she can be setting up a problem for the children.  If gratitude and love are enough for them to give her, then things will be all right, but if the children come to associate love with being guilty, then it will sour their view of love.  We cannot call this love if it leads to guilt and poor self-esteem for the “loved one,” since love seeks the best interest of the loved one.  “Love” which requires guilt or sacrifice in return is not love, but selfish desire.  Children with a mother like this grow up wary of love, because they know that “love” will always end up taking something from them.  Anything given in true love is freely given, and this giving feels good to the person doing it.

Another way to see the problem with a sacrificial view of love is that if you really did make the loved one’s needs more important than your own, it would literally make you crazy.  As discussed above, it is natural to make choices on the basis of what one views as his best interest, and if this is not done, it will result in depression or psychosis.  If we make others’ needs more important than our own, then “love” hurts and diminishes us.

If making other’ needs more important than our own has bad emotional consequences for us, perhaps another possibility would be making others’ needs as important as our own, but not more important.  By doing this, we would certainly treat others with respect and consideration enough to make for a better society.  If someone else’s needs are truly equally important, then do we do what will benefit us or what will benefit the other person?  We could take turns, but this doesn’t seem like a very satisfying solution.  Fritz Perls defined neurosis as basically the confusion between acting on our needs and acting on the basis of others’ needs.  Any system of ethics that is based on strict equality encourages keeping count of exactly how much everyone gets, and this overconcern about being shorted is quite the opposite of the generosity which we so appreciate in others.

Perhaps the best solution is to simply act on our feeling of love and to seek “win-win” actions, which benefit others as well as ourselves.  Acting on our feelings of love makes giving natural and satisfying, rather than the result of some score-keeping process.  Finding solutions or actions that benefit everyone is not always possible, but it is a good practice, and it keeps us mindful of others’ needs and rights.  If people could accept love and expressions of love when they are naturally available and not feel deprived when they are not, this whole problem would disappear.  Having good self-esteem goes a long, long way toward making this kind of maturity

possible.  With good self-esteem, we are relatively self-sufficient and can allow others to be themselves, even when that sometimes means that they are not doing exactly what we might like at that moment.  To have to keep score and to be upset when others are getting a little more than we are usually comes from childhood feelings of jealousy or envy (of love or of material benefits) with respect to siblings or others in our families.  Hopefully as we mature we can relax somewhat about this and accept what is given and available to us with good grace, at least as long as things are basically fair.


For most people, the circle of loved ones is limited to family and a very few others.  Most relationships in our society are too limited or too adversarial to permit the development of the sorts of familiarity and closeness which are usually associated with the development of love.  In a pure sense, however, love does not require safety or familiarity, only the willingness to love.  There are those who seem able to love practically everyone, even those who oppose or harm them, but it is so rare that we are amazed to observe it.  We, too, could almost certainly expand our ability to love in this same direction.  We will not be “in love” with all those other people (because that comes with passion), but we will feel loving toward them.  We will feel warmly and positively toward them, affectionate toward them, and identify and empathize with them.  We will feel attachment and will enjoy being close to them.  We will wish good things for them.  Expanding our abilities to love would produce wonderful changes in our society and in the world.


Not “Deserving” Love

Let us review next some of the barriers to loving and being loved.  Self-rejection and non-acceptance are at the top of the list.  If you reject yourself and do not accept yourself, then you will have difficulty accepting love from others (or from yourself) because you do not “deserve” it and are therefore not lovable.  You would see yourself as not good enough or not have enough of some quality to deserve love.

Assuming that you have not in the immediate past done something for which you feel quite bad and therefore temporarily unlovable, the culprit here is usually in your history.  You have received treatment and messages from others that you have interpreted as meaning that you did not deserve love, and you still believe it.  Usually this comes from parents, but it may certainly be added to by peers, other authority figures, and “significant others.”  If they treat us poorly, instead of seeing the situation realistically (as adults), we interpret it (as children) to mean that we must not be lovable or we do not deserve love.  This follows immediately from our tendency to see rewards as having to be earned or at least merited.  If mother feeds me, it must mean that I deserve food at that moment, since sometimes if I am particularly difficult about eating, she stops feeding me.  Therefore I want my behavior or my being to create deservingness at all points in time.  It would be more realistic to say that “I deserve food all the time, but sometimes my behavior makes it too difficult for mother to feed me,” just as one could say “I deserve love all the time, but sometimes my behavior makes it difficult for others to love me.” 

Believing that we must not have deserved love is our attempt to explain what happened.  It is not a direct description of what happened, though, because it is not based on the actual feelings or perceptions of the other person as well as on his or her behavior toward us.  This type of error in interpretation stems from another human characteristic–that we would rather have an explanation than live without one, even if that means that we live with great pain as a consequence of our incorrect explanation.  This is because of our tremendous need to feel that we are in control and that we can control our circumstances.  Being in control in this situation is having an explanation, even though there is not anything that one can do about it directly.  The control that the child has “knowing” that he or she would be treated better, loved and accepted, if he or she were the way he or she was supposed to be.  Theoretically, then, the child could work on being more the way he or she is supposed to be, and therefore be in control and achieve the goal of being loved. 

In reality, in most of those situations, no matter what the child did, no matter how the child was, the treatment or response would not have been any better from the adults who were there, but it feels better to the child to “know” what would make things better and to be able to try, than it does to have no explanation and be totally helpless.  Many people go through their lives without love and with poor self-esteem, feeling awful much of the time, because they cannot escape the consequences of this choice to distort reality by believing that they were undeserving and need to be different somehow before they can be deserving.  The price paid is enormous.

Fear of Love

Sometimes being as hurt and disappointed about lack of love as many of us are can lead to a fear of love.  We either become convinced that every experience of love will end up hurting us or being taken away from us and so avoid it like the plague, or we believe that to feel loved now will be so painful, because of all we have been through, that we can’t stand it (since it reminds us of the all that pain of not being loved).  These avoidances are again understandable but must be changed.  There is no god or keeper of your fate that watches to see when you get something good so that it can then be taken away from you.  It might have seemed like this to you as a very young child, but it is not in fact true.  Look around you, and reality will convince you.  You are not different from others.  No one is taking happiness away from them, and no one takes happiness away from you.  If some real people in your life were so cruel that they regularly destroyed your happiness, then that was their fault and their problem.  If you do not let those people or others like them be close to you and control your life now, then you can prevent this sort of thing from continuing.     

Insisting on Love From Specific Others

Another barrier to love is insisting on getting it from particular others or only in certain ways.  An example might be insisting that one will not feel loved or accepted unless mother provides that love and acceptance.  Oftentimes this someone is the person who created the problem in the first place, and the child (now adult) is in effect insisting on going back and starting over from where things went wrong originally. This sort of insistence is understandable but not productive.  It may be impossible to get that love from that person, living or dead.  It may also lead to a deadlock in which by setting such a condition, you never get what you really want.  It also ignores the fact that love is just as wonderful wherever it comes from.  What people like this refuse to face is that mother (or whoever) can actually “get away with it” and never give what she should have given.  If you keep insisting on getting it from mother, you have the illusion that the wrong is going to be righted, whereas in reality it may never be put right.  You may simply have to accept that you can’t get what you should have gotten, that even though it was not your fault, you are helpless to change what happened, and it is not going to be made up to you.  It isn’t fair.  That is a lot to face sometimes, but the pain must be faced.

Refusing Love from Oneself

A related barrier is insisting on love from others rather than from oneself.  Anger and resentment often play a strong part in this—feeling angry about the love you did not receive and insisting that it be made up to you.  As noted above, it almost never happens that someone makes up for something like this to anyone at a later time.  You will simply go to your grave angry and unloved.

People may not want their own love and insist that it must come from others or from certain other people because they don’t value themselves enough.  Clearly, if they valued themselves more, they would be more willing to accept and value their own love for themselves.  People like this will say that since they are garbage themselves, their love is worthless to them or to anyone else.  Actually this is the kind of self-put-down which is begging for someone else to contradict it and to say, “Oh, no, that’s not true–your love is valuable.”  People always have deep within themselves a voice which still hopes and still believes in their value, so statements like this are an expression of surface games, either with oneself or with others around one.  The problem here is the person’s reluctance to feel the pain and the goodness which come from really facing oneself honestly.  When there are no more games and no more deceptions, there is both pain and solidness–the pain of accepting reality and the solidness of one’s real self instead of the insubstantiality of an unreal identity or sense of oneself.  Your own love is just as valuable (and a lot more trustworthy) than the love of others, wonderful as that love from others can be.  Work on accepting your own love for yourself and enjoying it.

Sometimes the reluctance to accept one’s own love is based in feelings of helplessness.  You may feel that since you have never been loved in a healthy way by someone else, you can’t feel loved because you don’t know what it feels like, and you can’t love yourself because you have never observed anyone else do it.  These are genuine barriers, but they can be overcome.  They seem “logical” at first, but they are not really that strong. 

If you are one of those who insist on first getting love from others before you will consider loving yourself, take careful stock of yourself in regard to feeling loved.  Be sure that your complaint that no one ever loves you is accurate, or whether in fact love has been available to you but you have, out of fear, been unable to accept it.  In a more positive vein, remember that the most effective way to elicit treatment that we want from others is to treat ourselves that way.  If you want love from others, the best way is to treat yourself lovingly.  If you love yourself, then love will come from outside as well.

Definitional Restrictions

In addition to insisting on first getting love from others rather than oneself, there are other restrictions often placed on love.  A trivial sort of example might be someone who will not believe in another’s love unless that person sends roses.  Roses are seen as the true symbol of love, and this is used as a test for whether love is “real.”  A more insidious example is a person who insists that love means that you will do what he or she wants, so that if you believe that a relationship is a two-way street, this person will never believe that you love him or her, because sometimes you will not do exactly what he or she wants.

Infants sometimes have this illusion about how their parents love them and accept them with no consequences to them no matter what they do (completely unconditional love), and it is a wonderful feeling, but it was an illusion in the first place.  If these infants do not become able to accept necessary standards for their behavior in the world, then they will be perpetual misfits.  As an adult it is very difficult to fool yourself into believing this illusion.  If you as an adult are insisting that you will not feel loved unless you are loved while being exactly who you are at all times and being allowed to do whatever you want to do, then you are going to wait forever.  It’s better to accept a more realistic view of love and the genuine benefits of it than to grieve your life away because you can’t have your ideal.

Another way in which people put an impossible restriction on love is the insistence that love be endless and that the person who loves never leave.  This is like saying “I don’t want to ever be disappointed, so if you are ever going to leave me, I won’t accept love from you.”  Since everyone will eventually leave, through death if for no other reason, this person will never accept love from anyone.  Whether you consider it sad or just reality, nothing in life is guaranteed or perfect.  It is better to experience and get beyond one’s sadness and disappointment about this than not to really live–that is, never to try or risk or love or proceed with something not knowing how it is going to turn out.

We see more subtly this unrealistic expectation that love never end in the common statement after the end of a love relationship, “Well, I guess it wasn’t love.”  The assumption is that if it had been love, then the two people would have continued to love each other and stayed together.  It is likely, of course, in many of these situations, that the two people did feel love for each other (in addition to passion), at least to some extent and at some times.  The love they felt was evidently not enough to keep them together (and there are often economic, cultural, and other factors which are even more responsible than love for the ending of relationships).  This is no reason to devalue it by saying that it wasn’t love at all.  Love is valuable, from whatever source, and whenever it is available.

If you can feel loved only while feeling passion or desire, then you are set up to feel unloved much of the time.  If passion disappears from a relationship, it doesn’t mean that there had been no love or that love is gone as well, but this obviously is dependent on perceiving love as different from desire and as being more enduring.

If you recognize love only in people trying to manipulate you with guilt or self-sacrifice, then of course you are going to shy away from love because it is so painful.  The confusions of love with desire and self-sacrifice are the main contents of the soap operas which take up hours on television each day, so you can be sure that many, many people suffer from these confusions and struggles.

People who have been significantly abused can confuse love and pain.  (This is the origin of masochistic tendencies, as well.)  These people may feel they are being loved later in life when they are actually being abused, and we can understand how they might also shy away from love because of their belief that love hurts and hurts very badly.  It would obviously not be desirable to promote being loved and loving if that were guaranteed to increase pain, guilt, self-sacrifice, or the lonely longing of unrequited romantic desire.

It is easier to accept redefinition, of course, if you can say that your mother really did love you along with doing other things to you.  It is harder to accept if when you take a fresh look at things you find that she really didn’t love you at all.  If your mother didn’t love you at all, and all you got were manipulations, then you as a child would naturally cling to any way of feeling loved that you could, even if you had to deceive yourself to achieve this.  I believe, though, that as an adult, it is now better to see the truth and be freed from your false beliefs, even though that may be painful, so that you can go on to find genuine love in your life.


Even after you have made progress with your definitional difficulties, it may still be hard to feel love or to feel loved.  The most common barrier here is being gun-shy about the hurt that has been experienced along with love and therefore being afraid to risk feeling loved and feeling love without guarantees.  Unfortunately life does not permit those kinds of guarantees.  What life gives is opportunity, endless opportunity.  There are so many people to love and who may love us that it is like a starving person walking by a restaurant with a sign offering free food without going in because he is afraid he’ll have to wait too long for the meal to be served or because he is afraid they won’t have the things he likes best on the menu for that day.  Such a person is losing out on what is available.

Some people have been so hurt in relationships in which they should have been loved better, particularly with parents, that even to feel love would bring up so much pain that they just don’t want to do it.  There is no easy answer for this.  You have to get started somehow, and getting started means clearing up that pain from the past, so you can live in present reality without being controlled by the past.  You must experience and get through that pain, whether you can do it yourself or you need the help of another (good friend, counselor, therapist). 

Keep in mind that the pain itself is not going to kill you.  Your reaction to the pain and your interpretation of the pain are the problems.  Reacting to the pain with “this hurts so much that no one should have to bear this, so I won’t bear it either” leaves you stuck getting nowhere.  If you let yourself experience and endure the pain, it will pass, and you will get better.  Interpreting the pain as indicating that you are an unlovable and undeserving person (since that was your conclusion earlier in your life when you first felt that pain) would simply keep you mired in your pain and poor self-esteem. 

It is critical to convince yourself that the fact that some particular person, even your parent, did not love you or did not love you well does not at all mean that you are unlovable or undeserving.  If you thought that as a child, as many children do, then you must take charge of that thought and change it.  It is irrational and unjust.  If you really believe it after carefully thinking it through, then there is something wrong with your thinking.  You are putting a condition on love, like “in order to be lovable, you have to be loved by your parents,” or “if your parents can’t love you, then who can?” or “obviously you must be perfect in order to be loved, and I wasn’t perfect.”  You might have wished with all your might to be loved well by your parents, but if they couldn’t do it, then they simply couldn’t do it, and that is not your fault, and it doesn’t say anything about your lovability in the rest of the world and the rest of your life.  You must work on this until you get it straight.

Loyalty to Significant Others

A final barrier to love is loyalty to significant others, usually parents and family.  When parents have loved a child inadequately, occasionally the child feels so fiercely loyal to the parents that he or she insists that nothing better is available because what he or she got must have

been OK.  The child refuses to acknowledge the inadequacies of the parents and prefers not to be loved better rather than admitting that the parents did not do a good job.  By doing this reframe, the child thereby refuses to feel the pain of being loved poorly by refusing to admit even to himself or herself that there was anything wrong.  This also has the “benefit” that the person can avoid whatever anger he or she might feel about the poor parenting.  Again the answer here is to become willing to feel the pain, so that one can move on from there and find better things for oneself in life.

Our loyalties to the past sometimes serve us well and sometimes do not.  It is nice to feel secure in one’s traditions and network of relationships, but sometimes these loyalties are a trap that keeps us in a pattern of feeling unloved (even if we have to fool ourselves about it) and bad  about ourselves for not deserving to be loved.  You must take a look at how loyalties to parents or family or friends or other parts of the past or present are keeping you from feeling your full and true feelings.  Once you understand this, then you can consider how you could change or reframe those loyalties so that you are free to be a different person and to feel better about yourself. 

For example, if your mother used “love” as a means of inducing guilt in you and getting her own way, and she represented loving yourself as selfish and wrong (because that would make you more independent of her and less responsive to her guilt manipulations), then you may have grown up suspicious of love and unable to love yourself, because of your experience with her as well as your loyalty to her.  Recognizing this, you could decide that you want to be able to love yourself and that you are willing to change your relationship with your mother in order to gain this ability to love yourself (and be better loved by others).  This does not mean that you must change your mother, although this is the approach most commonly tried.  It is more productive and more responsible to change your own way of looking at things and dealing with things.      

You could change your view of love to recognize that when your mother uses “love” to gain leverage, she is not loving you but is using you instead.  You could decide therefore not to be manipulated in this way, realizing that you have no obligation to pay back love (which is always given freely) and therefore need not feel guilty about not being controlled by your mother.  You could seek more loving relationships with other people, and you could discuss the issue with your mother if you wanted to try to establish a more loving relationship between the two of you.  If she continued to use the same maneuvers as before, you could simply stop responding to them with guilt and compliance.  Instead you could do what you felt like doing for her, out of love or respect, but do nothing out of guilt.  Your mother might be upset about not being able to control you like she could before, but you could let her be responsible for her feeling in that regard, just as you are taking responsibility for your guilt and poor self-esteem and are doing something about them.  You must believe that everyone is responsible for his or her own feelings and be willing to let your mother be responsible in that regard (and be upset for a while if that is the result).

The separateness of being more independent may feel strange to you, even lonely for a while, but you will get used to this as you develop sources of true love and nurturance for yourself, including that which you learn to give yourself.  You would probably also have to deal directly with the pain of guilt when you first begin to insist on taking control of your own feelings.  There is no way to pre-change those feeling reactions.  We cannot do some magic in the head before we first make a behavioral change so that we immediately feel comfortable with the change.  Knowing this, however, you can accept this as the natural sequence of events, and know that as you change behaviors, you will have to work at the same time to change your feeling reactions (by changing your understanding of things and by expressing and ridding yourself of old feelings).

If we follow this particular pain back in time (the pain of not doing what your mother wants), we will find your fear of punishment when you didn’t do what your mother wanted and your terror at being rejected by her (and therefore dying from not being fed and taken care of).  Children react to these emotions by learning (forcing themselves) to conform to expectations and rules and to keep authority figures happy by not resisting or disobeying.  To go against these conditioned responses in yourself, you must recognize where the present emotion you are feeling is coming from (from those experiences of childhood fear and terror), recognize the inappropriateness of those previous feelings to your present situation, and consciously act in different ways in the present than you would “naturally” have done (go against your mother’s expectations rather than conform in order to avoid the feelings of fear and terror).  It is also very helpful to allow yourself to fully experience those early feelings of fear and terror and let yourself express yourself naturally in response to those feelings, whether that is by crying or screaming or crouching on the floor, because going through this natural expression (instead of avoiding the feelings by automatically conforming) helps you to experience that you have met those feelings (and by implication, the situation which involved those feelings) and survived.  You must know that you will survive the feelings and the current situation, in order for you to take the risk of a new and different behavior.  (The theory and the mechanics of this type of emotional expression based on past experiences has been highly developed by Dr. Ed Edelhofer in his Integrative Affective Therapy.)


The discussion of compassion above speaks to many of the important aspects of charity, but charity is also a distinct concept.  A person who is charitable and has a charitable attitude is understanding, kind, forgiving, forbearing, and compassionate.  She understands from both inner and outer experience the imperfect and fallible nature of all human beings.  She is slow to criticize and quick to forgive, and she treats others with kindness and understanding.  From her empathic understanding of others, she is compassionate toward all, and encourages everyone to do the best he or she can and to live with charity toward others.  The wise person knows that an accepting, encouraging social atmosphere results in more pleasant and productive relationships than does a critical, punitive atmosphere.  She also knows from personal experience that we all make mistakes and that a charitable attitude regarding those mistakes helps people to continue to strive toward doing better.

Charity is seen in accepting others and “making allowances” for others, out of the wise person’s understanding of others and awareness of her own imperfections and unintended errors.

In order to cultivate charity in yourself, first be understanding, accepting, and forgiving with yourself, then put yourself in the place of others before you judge or criticize, and give others the same benefit of the doubt that you give yourself.


The wise person often follows a path of moderation, knowing that excesses in any human trait or activity often lead to problems (perhaps because the organism is designed to operate optimally within a fairly narrow range of parameters).  She knows, also, that extremes in behavior are often upsetting to those around her. 

Moderation includes sufficient restraint that one does not jump to conclusions inappropriately.  The wise person knows that first impressions of complex situations leave out much important information.

Moderation includes having reasonably good control of one’s emotions, so that one can feel and use the important information in emotions without having emotion overwhelm one’s knowledge and decision processes.

The wise person appreciates much around her that most people ignore, thus making life simpler and making the seeking of stimulation and extremes unnecessary.


Supporting oneself might seem like an extraneous element of wisdom, but looking squarely at the matter shows us that no matter how mature or wise one is, reality still demands that one earn a living (or that someone else earn a living for us)!  Life also demands that we support those who are legitimately dependent on us.  Those who seek to have support provided by others, for nothing in return, are rejecting this fundamental law of human existence, and this is clear to the wise person.  Supporting oneself and those who are legitimately dependent on one is an essential element in being a mature and responsible adult, and subverting this requirement shows that one is not fully responsible.

Wisdom requires that we have an accurate sense of the likely consequences of various behaviors, so a mature or wise person knows that depending on others always results in obligations, however slight or subtle, and that these obligations will very likely affect one’s knowledge of reality and stance with respect to values.  In order to know reality fully and represent it to others accurately for their benefit, it is necessary to be as unbiased as possible, and this is best served by supporting oneself rather than relying on others in ways that lead to obligations that affect one’s ability to see the truth clearly.  In order to be supported by others, for nothing in return, it is almost always necessary to seek that support through some sort of manipulation, false presentation, or false promises, and the dishonesty of doing this would call into question one’s wisdom or maturity and would again suggest a lack of understanding of the consequences of being supported by others. 

Background and personality reasons for a person to seek to have others take care of him are (1) laziness; (2) feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure in the world; (3) expecting to take care of oneself poorly (doubts about capabilities); (4) inappropriate standards for self with regard to self-care and/or achievement (either too high or too low); (5) inappropriate expectations for quality of life (wanting more than is reasonable); (6) using dependence as a means of maintaining a relationship with the caretaker; and (7) fulfilling expectations of a caretaker by remaining dependent.  Each of these impediments can be addressed and overcome, given sufficient motivation, the best of which is realizing that the effort needed to take care of oneself is well worth the quality of caretaking that one then receives!

It may be tempting (and easier) to let someone else take care of us, as we were taken care of as children.  However, having others take care of us as adults is a burden on those others, so if we care about them, it would seem more appropriate to take care of ourselves, even if this forces us to some degree to confront our fears and weaknesses and do the best we can in the world when our best sometimes includes failures.  Thankfully, our best is usually good enough, and, additionally, we can accept ourselves as imperfect.  Even more important for us, though, is the fact that as adults we can always take care of ourselves better than someone else can (with the exception of some aspects of being an invalid), since we know what we want and can better arrange things as we want them.

If you are tempted to depend on others for your support, consider seriously the burden that this places on those others, look inside to know how much or how little you care about those who are taking care of you,  look honestly at the compromises of your reality views that are required to keep that dependency alive, reflect on and “own” the fears, dislikes, and personality features that would keep you from supporting yourself, and then consider whether, knowing all this, you wish to have others support you.  











            skills for dealing with one’s emotions

are (1)  knowledge about self, others, and life that goes significantly beyond the usual, including an accurate sense of the full (long-term and short-term) range of results and consequences of various behaviors; (2) a deep commitment to know the truth fully and accurately, even if the truth is unpleasant, and to see a complete picture of reality; (3) knowledge that includes a deep and empathic understanding of the needs and feelings of self and others, which almost always engenders compassion and a positive attitude toward others; (4) the ability to manage emotions well, and (5) the self-awareness to remove personal biases, emotions, and needs from one’s conclusions about reality, so as to make them as accurate as possible.  As a result of being wise, a wise person will also usually exhibit the following behaviors:  a positive attitude toward others, honesty, responsibility, trustworthiness, good judgment, fairness, acceptance, compassion, knowing what is best to do and what is right to do, self-control, calmness and serenity, charity, moderation, constancy of mood, views, and behavior, and a desire to support oneself.  (Also see “Definition of Wisdom” on this website www.livewiselydeeply.com.)

Dealing with Others

basic equality of every person

reciprocity as source of ethics

acceptance of others, rather than trying to change them

cooperation more productive and mature than competition

basic contact pleasure as source of all healthy relating

making others’ needs/wants as important as one’s own

dealing oneself with the emotional reactions one has to others and to others’ behavior

Realities Concerning Good Relationship with Others

We can never fully understand the “reality” of another person.  Through empathy we hope to understand enough that we can get along well with others and work together, but we will never fully understand another person’s experience.

            Our experience is so complex and multifaceted that we cannot be aware of all of it, and we do not even register very much of it in memory.  For the same reason we can never put our full experience of life into our communications to others, even if we were willing to do so.  Even more importantly, because our experience is so complex, we cannot represent it completely in our communications.  The verbal capacities of most people are so limited that they distort their communications by their choice of words or phrasing, and they generally only communicate cliches that they associate with their actual experience, rather than a description of their moment-to-moment uniqueness.

            In casual interactions, because our individual views of reality are complex, and because it is quite threatening to us to have these views questioned, it is best not to fight over others’ views of reality, unless they cause us not to be able to cooperate for mutual benefit, and even then it is often better to separate from that person rather than to try to force him to change his view of reality.

            Others almost never like or love us for who we are but instead like or love us because of the effects we have on them (what we do for them).

Even the most unconditional parental love is instinctual and not chosen.

            Everyone understands and interprets our behavior differently, which makes it clearly impossible for us to please everyone.

            We need others in order to live successful lives.

            We must cooperate with others in order to achieve what we all want.  If we consistently take advantage of others in these supposed efforts to cooperate, they will tend not to want to cooperate with us further.

It maximizes benefit to oneself, in the long run, to maximize benefit at all times to everyone involved.

            Every time we mistreat others by putting our own interests

ahead of those of others, by treating them as inferior, and by

treating them unfairly, we create hurt and pain in others as well as anger and desire for revenge in them toward us.

            We all yearn for fairness in life, and we will hold out forever for the righting of wrongs done to us by others.  Since others will also hold out forever for the righting of wrongs we do to them, we should learn to maximize the outcomes of our relationships with others by always treating others fairly.

            If we can acknowledge our true feelings, thoughts, and

motives, we have a better chance of getting what we want

while minimizing conflicts with others.

Since we are the only ones who can control how we act, and since how we feel has a strong effect on how we act, life works better when individuals are responsible for their tendencies and habits to react emotionally in the ways that they do.  (In order to have mutually satisfying relationships, we must be aware of and shape how we impact others.)

Another way to say this is that life works better when we view individuals as responsible for managing their own emotions.

Because of the human tendency to wish that others would act and/or change so that we will get more gratifications and have less pain, life works better if we do not blame others for our own emotions or for the impact of their emotions on us, unless those others are purposely trying inappropriately to cause us to have those emotions.  (It is useful to recognize how others’ behavior is impacting us, but it is not useful to “blame” them.)

Because people are mainly self-interested, because we need cooperative interactions with others in order to have the lives we desire, and because we are only content when our interactions with others are fair and equitable in our opinion—

life works better when individuals are held morally

responsible for all of the negative impacts that their

behaviors have on others;

life works better when individuals are held ethically

responsible for all of the negative impacts that their

behaviors have on others, within the bounds of group


life works better when individuals are legally responsible

for not engaging in proscribed behaviors.

While competition may result in people working harder in the short term, competition acts ultimately to increase distrust between persons and to decrease cooperative behavior.

Since we are basically self-interested, and since we can never know enough about others to choose what is best for them, life works better when we choose to do what is best for ourselves, while taking into account all of the results of our behavior (long-term as well as short-term, including our impact on others which affects their behavior toward us).

Since we demand fairness and fundamental equity in our relationships with others, fundamental equality is the best basis for distributing resources in society.

Since sub-grouping automatically creates the perception that the interests of different human beings are different, life works better when we include all human beings in our reference group (defining who is “us” and who is “them”).

Appropriate empathy is necessary as a support for expanding one’s reference group (who is “us” and who is “them”).

We can get more by being open and cooperative than we can get by being secretive and competitive.

Attitudes That Help Us To Accept Reality (see also Chapter 16)

Since life inevitably involves pain, it’s OK that life

involves some pain.

Since life does require effort and is sometimes difficult,

it’s OK that life requires effort and is sometimes difficult.

Since we are more adaptive in life when we face our feelings

and live with them, it’s OK to face one’s feelings and live

with them.

Since we are more adaptive when we have more accurate reality

perceptions, and since life involves problems, it’s OK to face life’s

problems and not turn away.

It’s OK to take yourself and life seriously and to try your best even though you may fail.

Humor and joy can be found in every reality.

Since we are bound to be unhappy part of the time, it’s OK to

be unhappy part of the time.

Since we are not perfect and never can be, it’s OK not to be perfect.

            Since others will never be perfect, it’s OK to allow them to

     be imperfect.

Since we cannot please others all of the time, and since we

resent having to please others all of the time, it’s OK not

to please others all of the time.

are (1)  knowledge about self, others, and life that goes significantly beyond the usual, including an accurate sense of the full (long-term and short-term) range of results and consequences of various behaviors; (2) a deep commitment to know the truth fully and accurately, even if the truth is unpleasant, and to see a complete picture of reality; (3) knowledge that includes a deep and empathic understanding of the needs and feelings of self and others, which almost always engenders compassion and a positive attitude toward others; (4) the ability to manage emotions well, and (5) the self-awareness to remove personal biases, emotions, and needs from one’s conclusions about reality, so as to make them as accurate as possible.

sensory/perceptual                         pre-birth      1 yr.

motor                                      pre-birth  early teens

learning                                   pre-birth      18 yrs.

reality contact and testing (distorting reality)

                                           pre-birth      22 yrs.

organized cognitive state                  birth          4 months

attention/concentration/focus              birth          2 months

being included                             birth          2 yrs.

handling of stimuli                        birth          6 yrs.

mapping/finding                            birth          9 yrs.

memory                                     birth          12 yrs.

pleasure                                   birth          teens

self-esteem                                2 months       teens

communication                              2 months       teens

leisure/recreation/relaxation/play         3 months       6 yrs.

mechanical agency/mastery                  4 months       teens

trust                                      4 months       teens

managing subjective state                  4 months       teens

managing needs/wants                       4 months       18 yrs.

managing emotions                          4 months       20’s

hope/motivation                            4 months       ongoing

choice                                     6 months       10 yrs.

security                                   6 months       teens

attitudes, assumptions, and expectations about life   

                                           6 months       teens

goal-attainment                            6 months       20’s

dealing with emotional pain                6 months       20’s

planning/decision-making                   8 months       16 yrs.

love                                       8 months    late teens

energy/excitement                          9 months       3 yrs.

activity/passivity                         9 months       4 yrs.

self-assertion                             9 months       teens

forgiveness                                1 yr.          6 yrs.

who one includes in one’s groups           1 yr.          10 yrs.

gratifying needs/wants                     1 yr.          10 yrs.

satisfaction                               1 yr.          teens

loss                                       1 yr.          teens

managing behavior                          1 yr.          teens

self-control                               1 yr.          teens

vulnerability                              1 yr.          30’s

deservingness                              1.5 yrs.       6 yrs.

difference                                 1.5 yrs.       12 yrs.

aggression/violence/hatred                 1.5 yrs.       teens

the unknown                                1.5 yrs.       18 yrs.

soothing/comforting                        2 yrs.         10 yrs.

blaming                                    2 yrs.         10 yrs.

self-awareness                             2 yrs.         teens

competition                                2 yrs.         teens

rejection                                  2 yrs.         teens

behavior toward self                       2 yrs.         teens

self-concept                               2 yrs.      late teens

adequacy/inadequacy                        2 yrs.         16 yrs.

judgment                                   2 yrs.         18 yrs.

moral wisdom and behavior                  2 yrs.         20’s

acceptance                                 2 yrs.         30’s

adapting and changing                      2 yrs.         30’s

cooperation                                2.5 yrs.       teens

equality                                   2.5 yrs.       teens

superiority/inferiority                    2.5 yrs.       teens

empathy                                    2.5 yrs.       teens

balancing needs/wants of self and others   2.5 yrs.       20’s

ethical wisdom and behavior                2.5 yrs.       30’s

establishing, maintaining, and using a social support system

                                           3 yrs.         8 yrs.

interpersonal relationships                3 yrs.         20’s

relationship with self                     3 yrs.         20’s

honesty (adherence to reality)             3.5 yrs.       20’s

separation/closeness                       3 yrs.         30’s

performing productive work                 4 yrs.         9 yrs.

insiders/outsiders                         4 yrs.         12 yrs.

fairness                                   4 yrs.       pre-teens

responsibility                             4 yrs.         teens

intra-group relations                      4 yrs.         20’s

nurturing/parenting                        4 yrs.         30’s

functioning as a productive group member   6 yrs.         10 yrs.

independence/dependence                    6 yrs.         teens

standards for self and others              6 yrs.      late teens

school/training                            6 yrs.         20’s

religion/relationship with ultimate reality 8 yrs.        20’s

reality contact and testing (perceiving reality distortions)

                                          10 yrs.         30’s

self-knowledge                            10 yrs.         30’s

identity                                  11 yrs.         20’s

ideals                                    12 yrs.         40’s

mortality                                 12 yrs.         40’s

sex                                       teens           teens

role functioning                          teens           20’s

supporting oneself through productive work teens          20’s

self-direction                            teens           40’s

self-understanding                        teens           40’s

autonomy                                  teens           40’s

self-management                           20’s            40’s