Principles of a Person-Centered (Secular) Ethics


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   10-20

ABSTRACT:  U.S. society has largely lost its primary spokesperson institution (churches) for basic, everyday morality and ethics (how we treat others) and is in need of better ethics education for both children and adults.  A set of principles is presented that are necessary and sufficient to establish moral and ethical systems that value all persons equally and educate all to employ empathy in making ethical judgments.  A new concept is introduced to guide ethical decisions—to always do what is truly in your best interest, and guidelines are listed for making the best possible moral/ethical decisions.

KEY WORDS:  ethics, values

The major religions of the world have provided us with moral and ethical systems that are based on the directions of a superior authority figure who has given us rules to live by and will judge and reward or punish us according to our conformity to those rules.  The major post-Renaissance philosophical ethical systems are based in either duty (doing what is “right” according to God or to some abstract notion of universal truth or goodness) or utility (the outcomes of our behavior, assessed according to some notion of what is “good” or “better than” something else).  These are clearly useful, but they are not particularly powerful, as we see in our daily lives, since many in our society rebel against authoritarian restrictions on their behavior, and wrongdoing (both legal and moral) seems common.  We see little moral/ethical maturity in our population (even though many people are basically good-hearted), since we have no substitute for churches yet following the death of God and since we do not emphasize and reward maturity but instead reward people for immaturely consuming as much as possible to keep the economy growing. 

Also, these systems assume that rules are needed because people are believed to naturally tend to do what is “wrong” according to these rules, thus setting up a lifelong struggle for most people between what they want to do and what the rules say they are permitted to do.  Systems that are based on obeying the expectations and rules of a higher authority have been in use for so long that we can assume that their use will never do any better than they are now doing—i.e., the current level of rule-breaking is still significant, and these authority-based rules cannot improve this for us (because they have already done as much as they can do). (It would be better if a moral/ethical system urged people to do something that people thought was positive for them, rather than making them feel like they must give up something in order to do what is right and just.)

In this essay you will find a proposal for a system that ensures that individuals can do the good and right thing through a different understanding of their personal benefit for doing what is right and good, assessing the consequences of their behavior more honestly and comprehensively, and understanding their own motives more deeply.

The advantage of a moral/ethical system like the one presented here, built on individual psychology, is that it is equally useful for persons of all cultures, since it contains only precepts and methods that are common to all human beings.  It is also a system that the individual not connected to a church can contemplate and grow in, even in societies such as ours that are individualistically oriented and in which many individuals no longer adhere to traditional religion or believe in the authority-based moral/ethical teachings of traditional religions.


Human beings create elaborate systems of morals and ethics in order to guide our behavior, and we need this guidance because we cannot each experience all of the things that would enable us to know enough about the outcomes of various behaviors to comprehensively set up such rules for ourselves.  Laws are our way of defining what behaviors the group (society) will punish and what the punishments will be.  Moral and ethical systems are based on what people consider to be a good life and what people consider to be a good person, while  laws are based on society’s need to preserve order and cooperative relationships among its members.  Being just and fair—the two major goals of being moral/ethical—are aspects of “being a good person.”

All of us (worldwide) want the same basic things in life—

  • to survive and be relatively comfortable physically
  • to have a tolerable level of emotional pain and stress
  • to be in a positive emotional state a fair amount of the time
  • to feel positively about ourselves
  • to feel secure
  • to find loving and supportive relationships
  • to have sex and have children, and to raise good children
  • to be basically accepted in our groups and contribute to them

Our moral/ethical systems are set up to assist us in accomplishing these things for as many people in the group as possible.  Given the above list of what is important in life, we choose the qualities we think will contribute to making our lives in the group as good as possible (generally by keeping us from harming others and encouraging us to act positively toward others in all matters).  This is how we define a good/moral/ethical person—someone who is a positive influence and contributor to others and who refrains from harming others.  These qualities have most often been called virtues.  We believe that these qualities are necessary for people in the group to get along with others and thereby to have good lives, but this will only happen, of course, if we care enough about life outcomes for others that we are willing to allow our moral/ethical principles to control our potentially harmful behavior, instead of simply going for what we want with no constraints. 

Note that simply following moral and ethical rules and strictures does not by itself make a good person, because such a person might have no love in their hearts for others.  We could benefit from a concept of good/right/just behavior that goes beyond rules to include the good as well as the “not bad.”

It is useful to note what people in different eras have considered to be desirable qualities that would lead people to be good and just.  The major virtues of the Greeks were courage, loyalty to one’s city, friendship, being just, being temperate (being moderate, not going to extremes), and being prudent (good judgment), although we should remember that the Greeks were concerned  with making the polis (the city) work well rather than with individual rights and freedoms as we are today.

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 efforts toward 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 human emotions 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.  Christianity offers the vision of universal salvation, which contributed to reduction of tribal and ethnocentric identifications and therefore to some 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 in us by the Holy Spirit) to be faith, hope, and charity.  The Catholic Church combined these three (faith, hope, and charity) with the four major Greek virtues (prudence, courage, temperance, justice) to make the seven virtues taught in the Catholic catechism.  Catholicism’s seven deadly sins are envy, sloth, anger, greed, lust, gluttony, and pride.  (The antidotes to these sins were thought to be, respectively, kindness, diligence, patience, charity, chastity, temperance, and humility.  (My own thoughts on antidotes would be, respectively, satisfaction for envy, responsibility for sloth, equanimity for anger, contentment for greed, contentment and responsibility for lust, satisfaction for gluttony, and truthfulness for pride.)

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 (monasteries) 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, put the individual in a position where he had 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 post-Renaissance 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 with or into 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 (practical) reasons.  If people are basically selfish and self-centered, and if they are to learn to share or be altruistic, this could only happen because the alternative (greater conflict and violence) is less desirable.  Freud saw 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).

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 (MacFarquhar 2011).  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 right 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 thus 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 everyone would 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/ethical principles that cover all possible actions, by observing their consequences.  The contractual approach is actually minimalist, since the agreement of all people is required, and all people are not likely to agree on very much!  It would identify a 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.

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 who are liberated.

Functionalism (what works) 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 emotionally 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 is consistent with our 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 experience and assumptions.  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), but it would solve problems of over-population!  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 rules 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 must construct 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.

Michael Bennett, in his book, The Book of Virtues (1993) lists essential virtues as being self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith.

We are most familiar with ethics codes developed by the legal and medical professions.  These codes attempt to operationalize virtues that relate to the conduct of a professional when providing professional services to a client or clients.  An example is the ethical code of the American Psychological Association, which names its aspirational values (virtues) as beneficence (do good); nonmaleficence (do no harm); fidelity (unwavering loyalty to client); responsibility (doing what you say you will); integrity (always acting on ethical principles); justice (doing what is appropriate; doing what is fair); and respect for people’s rights and dignity.

My own picks for key virtues (ones that would lead people to be good and just) are—

self-awareness  (knowing as much as possible about ourselves, both positive and negative, so that we can see clearly  the actual outcomes of our chosen  behaviors)

honesty    (being honest and truthful, in order to stay reality-centered and to protect others)

responsibility   (being responsible, so that others can trust us)

acceptance       (being accepting)

 love                    (having a loving attitude toward self and others)

empathy           (being empathic and understanding with self and others)

equality     (treating everyone, including ourselves, as being basically equal)

cooperation     (cooperating skillfully with others in joint tasks of mutual benefit)

fairness             (being fair in all dealings with others)

self-control      (controlling one’s behavior so as to make the best decisions and so as not to harm or antagonize others)

autonomy        (being able to decide independently on the best thing to do and to stand independently for what is the right thing to do)

dealing well with one’s emotions    (being able to use the important information in one’s emotions without having emotions override good judgment or result in harm to self or others)

Maximizing the skillful use of these twelve principles would help you to be a moral and an ethical person, and it will move you toward being a person who is honest, responsible, loving, accepting, cooperative, fair, self-aware, self-confident, 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.  You will be living so as to maximize your joy, fulfillment, contentment, and satisfaction, maximize equality among people, and minimize conflict, hatred, and violence.  You will be able to live joyfully, serenely, effectively, with great satisfaction, and at peace with yourself, others, and life.  You will have “good” or “positive” interactions with other people, 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 in achieving mutually agreeable goals.

Note that my set of values and skills presented here is not designed to maximize pleasure, excitement, or achievement in your life and will not help you to avoid your emotions or escape from unpleasant reality.  It is based on the belief that we get the greatest total enjoyment from life by living a relaxed, sane, and well-managed life while being open to our feelings, to other people, and to whatever comes in life.  Of course, these skills will also help you to get along well in your job or other work, though not by besting, denigrating, or harming others.

Many of us build our own personal styles by incorporating a number of different skills and behaviors into our lives, but there are also a number of styles of being and living that we can recognize as patterns in others.  We see persons who prefer a life of love, peace, cooperation, and reflection, persons who try to maximize their dominance and authority, persons who focus on striving and competition, persons who focus on getting attention and fame, persons who try to maximize stimulation, hedonism, and sensory pleasure in their lives, persons who prefer an intellectual life, and persons who always conform, fit in, and try to be good.  (We also know that there some persons who hide their primary approach and reveal it only in private.)  Most people adopt a combination of skills and styles that fits their various goals, experiences, and environment.  Regardless of your personal style, adding more of the twelve skills presented here may be useful.  These skills would, for example, make the intellectual person more understanding and social, and they would make the dominant person more compassionate and human to others.


People often harm other people physically and/or psychologically.  We all learn this through experience early in life, and we all would prefer to avoid being harmed.  Also, in our first few years, we all develop a strong desire to be treated “fairly,” and for the rest of our lives we respond with anger and distress if we are harmed and if things are not “fair” (which to us means equitable and appropriate in our view).  These concerns—not to be harmed and not to be treated unfairly (which is one type of harm) are the basis of our motivation to establish systems of rules, laws, expectations, and social contracts that will minimize harm to each other and minimize unfairness.  People seek revenge for direct harm (theft, murder, defamation) through obtaining legal punishment for the person who harms, and they seek fairness when they seek to correct behavior by others that makes things unbalanced through unequal treatment.  We see efforts to correct unfairness when people confront God about why harm was allowed to happen and when disadvantaged groups (slaves, minorities, women) seek equality over the course of many years until it is achieved.  Not matter how complex our laws and social expectations may become, the reason why we have them is to minimize harm and unfairness, and this single principle could be used to define a moral/ethical system that can be applied to every circumstance that we encounter, as long as the individual is able to assess his/her behavior and motives accurately, is willing to alter his/her behavior to align with the principle of minimizing harm and unfairness, and cares enough about the feelings and welfare of others to alter his/her behavior to take others into account when choosing behaviors.

(Morals, in this discussion, are thought to be notions of right and wrong, good and bad, while ethics is thought of as rules and expectations for how we treat each other.  Morals usually seem to be simpler, like “do not kill”, while ethics are usually large systems or codes.  The concepts overlap in some ways.)

Our earliest moral/ethical training involves the conditioning of fear, shame, and/or guilt to certain disapproved behaviors by means of physical punishment or the infliction of emotional pain, so that we learn to feel these unpleasant emotions in an anticipatory way even before carrying out a contemplated, disapproved behavior (throwing food, tantruming, etc.).  For many children this can be a relatively (and partially) 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. 

As children, our earliest motives to conform to rules and expectations are to please parents or God and thereby to gain rewards and good favor, to quell fear of parents and God by conforming, to avoid punishments from parents and God, and to avoid our own conditioned unpleasant emotions, such as fear, shame, and guilt, that we feel when we behave in disapproved ways.  These continue to be motives for adults, with the addition, for some, of the wish for others to have good lives and for society to be peaceful and orderly.

Unfortunately, the emotional conditioning method of training tends to limit later development of abilities to analyze consequences of actions and to appreciate finer nuances of right and wrong, since this conditioned pain causes people to want to escape from such feelings as soon as possible and not to risk or tolerate these feelings while they learn to reflect on and think through their moral/ethical decisions.

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. 

In adolescence, some of us come to understand appropriate behavior as stemming from 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 better lives.  Examples of standard ethical rules are to tell the truth and to be responsible.  Important principles include reciprocity (the golden rule) and fairness.  Various philosophers and religions offer their own views of what the rules should be.  (There are other types of social contracts than morals/ethics, of course, such as form of government.) 

The idea that being consistent in one’s behavior (having integrity) is part of honoring the social contract also arises in adolescence for a few–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 or agreements.  At this stage, people begin to grasp the complexity of moral/ethical decisions and to realize that literal use of rules is not always an adequate approach.  Some then try to translate rules into principles, in order to arrive what would be the most desirable and most appropriate behavior, given all of the circumstances, relationships, and competing duties involved, rather than seeking the automatically “right” behavior according to simple rules or dictates of others.

This further step in moral/ethical development involves reconsidering and reformulating rules and principles for oneself by evaluating their impact on self and others.  This requires some knowledge of the complexity of human motives, relationships, and decision-making and is usually 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.  With empathy, to some extent, one feels good when others feel good and bad when others feel bad.  There can be 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 manipulative advantage to following rules and principles because of both the short-term and long-term positive and negative effects on self and others of following or 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. 

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 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 an immediate 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, the most common and the developmentally earliest view of a good/moral/ethical person is one who follows the rules and does what others, especially authority figures, want him to.  A further step in moral/ethical development is to view morals/ethics as a single system–a social contract for all in the group.  The next level of moral/ethical understanding is to figure out what one really believes about how we should treat each other and to formulate accurate and useful principles for the entire group (society) that express those beliefs.  Beyond this, a final step in moral/ethical growth is to embody one’s ideals about moral/ethical behavior and to find it necessary to act morally/ethically for the sake of one’s integrity and sense of identity.  At all steps, moral/ethical growth involves an increasingly 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 to legitimize doing what they want to do, instead of what is “right”).  This more fundamentalist view does not recognize that sometimes fathers or priests are wrong in what they prescribe for us.  Also, advocates of the sanctity of the Ten Commandments fail to realize that they think it perfectly OK for their nation at war to violate the commandment not to kill, which is an example of situational ethics.  A great deal of effort goes into trying to justify or legitimize behavior that may harm someone, such as justifying deceiving a customer with “it’s just business” or justifying a war because it is believed (with or without evidence) that the other country is going to attack soon.

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.

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 in each unique circumstance 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 benefits and costs of acting morally/ethically 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 with 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.”  Acting morally/ethically 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 acting morally/ethically, 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 (when there are differences regarding equality between groups, or differences about lying or cheating on taxes), 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).  Acting morally/ethically should certainly be enough to enable one to feel some satisfaction and self-respect.

If you are truly a good person, then acting morally/ethically 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.

While most people like people who act morally/ethically, because they are trustworthy and safe and because their actions make everyone’s lives around them a little better, there are some costs to acting morally/ethically, both internal and external.  Internally, acting morally/ethically requires that we conform our behavior to what is right and just, 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 and to act morally/ethically.

Sometimes there is extra expense and difficulty to doing the right thing and acting morally/ethically.  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 person who acts morally/ethically may also be attacked (prissy, goody-two-shoes, mama’s boy, teacher’s pet, etc.) or shunned by others who view her actions 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.

On a personal note, I feel much better knowing that I have acted and am acting morally/ethically.  My conscience is clean and clear, so I have no nagging doubts about my behavior or how it will be seen by others.  I don’t need to remember what lies I gave to what other people so that I can remain consistent when interacting with them.  I respect myself for acting morally/ethically, and I don’t worry deep down that I am a fraud or that someday what I have done will be exposed.  This avoids many shame and guilt problems, but as noted above, there are costs, too, in terms of sometimes having to expend extra effort in order to do what is right and just, and sometimes knowing that certain other people make fun of me as being too righteous—a mischaracterization, in my opinion, but one which reminds me about the importance of appropriate humility about ourselves!


In smaller group settings (a village or town), people keeping an eye on each other is the most effective mechanism for controlling harmful behavior.  In our more anonymous society, self-regulation is needed, and self-regulation would be more widespread if people felt that doing what is good and just was clearly good for themselves, rather than feeling that doing what is good and just meant giving up something for themselves (which is what many children conclude from their early moral training).  One way of doing this would to teach individuals to do what is truly best for themselves.  This would obviously not be what we would often initially wish to do but rather what would actually be best for ourselves, after considering all of the immediate and long-term consequences of our possible actions, including the impact of our actions on others, both immediately and in the future, and including the impact of our actions on all human beings, not just on our immediate friends and family.  Applying this approach would require believing that others would also apply the same approach, so that there was an expectation of reciprocity at least most of the time.  The most important underlying principle of such an approach would be to refrain from all harming of others, believing that if everyone followed this principle, all our lives would be more relaxed and comfortable, and we would all enjoy better relations with other human beings.  The primary result of applying such an approach would be that we would treat others better and be more conscious of treating ourselves well.  The long-term test of such an approach would be whether we end up feeling better about ourselves and about others and whether we feel more secure and safe in our daily lives, as compared to how we feel now with our mainly fear-based system of morals/ethics.

If we are honest about ourselves, we realize that human beings are built to do what they consider to be the best thing that they can do for themselves at all times.  The problem is that what they consider to be the best thing for themselves may not actually be the best thing.  Drug addicts usually decide that the best thing they can do right now is take the drug again, but most of us would agree that in terms of the total and eventual outcomes of such behavior, it is not the best thing for them.  We might decide that the best thing right now is to eat the hot fudge sundae, but if we are also trying to lose weight, it is probably not the best thing for us. 

“Doing the right thing” has a bad reputation because when we were growing up, parents used this mantra to tell us not to do something we wanted to do, hence it became associated in our minds with giving up good things for the sake of someone else’s approval or image of us.  Children feel this only as an unwarranted interference with their lives, but as adults, we can see, if we want to, that the benefit of giving up some good things that we want may be to make our lives better overall, either through avoiding punishments for doing what we wanted to do, through creating better relations with others and enjoying the benefits of that, or through gaining even greater rewards in the future as a result of giving up what we wanted immediately (“delay of gratification”).

Since most people view ethics and morals as an imposition and an interference with our lives, this sets up a lifelong struggle of choosing between what we want to do and what we fear would lead to disapproval or punishment, which naturally leads to scheming how to do both—how to get what we want but avoid the disapproval or punishment, usually by keeping our behavior secret.  Most of these calculations take into account only the immediate consequences that we fear.  It would be a better world if most adults had the maturity to take the longer and broader view of consequences—to realistically consider all of the consequences of our actions, both now and in the future (even the far distant future), including the impact of our behavior on all human beings, not just our immediate friends and family.  To do this, we would have to have the cognitive skill to imagine all of those consequences, the integrity to actually consider them seriously (rather than rush over such things as unimportant compared to the gain that we wish to realize from what we would most like to do), and some degree of caring for others’ outcomes that result from our behavior.

Consider deciding who to invite to a party.  It is common to gloss over the impact on others of not inviting certain people, assuming that they won’t find out about the party and therefore would not feel hurt for not being invited.  Quite often, they do find out, of course, and we have hurt their feelings.  Of course, we cannot invite everyone who might feel hurt to every party, but it would be more honest of us to have a different rationale for leaving people out than “they won’t find out.”  A similar example would be deciding whether to start or continue an affair, hoping that we can keep it secret from our spouse.  They will, in all likelihood, find out.  Climate change presents another sort of issue, as we are asked to give up some convenience or even income in order to “save the environment,” which will take so long to have an effect that our sacrifices will be to the advantage of our descendants but not to ourselves directly.  If we didn’t care about the temperature and food impacts on our human descendants, then we would easily choose not to participate in saving the environment, and since the predictions of changes are only that—predictions—it is easy to deny their validity to justify our lack of action.  In this sort of decision, our sense of integrity (living consistently with our principles) would have to be strong enough for us to value the positive impact that we hope to have in the future more than we value our convenience and current income or activities that we would be giving up, and we would have to believe in a principle of not causing harm to others, even those we don’t know.  The point here is that taking our impact on others and the environment into account in making our decisions could result in a different decision than if we ignore how we affect others.

Even when we are free to decide for ourselves what we want to do, we often decide in short-sighted ways, when if we paused to think seriously about all of the likely consequences of different courses of action, we might well choose differently.  The emphasis in the 60’s on “doing your own thing” and on personal freedom, as well as the extreme capitalism of our current society both make it appear that you have almost a responsibility to yourself to do what you want to do (“Have it your way” at Burger King), but if you always side with your impulses to satisfy immediate needs (consume something, “get your anger out,” buy that $2000 phone), you will waste resources and leave your life barren in the end (since good relationships, satisfaction, fulfillment, and contentment are the things that people value toward the end of life).

Choosing to get the hot fudge sundae without thinking privileges the immediate satisfaction of eating it but ignores on purpose the emotional outcomes (feeling guilty later for eating it) as well as the long-term outcomes (weight gain, or at least lack of weight loss).  Nations that go to war to right a supposed wrong, defend their honor, or pre-empt what they think will be an attack on themselves usually weigh the immediate goal (aggressively standing up for themselves, believing that one’s nation is once again safe) as being much more important than later consequences (living without those who have been killed, feeling guilty after the war about the thousands of men dead or maimed for life on both sides, feeling foolish when no weapons of mass destruction are found, immense national debt that takes decades to pay off, earning the justified hatred of many of another country’s people for years to come, becoming a hated symbol among nations of  “might makes right”).

As these examples point out, many times the best thing for ourselves is to do nothing, not to take actions that we “feel like” taking, or to take actions that are different from our initial self-only-centered assessment.  This is a very important skill to learn. The only reason many people find within themselves to inhibit an action is fear, usually fear of reprisal or punishment.  If we base giving up a reward on knowing that we are doing what is best for ourselves, it would provide a positive reason for giving it up plus providing us with the positive feeling that we are doing “the right thing.” 

The key to making this tolerable at first, until the awareness of doing what is best for yourself becomes automatic and stronger, is to focus clearly on the two futures that you envision, the one in which you take the action, get the immediate reward, and then pay some price for it, and the one in which you do not take the action, forego that immediate reward, and later feel better or get larger rewards without paying that price.  Seeing clearly that we will be better off by inhibiting the desired action, by envisioning vividly and comparing the outcomes of both courses of action, allows us to feel good about inhibiting the desired action, from the awareness that we are benefiting ourselves and not just giving up something.  (Part of our preference for immediate rewards comes from the fact that it is easier for us to imagine the immediate outcome than to imagine the more distant outcome, but if we focus on making a fair comparison, we can do this better.)

Doing what is truly best for yourself is a solution to the problem of conscience—i.e., being torn between doing what you want to do and doing what you know you “should” do.  This dilemma, born in childhood, plagues most people throughout their lives.  It is an outcome of using fear alone (fear of disapproval, fear of punishment) as the method of controlling our behavior.  Doing what is truly best for yourself requires serious reflection about all of your options and deciding what will be in your best interest overall, when considering all of the consequences of your behavior—long-term consequences, short-term consequences, the effects on others of your chosen action, and the responses of others to your chosen action. 

You will find that doing what is truly best for yourself often involves doing what is best for others, too.  Comfortable cooperation requires some amount of sharing or turn-taking, so some of the time it will be best for you (in order to maintain your good relationships with others) to let someone else’s need or desire have preference over yours.

Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer viewed “the Will” (the drive to exist and to continue to exist, which implies reproduction) as the most fundamental motive for human beings.  His atheistic notion of morality was founded on the infrequent awareness that another’s welfare is just as salient and important to one as one’s own.  (Since this awareness is infrequent in people, most people live immorally.)  The self-centeredness of the person living by power-control is then by definition a force for immorality.  Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in giving up the irrational forms of control utilized by the church and by society, was left with idealizing the person who could acknowledge his own Will’s supremacy (to do without guilt whatever he deems right and necessary according to his own needs and perceptions)–the “Ubermensch”.  The person who lives by power-control is tempted to go and often goes beyond morality to do what he “needs” to do, since he does not admit that others’ needs could be important and should at times take precedence over his own. 

Just as with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the morality presented in this essay puts the locus of morality in the individual (rather than in society or religion), but it differs from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in requiring that the individual have awareness of others’ needs and feelings and be willing to sometimes allow the needs of others to take precedence over his own (in the best interest of both himself and others).


In this section the skills and knowledge needed to make the proposed system of moral/ethical behavior “work” are described—i.e. a system in which individuals make moral/ethical decisions (1) based in an awareness of surrounding systems (the society’s justice system, the morals of religions in the society, etc.) and using (2) empathic awareness of others’ experiences of harm, (3) a wish not to harm others, (4) an understanding that doing what is truly best for oneself will lead also to treating others well, and (5) an accurate understanding of all the consequences of one’s actions including both short-term and long-term consequences and the impact of one’s action on others.

Empathy for Others

At least a moderate degree of empathy ability is needed if we are to successfully choose behaviors that are good and just, because without empathy we cannot adequately know the consequences of our behavior for others.  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 physical pain he may feel and the emotional pain he may 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 (power, guilt, fear of being found out).  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 more 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, and it is important to pay attention to how people live, all over the world, in order to gain this comprehensive understanding of people.  Empathy helps us to 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 to cause that harm.

Empathy is 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.  In other words, empathy helps us to understand, partially, the reality experienced by other people.  If we could not appreciate what others were 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 will do next (and could not therefore “trust” them). 

Empathy makes possible accepting others as they are, and it also makes possible (though is it is not sufficient for) choosing as our behaviors those that do not harm others and those that benefit both ourselves and others.  Accurate empathy shows us that others feel about and view the world differently than we do!

Having empathy involves both emotional and cognitive components. We resonate with the other person’s expressions of emotions (automatically mirror to some extent what they are feeling by observing their features and behavior), and we also perceive the other person’s situation and using imagination place ourselves in that situation in order to imagine what the other person is thinking, feeling, and otherwise experiencing.  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 her circumstances, the deeper and more accurate our empathy can be. 

In order to have empathy for others, we must we willing to experience, at least to some degree, what the other person is experiencing.  Learning to accept and manage our own emotional pain can lead to greater ability to empathize, and we must be aware of the full range of our own experience in order to resonate with or imagine the experiences of others.  We then adjust our initial impressions, which are based on how we see ourselves as similar to the other person, by using our knowledge of how we are different from her.

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 even a truncated version of the 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, in general, do not),

We should note that having too much empathy (being so concerned about another person’s experience and feeling that person’s experience so strongly) can lead to too much desire to alleviate that person’s suffering, so that we relieve immediate suffering at the cost of greater suffering in the future.  A parent’s over-empathy with a child would lead to eliminating the child’s opportunities to learn how to tolerate and deal with unhappiness and ill feelings, which would cause the child more problems in the future than would be caused by the parent insisting on better behavior and greater learning from experience for the child in the present.  Placing too much emphasis on a person’s suffering leads us to not give enough consideration to solutions that will be of even greater benefit for the person overall, by understanding the bigger picture of the consequences for the person of various actions on our part, rather than being concerned about just the current suffering.

Understanding others does not require letting them have their way.  Appreciating what others experience simply gives us more options.  Depending on history and current circumstance, we may decide to let others suffer or 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. 

It is important to note that in empathy we partially experience (at a lower intensity) the experience of others, but we do this by experiencing our own emotions that arise from what we perceive in others.  We are not actually experiencing the feelings of another person.  In other words, when we experience something empathically, it is still ourselves processing and experiencing the information and emotions.

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 careful observations of them and using both your emotional resonance with them and your interpretations of what they say and 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).

Caring Enough About Others

In order to be motivated to act morally/ethically, we must care enough about others’ feelings of pain and happiness to take their welfare into account as we make our behavioral decisions, by taking seriously the impact that our proposed behaviors will have on them.  Empathy alone will assist us in making appropriate moral/ethical decisions, but most of us are motivated to use our empathy not just because it will help us to understand the impact of our behavior but also because we care about others’ experience.  We care, at least to some degree, whether they are happy or sad, gratified or disappointed, and most of us wish to add to the positivity of others’ experience whenever we can.  The more we care, the more we will invest in improving our empathy skills.  You can improve your empathy skills by nurturing your capacity to care for others. 

Assessing Harm

A difficulty for the harm-minimization approach to doing what is good and right is that some people will claim to have been harmed when they have not been harmed, in order to get what they want by using the leverage of having been harmed to get someone else to change his/her behavior.  An example would be a mother who responds to her son’s wish to move out and be independent with the claim that “it would just kill me if you go; I won’t be able to manage at all.”  This might be true for a tiny group of mothers, but it could also be falsely claimed as a way of manipulating the son into not moving out. 

To deal with this situation, the son must evaluate objectively and fairly the legitimacy of the claim and then decide what to do.  The mother’s history of such behavior or of exaggerating the impact of others’ behavior on her should be a good source of information; her sincerity can be assessed by the non-verbal aspects of her claiming; and her own objectivity in making the claim can be examined by a further discussion of specifics—just what does “kill me” mean, and how exactly will she be unable to manage.  If the claim seems false, then the son could morally/ethically insist on moving, even though the mother continues to act hurt.  If there is truth to the claim that she won’t be able to manage, he could help her practice some new coping behaviors (learn to keep track of expenses and a bank account, etc.)  If the claim has validity, and she cannot learn new behavior, then he might have to find another person to do some caretaking activity with her after he moves out.

In some instances, all of the behavioral choices available will cause some degree of harm to someone.  The son deciding not to move out benefits his mother while causing him frustration and limiting his options.  Revealing an affair will likely cause great anguish even though it is done with a hope of making things better in the long run.  Laws almost always advantage some but disadvantage others.  Giving homeowners a tax deduction for interest paid is nice for homeowners but actually causes everyone (including non-homeowners) to pay more in taxes to make up for all those deductions.  A zoning rule that ensures that all persons on a hillside overlooking the ocean can see the ocean benefits most people but takes away the option from those who would like to, to build something higher than the permitted number of stories in a house.  When assessing harm from a moral/ethical perspective in these instances, we generally weigh the value of the advantages against the value of the disadvantages, and we are willing to tolerate some harm in order to accomplish a greater good.

Seeing Reality Clearly

Seeing reality clearly is needed so that we are not fooled by the excuses and justifications that we and others use to avoid acknowledging the negative impacts of our behavior on others, including our (hopefully) occasional 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 anymore; he hit me first; the devil made me do it; I wasn’t myself; 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; if you punish me I won’t love you any more, 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 (“punishing you like this is hurting me more than it’s hurting you”), 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.  Indians are savages, so it is OK for us to take their land for our farms.  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.  Our civilization is superior to theirs, so it’s OK for us to take over their country and run it for them.  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).  Etc.  Etc.  Etc.

If we are to grow morally and ethically, we must recognize distortions such as these, and commit ourselves to doing what is actually right by knowing what is actually happening in these and other situations.  This is not easy, of course, since it could be to our short-term advantage to continue to use distortions and rationalizations 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 poor will always be with us, so it’s OK for our middle class church members to pay them low wages; our church council decided this, so there’s nothing I can do about it, etc.).

Since we all want to have a good life and want certain things in order to have a good life, we are often involved in situations where resources or opportunities have to be divided.  (Only one child can go to college, so is it going to be me or my brother?  How should the one piece of pie that we have be divided?)  In all of these situations, acting morally/ethically involves monitoring our own proposals and our actions to make sure that our decision processes are fair and that we are seeking the good of all concerned.  Here are some questions to ask yourself in assessing whether you are biased positively toward yourself (hoping that you will get a greater than equal share or a better outcome than others in the situation).

  • What are all of the outcomes, for yourself and for others, that you would like to see from the situation?  Include your psychological outcomes as well as the external ones.
  • Are these outcomes fair and in some sense equal for all concerned?  Can you honestly confirm this, or when you say it, do you feel something in the background that is warning you not to say it out loud?  Might you be fooling yourself that what you want is fair and equal?
  • Are you using distortions or unfair arguments in favor of what you want?  In the discussions of this issue, are you trying to convince others that you should get what you are wanting, or is the discussion an attempt by equals to figure out what is right?  If you recorded your arguments and played them for someone who you think of as fair, would they agree that your arguments seek a fair solution?  Would you feel ashamed if you presented the whole picture to that person?
  • If things turn out as you want, how will you feel about yourself afterward?  Will you be proud of how you have acted?  Will you have to keep secret how you got what you wanted?
  • How do you think everyone involved will view the settlement you would like after a year or five years?  Might that be different from how you and others look at things now?

Seeing All of the Consequences of Our Actions Accurately

The other aspect of seeing reality clearly (in addition to perceiving correctly our motives and distortions) that is needed to make appropriate moral/ethical decisions is accurate prediction of all of the consequences of our actions–both short-term and long-term consequences and how our actions affect others.  To do this we need a certain amount of knowledge about the probable results of the same actions or kinds of actions either from our own observations or from reliable sources, which could be books or trusted others, and we must have the willingness and commitment to see the whole truth and not just the part that we might use to justify the moral/ethical choice that we would prefer to make.

Committing Yourself To Live By The Truth, Because You Have Concluded That You Can Get More Out of Life By Seeing Reality Clearly

Decide once and for all whether you believe that you will get more out of life by seeing the truth and using it to guide your decisions than you will get by distorting reality to yourself and others and taking advantage of others whenever you can.  (I guarantee you that the former is the better choice!)  Seeing reality clearly allows us to see the actual impact of our behavior on others, instead of making up rationalizations for our behavior and ignoring how we harm others.  Seeing reality clearly also inclines us to appropriate humility, since we see clearly the fallibility and imperfection of both ourselves and others.

Manage Your Emotions

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 in the long run 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 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 (unless they are trying to force us to do something that they claim is moral/ethical that we don’t think is moral/ethical), so overt conflict is not inevitable. 

As another window on the process of making moral/ethical decisions, let us consider the internal interactions of our child part, our parental part, and our “actual self.”  Many people live life as if there were a little person inside, looking out but basically hiding.  This little person still resents being restricted from doing what he or she wanted to do as a child and having to learn to be “good” or at least to appear to be “good” by hiding the “bad” within.  Every one of us has learned as children that parts of ourselves (much of what we feel like doing naturally) are “bad,” so most of us are careful to hide the bad even though we are still looking for chances to do what we really want to do. Most of us also have inside ourselves a parent or authority image.  Some of us use it to tell us not to do things that are forbidden, and some of us just resent it or hate it and try to keep it quiet. 

To deal with these images from childhood, you can nurture and become the “actual person” inside you—the real you. You are actually not the little person or the parent—you just feel like them when you engage in certain thought, feeling, or behavior patterns.  Many people, though, continue to bounce back and forth between feeling like the little person and feeling like the parent and never discover or empower the actual person inside, which is all of your experience, not just your feelings as a child or your image of your parent when you were a child.

Becoming the actual you, rather than continuing to act the parts of your childhood self or your parent, is important because only as the real you can you know what you really want and make responsible decisions about what to do.  Your little person will continue to opt for what is most appealing at the moment unless stymied by fear of immediate negative consequences, and your parent will continue to try to get you to do what it thinks is the right thing to do, regardless of whether that meets your needs and without trying to make the outcomes acceptable to the little person.  Only the grown-up, real you can do a good job of finding what is best for you, taking into account both the little person’s desires and the parent’s sense of what is correct.

The solution lies in compromise and in convincing the little person that you are taking care of him and that he will get more of what he wants over the long run by taking this new route—sometimes working for larger rewards in the future even if that requires giving up some current rewards, taking into account how others will react to your actions, and taking into account the long-term as well as the short-term results of your actions.  You can have conversations with the little person inside to soothe his disappointment and to give him sustaining treats and images along the way as you move toward the delayed goal.  You should be compassionate with him, rather than harsh.  He is a part of you and deserves good treatment, even though he may be a frustration at times.  Love is always more effective in promoting internal change than harshness and negativity. 

Conclude That You Can Get More In Life By Treating Others Well Than By Taking Advantage Of Them

Whether you believe that you can get more in life by (1) treating others well and cooperating with them or (2) trying to take advantage of others whenever you can, will determine much about your relationships and therefore about your happiness.  We take advantage of others whenever we alter their beliefs or behavior in a way that helps us get what we want but ends up being to their disadvantage or harm.  Taking advantage of others can take the form of stealing, bad-mouthing, manipulating, lying, ridiculing, putting down, or otherwise deceiving another person.  You take advantage when you lie about a movie to get others to agree to go with you to it.  You take advantage when you sell a car to someone without telling them about its defects.  You take advantage when you tell someone you love them just to get them into bed.  You take advantage when you cheat on your taxes.

If you have grown up in a family where everyone was always trying to take advantage, that may seem normal to you, but having positive and enjoyable relationships with others (through treating others well and being trustworthy) can become your norm and will bring you greater happiness.  We hate to be taken advantage of, and we respond to it with anger and sometimes with a desire for revenge.  You may gain advantage right now by lying, stealing etc., but you will pay some prices for it, even if that is far in the future.  You may give up some immediate self-interest by treating others fairly and taking their needs into account, but you will be repaid more than you give up by others viewing you more positively and treating you better.

Give Up Trying to Force Others To Do What You Want

Trying to get your way and get what you want by forcing others to do what they don’t want to do is understandable but immoral.  Certainly some people grow up wanting to be in control of their gratifications rather than have them be subject to the desires and whims of others who may or may not give what we want and may or may not cooperate with us, but the results of using power are always harmful to those with less power, and perhaps it is time in history for us to simply outlaw it (just as we would be better off if we stopped electing anyone to public office who is motivated for office mainly by a wish for power).  Every time you force someone to do what you want, you build up more anger and resentment toward yourself.  If you like to force others, please consider becoming like the rest of us—dependent on others but happier because much of the time others do cooperate and help us get what we want (or at least as much of what we want is reasonable).

Think For Yourself

If you are to live morally/ethically, you will have to think for yourself, to see what is right and just, and to see through the elaborate deceptions that individuals and groups use to justify harmful behavior.  You will also need to stand up alone sometimes for what is right and just and tolerate the criticism of those who disagree.  In order to think for yourself, you will have to detach yourself from simply believing things because someone else has said them, which means that you may perceive that some of those things that others have taught you are “wrong.”  This may cause some distress initially, but you can take comfort in the fact that decisions made through a careful and honest assessment of what needs to be done are almost always better for you than decisions based on what others want you to do.  In order to stand up for what you conclude is right and just will require a certain amount of ability to support yourself when encountering disagreement.

Be Self-Aware

The greatest tool that you have to help you reach deeper knowledge about yourself and grow morally/ethically is self-awareness.  Knowledge of the outer world is not difficult to obtain, as long as you are careful about your sources of information, but few people achieve accurate knowledge about themselves because of our frequent avoidance of unwanted (painful) information.  To reach deeper knowledge you must allow yourself to be aware of everything about yourself, the bad as well as the good, which includes your “unacceptable” emotions, your selfish wishes and actions, and how you harm others.  You must also be familiar with what others have labeled “unacceptable” in yourself (rightly or wrongly) before you can accept it and finally accept yourself fully.

A frequent problem regarding allowing complete awareness is the temptation to make certain parts of oneself off limits and to try to keep oneself from being aware of and thinking about certain things.  The argument for awareness is that knowing more about reality leads to better decisions and therefore greater success in life in general.  The argument for restricting awareness is that it is better not to focus on forbidden but nonetheless desirable matters so as to avoid misbehavior or sin.  Sex is the most commonly restricted area, as we see in the view of all pornography as sinful and degrading and the reluctance of parents to acknowledge their sexual behavior to children or to let children learn about sex.  The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is related to this tendency to avoid certain thoughts. 

Self-awareness consists mostly of paying attention—paying attention to all of your sensations, thoughts, feelings, motives, and actions, including those that you don’t like or don’t approve of in yourself (your self-doubts, your self-criticism, your comparisons of yourself with others, your negative self-evaluations, your envy, your jealousy, your shame, your guilt, your harm of others, etc.).  In each moment you are always experiencing, reacting, deciding, and acting, but at the same time you can also be noticing yourself doing each of these things.  It is essential to observe without judging and not to deny or push away any things you become aware of, even those that you initially feel to be unacceptable.  (The eventual goal is to accept everything about yourself, but this does not mean that you will be “free” to do whatever you want, since if you proceed down this path of maturing and growing, you will move toward acceptance in general and compassion for all, and since you will be aware of your motives for every action and the probable consequences of every action, you will choose not to do things that harm yourself or others.) 

You don’t have to reflect on or understand everything instantly, but you can go back when you have time and wonder about why you did what you did or said what you said.  As you become more familiar with all of yourself, this process of noticing and understanding becomes quicker, until you will do it almost instantly.  Mindfulness meditation is a structured and productive way of practicing self-awareness, in which you suspend action and simply observe your internal events for a time.

It is a special challenge to become aware of what is unconscious in you!  Ordinary consciousness includes only a small part of what goes on in your brain, and there are aspects of brain function that we will never be consciously aware of.  We can, however, become aware of the aspects of ourselves of which we are unconscious because we have made them unconscious (buried them by denial, suppression, and repression, because we don’t want to know about them).  This would include things like hating your mother, anger toward your boss, and forbidden sexual interests.

Your key tool in learning about what is unconscious is observing your behavior, which always results partly from your unconscious feelings and motives.  Since we must be aware of something in order to suppress it (at least the first time), there are moments of awareness which will show you what you intend to hide.  If you follow the path of suppression, you will suppress the information and then “forget” that you ever knew it.  You can instead choose to notice and examine everything when you notice it, rather than almost instantly “forgetting” it.  If you have hatred for your mother, there will be moments in your reactions to her when these negative feelings will surface, and you can include this in your knowledge about yourself, if you want to have deeper knowledge.  You may, of course, then have to struggle for a time with shame, guilt, or other forms of self-rejection about these “unacceptable” aspects of yourself that you are becoming aware of, which is why self-acceptance becomes important.  What we learn by becoming aware of everything about ourselves is that everyone, including ourselves, has flaws and frailties, and this knowledge allows us to be more compassionate and accepting of ourselves and others, allows us not to have to be “better than” others, and allows us not to have to deny the reality of ourselves.

You can readily develop the ability to observe yourself.  Just pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and actions, instead of proceeding on automatically, without awareness, which is what most people do most of the time.  During complex sequences of behavior, you will not have time to reflect on each of your awarenesses, but this can be done later, when you have the time.  Our functioning is too complex for us to be aware of everything that we do, but we can be aware of much of it, and if you commit yourself to practicing this awareness as much as you can, you will develop greater self-awareness.  As noted several times above, being aware of ourselves will sometimes be painful, as we learn things that we do not like about ourselves or that result in shame or guilt, so commit yourself also to work on tolerating and managing those painful feelings.

The key is to start noticing everything about yourself (each of your feelings, reactions to things, actions you take) and examining your motives and what you hope to accomplish by your actions.  The explanations that most people give themselves regarding reasons for their behaviors are false and are intended to justify themselves rather than to really understand (“I’m punishing you solely for your benefit”; “I did what I did because you….”), so question your initial explanations and justifications.  Everything you do has to do with yourself in some manner, because we always do what we view as being in our best interest.  Be open to all possible explanations for your behavior.  Once you commit to really understanding yourself, there is no need to continue to justify anything, because the point is not to make yourself feel better but to find out the truth about yourself so you can accept yourself and can better guide your own decisions and actions and therefore have a better life.

Self-awareness tends to lead toward self-acceptance, since we come to see that we are flawed and imperfect (and can never be completely otherwise).  To fight this truth is a losing battle (and pointless), so radical acceptance is the only reasonable alternative.  We are not perfect and cannot ever be perfect, just as we can’t be good at everything in life.  These are truths about ourselves that must be accepted, because to reject them dooms you to self-criticism and self-belittlement for the rest of your life.  In order to gain greater and more accurate self-awareness, then, requires a certain amount of self-esteem (and achieving that self-awareness will itself improve your self-esteem considerably!).

It is helpful to have a companion on this journey, whether that is a spouse, a friend, a minister, or a counselor.  Having a sharing companion helps you both by getting an outside perspective on yourself and giving you practice at accepting another real person.  Meditation aimed at self-awareness can be helpful, although you can accomplish the same thing by taking the time to think seriously about what you notice about yourself.   It’s even better if you schedule some time every day to do this (15 minutes?) and stick to it.  (Meditation can be completely divorced from Eastern religions and can be viewed simply as a psychological technique to help with self-awareness.)  Relatively liberal religious groups are a good place to look for an atmosphere that encourages this sort of self-examination, whereas more conservative religious groups have a tendency to give you a view of yourself that relates only to what the religion says is right and acceptable rather than the full picture of yourself.

As you question your true values and whether or not you are expressing them in your behavior, you will gradually decide what is important in life and will see the necessity, for your own welfare, of spending your energies pursuing and promoting what is truly important and meaningful, regardless of whether others have any sort of clue about this.

As you examine yourself and your life, you will also wonder about many aspects of our society, including its material and entertainment enticements and the assumption that everything that is new is good.  Without a firm base of accurate understanding of self and others, there is no basis for making useful judgments about what is good for us and what is not so good, but as you develop your own beliefs, you will have that base for choosing wisely.

Do What Is Truly Best For Yourself  (see section above)

Be Honest With Yourself And Others

To live by the truth, you will have to get used to being radically honest with yourself and honest with others.  You must see all of yourself, including the parts you don’t like (and then accept them as part of yourself).  You must see how you sometimes harm others.  You must refine your opinions and views to take out the distortions you have made in the interest of seeing things the way you want them to be.  You must share the truth as you understand it with others, at least when you see them in danger of harm.  It’s true that, at first, seeing the truth will hurt, but it will ultimately set you free!

Be Responsible and Trustworthy

Part of acting morally/ethically is being trustworthy and responsible, so that you minimize the harm to others that would result from being irresponsible and untrustworthy.  This means speaking responsibly by saying what you believe to be true rather than using speech insincerely to get others to do what you want them to do.  You must also keep your promises, so that others can depend on you.  Our lives are so inter-related with those of others that we have to rely on others to do many things that contribute to our welfare, and if they do not do those things (are not responsible) we suffer, so we must ensure that we do not fail them as well.  When you hire a babysitter, you want to feel that he or she is trustworthy—will actually watch your child instead of watching TV in the other room.

Being responsible and trustworthy takes a bit of effort.  You have to do your homework instead of putting it off.  You have to get out of bed and put out the trash that you forgot to put out, so that it can be picked up tomorrow.  You have to ask before you take money from your mother’s purse.  Being trusted, though, brings great rewards in terms of how people view and treat you a well as making you a positive contributor to the smooth running of society.  It’s worth the effort.

Accept Yourself So You Can Also Accept Others and Thereby Avoid Some Harm To Them

Of all the attitudes and feelings about yourself, respecting yourself, accepting yourself, and loving yourself are the three things that are most beneficial for your self-esteem and your overall welfare, and among these three, accepting yourself is the most effective.  In order to accept others, we must first figure out how to accept ourselves!  If we are not basically accepting of others, then we are more likely to be rejecting of them and more likely to harm them to get what we want from them.

Accepting yourself is basically letting yourself be as you are, without feeling pressure to change (even if you do in fact want to change something about yourself).  Being accepted is basically “being allowed”—being allowed to be yourself without rejection, disapproval, or attack.  Self-acceptance is therefore “allowing yourself to be” instead of rejecting and attacking yourself.  Every time you harm yourself, criticize yourself, put yourself down, or judgmentally compare yourself unfavorably to someone else, you are rejecting yourself.  Accepting others means letting them be, too, without pressure to change.  Accepting them means also accepting that you may not get everything you want from them, so that you can stop trying to manipulate them or force them to do what you want.

Understanding oneself and others realistically and in depth leads us to be basically accepting of ourselves and others, because knowing a person completely reveals that person’s faults and frailties (and we all have them!).  So, 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, as long as that does not imply to you that you are free to harm others through expression of those disliked or harmful parts of yourself).  Stop criticizing yourself and hurting your own feelings. Stop rejecting yourself!

Self-critical and self-rejecting behaviors are learned from those around us, usually in childhood.  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. 

Many people are trained in childhood to keep themselves from getting into trouble by watching for possible “bad” behavior and criticizing themselves in advance (instead of just feeling guilty after the behavior), and this involves self-rejection.  You can control yourself more humanely by always doing what is in your best interest, as explained above (which includes, in some cases, not doing what you feel like doing in the moment). 

Acceptance is often confused with approval and other positive responses from others.  Being approved of involves being measured by others against their standards for you and being preferred or rejected by them, while acceptance is “being allowed to be” just as you are.

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 accept them as well.  Everyone deserves your basic acceptance (acceptance for the person as a person and for that person’s behavior as long as they are not harming others or dedicated to harming others).

Most human beings reject or attack people who have different beliefs and views from their own, but this can be overcome by understanding those differences better and gaining more security in life in general (because much insecurity is due simply to ignorance).  These differences do not necessarily mean danger or require distancing.

The most difficult barrier to accepting others is wanting or needing things from them that they do not choose to give, the most common example being when a person marries another person believing mistakenly that he or she will finally be loved or accepted, and this turns out not to be true.  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 him/her.  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. 

Be A True Equal With Others And Treat Others Fairly

Being moral and ethical implies that the welfare of everyone is equally considered (and that everyone has the same right to equal consideration with others) with respect to avoiding harm to them (unless your moral/ethical system defines some persons as less than others, as in a caste system).  If everyone is basically equal, you cannot claim that something is fair unless all are treated the same, so in this sense, being moral and ethical requires that you view others as basic equals.

The fact that being below others in the status hierarchy harms our self-esteem and success in life also suggests that we consider an attitude of greater equality between citizens.  Everyone wants to be treated as an equal and fairly.  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.  It is tempting to cling to “reasons” why we are better than others (appearance, race. family status, wealth, possessions, achievements), but these are all superficial manipulations and are foolish and unfair even if effective. 

We want things to be “fair” and “even.”  We think that we should all be on “a level playing field.”  Being treated fairly and as a basic equal affirms our place in the social order.  Being treated unfairly and as an inferior leads to great anguish, anger, and reduced self-esteem.   

It helps us to treat others fairly if we perceive that we are basic equals with others.  If we see ourselves as superior or as more deserving than others, then we will be tempted to give ourselves advantages over others and be more willing to harm others to get what we want.   

Fundamentally, fairness is applying the rules and expectations to everyone equally and without bias.  Treating others fairly requires that we apply the same rules to ourselves that we do to them.  As a referee or umpire, we strive to make calls according to reality, shorn of any preferences for either team to win.  It is appropriate and beneficial to treat everyone with the same consideration and fairness, regardless of their relatedness, social standing, or ethnicity, and regardless of what we might wish to get from the other person at the time.

You can contribute to a sense of peace and harmony in society by not striving to be or to be seen as better than others but by being satisfied with being a basic equal to them.  If you publicly say that you want things to be fair but privately try to be better than others, you are a hypocrite!

Balancing Your Feelings and Welfare with the Feelings and Welfare of Others

Since we are all basically equal, your needs are just as important as those of others, and theirs are just as important as yours.  In the total group, 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, since you will then naturally expect greater benefits than others get and will feel entitled to that.  This is not, however, a good solution overall, since this will lead to inferiority for someone else, will encourage you to feel that you are not an equal but a superior to others (which makes you a resented enemy), and will perpetuate an unending struggle between you and others for superiority. 

The socially desirable and societally 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 benefits 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.  At a practical level, sharing equally is the simplest arrangement.  Allowing others’ needs to take precedence at times can work if you expect (and receive) opportunities in the future where your needs take precedence (a sort of equal sharing over time).  Dividing things according to need can work if those giving more and receiving less feel good about giving (or giving more) and trust that if their needs were greater, they would receive more.  Seeking win-win solutions can work, even if the benefits are unequal, if those involved all feel that their share is “fair” according to their own sense of what is right and fair.

Develop Your Ability For Self-Control

You can choose to develop self-control, so that you can choose whether to speak or act rather than doing so “without thinking,” which often results in hurting others as well as in unfortunate consequences for you.  You can establish a habit of pausing to actually decide what to do rather than acting impulsively.  Good self-control shows others that you can be responsible and trustworthy.

If you work to establish a habit of pausing before acting, you will find that you have fewer conflicts and fewer embarrassing moments and that people like you better when you exercise an appropriate balance between expression and inhibition.  Find a reminder and method that you can use to practice pausing before speaking or acting, whether that is “counting to ten” or thinking of the consequences of “going off” without thinking.  If you practice diligently, it will become automatic for you.

There is value for everyone in acting both in the best interest of those around us and in our own best interest.  Good self-control helps us to do what is truly best for ourselves.  Acting with appropriate self-control also induces those around us to do so as well.


In order to act in a good and just manner, we must be able to know what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is just.  Ultimately, the most general test for determining whether a behavior is right or wrong is whether it harms someone, and in the bigger picture, whether the behavior makes life more pleasant or less pleasant for everyone (others as well as yourself) and 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.

Rules given by others, such as parents or God, are not always sufficient to guarantee moral/ethical behavior, since in all religions that believe in afterlife rewards or punishments for doing right or 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.  In addition, a beneficent deity would never give a moral rule that instructed us to harm others or to make life less pleasant and more dangerous for others.  If God appeared to give such a rule, human beings would certainly 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 can be considered and employed.

(1) Strive for complete but compassionate self-awareness.  As human beings we have a great tendency to convince ourselves of what we 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 your 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) Assess the harm, benefits, advantages, and disadvantages for everyone of the behavior in question.  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.

(3) Allow sufficient time to reach a good decision (well-considered, thoroughly thought-out).  Rushed moral/ethical decisions often give too much weight to how you want the decision to turn out to your benefit.  (This is similar to the highly useful rule of counting to ten before speaking when angry.)

(4) How do each of your possible actions adhere to the principles of fairness and equality?

From which of your possible actions do you benefit the most?

(5) Examine why various cultures and religions (including your own) have labeled the behavior as right or wrong.  Don’t accept your own, your family’s, your religion’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) not harming anyone, (b) making life more pleasant for everyone (others as well as yourself) and/or (c) making life less dangerous for everyone.    

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

(7) 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.

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

(9) 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.

(10) 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.

(11) 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.

(12) Ask yourself how the world would be if everyone followed your conclusion about a behavior being good and just.  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.

(13) Make sure that your understanding of a behavior as right or wrong is consistent with your other moral/ethical conclusions in the past and consistent what has happened in the past when people have reached your particular conclusion and have lived by it.

(14) 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.

(15) Imagine yourself expressing the same conclusion publically and then adding on an explanation of your motives.  How will you feel and how will you feel about yourself after implementing each of your possible actions?  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….”)   

(16) When you cannot determine whether something is right or wrong, suspend judgment until you get more information one way or the other or until your analysis of the question leads to your feeling resolved and confident.  It’s OK not to be sure, and suspending judgment allows you to avoid compounding an error.  Often, of course, we must act without knowing everything we would like to know, but even then, you can act but also remember that your decision was based partly on an unproven assumption, which makes it easier to change your conclusion later based on the actual consequences.  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 sixteen 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 purposes of minimizing harm, maximizing fairness, making life more pleasant for everyone, and/or making life 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 above only in the context of the group to which they belong.) 

Let us take as an example of a moral/ethical decision process, how to act in deciding together with one’s spouse which house to buy, using the process elements described above.  She wants one house, and you want another.  Do you just listen to each other express your preferences and the reasons for them, or do you try to convince the other person to do what you want?  To listen to each other (and then further negotiate) could honor the principle of equality in morals/ethics, while trying to convince the other person to do what you want would not.

(1) Strive for complete but compassionate self-awareness. 

If you wish to act morally/ethically, you would do a searching assessment of your desires and motives for wanting the house that you want, as well as of your motives regarding how to treat your partner in this discussion.  If you know your partner’s motives, you can compare the importance or strength of the needs/motives of each of you (in your opinion, of course).

(2) Assess the harm, benefits, advantages, and disadvantages for everyone of the behavior in question.

What harm would it do to your partner if your partner goes along with your preference (both harm in regard to living in the house and harm to your partner’s feelings about you)?  What harm would occur for you if you went along with what your partner wanted?  What harm to the relationship would occur in either case?

(3) Allow sufficient time to reach a good decision.

Give both of you time and space to seriously consider the matter separately and together.  Don’t push to reach a decision overnight or during your first discussion on the matter together.  It will be tempting to rush if it is a sellers’ market, and you don’t want to lose a house due to a delay in making an offer, but to get such a far-reaching decision “wrong” could lead to years of unhappiness.

(4) How do each of your actions adhere to the principles of fairness and equality?

Are your proposed actions/positions fair to everyone?  Completely fair, or only partially fair?

Do your proposed actions/positions give equal weight to the interests of all concerned?

(5) Examine why your religion and/or culture or other religions and cultures have labeled the behavior as right or wrong. 

Are you expecting certain behavior from your partner (like acceding to your wish because of your relative genders)?  Perhaps your culture affirms strong assertion as one of the means of arriving at the best decision, but do you both have that same assumption?  Did your partner’s family subscribe to that assumption, as yours did?  Does your culture’s or family’s expectation of strong assertion (or of giving in to the other person) apply to both genders?

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

Remember how you and your partner were harmed (or not) in past such decisions when you went along with your partner and when your partner went along with you.  What damage to the relationship occurred as a result of either outcome?

(7) Check out whether you have an internally consistent position on the question. 

Do you want to have your way but feel a little guilty about it?  Why?  How confident are you about the strength of the relationship?  What would your feelings be if you went along with your partner’s preference?

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

If others are pointing out the negatives to you about trying to get your partner to go along with you, do you resist or dislike getting such information?  Are you seeking to get agreement from certain others that it’s OK to try to convince your partner to do what you want?

(9) 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.

Are you reluctant to do their input because you don’t want to hear anything that goes against how you want things to be?

(10) Keep track of why you conclude that something is right or wrong (so you can review your decision more objectively at a later time). 

(11) 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 each possible action.  What does your conscience say?  What do you feel in your heart?  What are your deepest feelings on the matter?

(12) Ask yourself how the world would be if everyone followed your conclusion about a behavior being good and just. 

If everyone did what you want to do, would you respect them?  Will you resent it if you try to convince your partner to do what you want and your partner also tries to convince you to do what he/she wants?

(13) Make sure that your understanding of a behavior as right or wrong is consistent with your other moral/ethical conclusions in the past and consistent with what has happened in the past when people have reached your particular conclusion and have lived by it.

Can you recall other similar interactions, with your partner or others, in which you went either way on the matter?  What did each of those results feel like?  How did your parents handle such disagreements, and what were the pros and cons for them afterward?

(14) Ask yourself if you would reach the same moral/ethical conclusion if you didn’t care about the outcome for yourself.

This is hard to do, but imagine that a perfectly objective, unbiased person (or God) were advising you on this matter.  What would they advise?  Try to imagine what you will feel if you go along with what your partner wants.  As you go through these guidelines, are you feeling more and more trapped into doing the right thing (i.e., acting as if you both have equal rights in the matter)?  What is so concerning to you about not getting your way?

(15) Imagine yourself expressing the same conclusion publically and then adding on an explanation of your motives.

Imagine yourself doing this to a group of your friends.  Imagine yourself doing this in front of your family.  Imagine doing this in front of your partner.

(16) When you cannot determine whether something is right or wrong, suspend judgment until you get more information one way or the other or until your analysis leads you to feel resolved and confident.

Do you know enough about your partner’s desires and motives to gauge his/her reactions to your different options?  What are the pros and cons of just giving this decision more time?


To make this system effective for an individual in making moral/ethical evaluations and decisions, the person must (1) do a reasonable job of assessing the potential harm or benefit to everyone affected of the various behaviors possible–both short-term and long-term consequences with special attention to how other people will be harmed or helped and how they will react to you, (2) do a reasonable job of assessing accurately his own motives in the situation, and of choosing among them which to follow, (3) care enough about the feelings and welfare of others affected to allow these to be important factors in his decision, (4) take time to employ the various strategies above to refine his decision, including the principle of doing what is truly in his best interest, and (5) be willing to live with the consequences of the chosen action for the sake of his own and others’ feelings and welfare.  The system can work well as a group system if many if not most people in the group use it sincerely and with integrity.

If individuals do not assess accurately the potential harm and benefits for all concerned, they will be likely to allow their own wishes to influence their decisions or will make poor decisions despite caring about others.  If individuals do not assess their own motives completely and accurately, they are likely to make decisions that favor themselves over others.  If individuals do not care enough about the feelings and welfare of others, they will likely make decisions that favor themselves over others.  If individuals do not take time to examine all reasonably available strategies (above), they are likely to make hasty and non-optimum decisions.  If individuals are not willing to live with the consequences of what they decide is the most moral/ethical decision, they will skew their decisions toward what is easier or more pleasant.

Given the difficulties of helping enough individuals in a group to use this approach, it is unlikely, unfortunately, that any large groups will adopt it, but it is very feasible for individuals to adopt this approach if they are determined to make the best possible moral/ethical decisions in life.


The process of growth in becoming more moral and ethical can continue for a lifetime.  That growth depends on acquiring and practicing the skills and gaining the knowledge specified above, but we can only grow to the limits of our self-awareness and our empathy at any point in time, since we can only grow through perceiving more deeply and accurately our own feelings and motives and perceiving more deeply and accurately the experience of others and how they are affected (harmed or supported) by our behavior and that of others.  We can grow as we perceive more clearly how we harm others, come to understand our hidden motives for this, resolve or moderate the needs within us that generate those motives (through greater self-acceptance and greater self-support), and practice living with greater self-esteem and self-support so we do not have to rely on using and harming others for meeting our needs.  This process takes years for most of us, so buckle up for the long haul!

You will be a moral and ethical person if you—

  • understand and appreciate the fundamental value of refraining from harming others and the value of this as the basis for an ethics for society, based in believing that we can get more out of life by treating others well than by trying to take advantage of them or forcing them to do what we want and believing that refraining from harming others will create a more comfortable and happier society
  • acknowledge your responsibility for all of the consequences of your behaviors
  • care enough about others that you wish not to harm them and wish to take their needs and feelings into account as you make your decisions about what is right and just
  • believe that seeing reality clearly, including your motives and the effects of your actions, will lead to a better life than blinding yourself to your motives and your impact on others
  • have sufficient empathy to perceive accurately when others are feeling harmed or benefited and to appreciate the feelings of others when they are treated immorally or unethically
  • have the self-awareness to understand your needs, feelings, and motives regarding every decision you make and the willingness to see when and why you sometimes harm others
  • think for yourself so you can perceive things more accurately and objectively than others who accept the culture’s teachings and justification rationalizations at face value
  • have a clear idea about an appropriate balance between benefiting yourself and benefiting others through your actions (viewing yourself as a basic equal with others and therefore treating them as well as you treat yourself; treating others fairly; applying the principle of doing what is truly best for yourself as a means to treating others well)
  • work to find ways to meet your needs that do not require harming others
  • have the self-control to inhibit actions that you know will harm others while you search for other possible actions to get what you want
  • practice new (non-harming) behaviors until they are comfortable and effective

These may include the virtues of—

self-awareness  (knowing as much as possible about ourselves, both positive and negative, so that we can see the actual outcomes of our chosen     behaviors)

honesty    (being honest and truthful, so that others can trust us and can find us to be dependable; seeing ourselves more clearly so we can avoid some harm to others)

responsibility    (acknowledging that we are accountable for the impact of all of our behavior on others, so we can be seen by others as accountable and trustworthy)

acceptance    (being accepting—allowing ourselves and others to be, so that we (and they) feel no necessary pressure to change)

love                (having a loving attitude toward self and others)

empathy        (being empathic and understanding with self and others; understanding and why others feel harmed)

equality         (treating everyone, including ourselves, as being basically equal; accepting that we are basic equals with others and are neither superior nor inferior to others, so that we do not harm others in order to be superior to them or to get things from them that they do not want to give)

cooperation    (cooperating skillfully with others in joint tasks of mutual benefit)

fairness            (being fair in all dealings with others)

self-control     (controlling our behavior so as to make the best decisions and so as not to harm or antagonize others, even when there is some cost to       ourselves)

autonomy       (being able to decide independently on the best thing to do and to stand independently for what is the right thing to do)

dealing well with one’s emotions    (being able to use important information in our emotions without having emotions override good judgment or result in harm to self or others)


Bennett, William.  The Book of Virtues. 1993: Simon and Schuster.

Bentham, Jeremy.  An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1780

Ebbe, Christopher (in under Morality and Ethics)

            How We Know What Is Right   11-21-17

Bathroom Politics  5-31-16

A Challenge To All of the World’s Human Beings:  Eliminating the
Causes of Conflict and War  5-23-16    

Self-Interest Can Subsume and “Explain” Altruism  5-6-16

Being a Good Person  9-18-15

Kant, Immanuel.  Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785

Kiefer,    1988 [reference not found]

MacFarquhar, Larissa. “How To Be Good,” The New Yorker Magazine, 9-5-11

Mill, John Stuart.  Utilitarianism, 1863

Wikipedia:  Virtues