Thursday, July 27, 2006

Beliefs, Values, Morals, Ethics

This is something I picked up at the police academy a decade and a half ago that has been really valuable. I wish I knew who to attribute it to, because it is a good tool.

The concept is: Each individual has a heirarchy of right and wrong. This hierarchy is individual and idiosyncratic and each level depends on the level below it.

BELIEFS are those things you hold to be true.
Given those beliefs your estimation of the relative importance of the "true things" are your VALUES.
MORALS are a generalized feeling, based on your values, of what is 'right' and 'wrong'.
ETHICS arise when you try to codify your morals in concrete terms.

Couple of caveats- these definitions are specific to this system. Ethics and morals are greek and latin translations of each other and are pretty much synonyms in common usage. This also can look kind of fuzzy given the system in four little lines. Bear with me a minute.

So a couple of examples (following does not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the author, me):

"I belief that all life is sacred."
"However, I value human life more than animal."
" It is wrong to take human life and sort of wrong to kill animals."
"Thou shalt not kill people, and you should only butcher animals where I can't see it."

A change at the Value level creates a different person:
"I believe that all life is sacred."
"I value all life equally."
"Taking any life for any reason is wrong."
"Meat is murder!"

The power in this as a tool is to realize in any disagreement where the fundamental difference lies and to understand that you CAN NOT convince anyone who disagrees from a basic level with arguments from a more abstract level. If the issue is a difference of morals (an intuitive judgment of right and wrong), you won't be able to convince them with an ethical (a logical, legalistic, code) argument. If someone doesn't value life at all, it does no good to argue what type of life is most valuable.

If you run into a PETA member who honestly feels that humans and animals are of equal value, you will never convince this person with a moral or ethical argument. You would literally need to shift their values and it will be easiest to do that by clarifying their beliefs:

"If all life is sacred, does that mean that nothing should ever be allowed to die?" or "Is this a personal preferance or a natural law, because it seems to me that in nature, every animal dies..."or "If all life is sacred are the natural acts of life, such as a carnivore killing and eating, also sacred?" Lots of people have never thought through their beliefs at this level and sometimes there's a good amount of self-discovery in talking at this level. Will it change 'em? Not always.

You see this problem in some of the most intractable arguments in modern politics. Abortion, from the pro-choice arguments, is largely a moral issue: It is wrong for any person to tell someone else what they can not or must do to or with their own body. It is based on a deeper value of autonomy, possibly tinged with a sense of injustice that women had almost no reproductive rights for much of recorded history and that is based on a deeper belief that controlling someone else's body IS slavery...

The core belief of the pro-life lobby is that the fetus IS a baby. Not a potential life, not a piece of tissue, but a baby. From that belief the next step (value) is simple, weighing the life of a child over a change in the woman's life-style. Balancing the murder of an innocent baby against the ease and freedom of being childless...

This kind of issue can never be settled at the intuitive moral level or the logical ethical level (which is where all written laws reside). It may not be solvable at all, unless someone can find a a little room to maneuver in subjects as definite as the definition of slavery and the definition of life.


Kai Jones said...

The distinction I find it useful to make between morals and ethics is that morals are the rules of behavior toward G-d while ethics are the rules of behavior toward other human beings. Some behaviors fall into both categories, of course.

This only works inside my head, though, as most people don't think about morals and ethics this way.

Anonymous said...

I say, nuke 'em all and pack their ashes into old growth wood boxes lined with spotted owl feathers, the box covered with tanned dolphin skin. During the wake, baby back ribs (from real babies) will be served along with finger food (from - well, you guessed it). I'll bring the cat 'o nine tails and a bucket of saltwater.

Molly said...

Ah mac -
you know how to throw a party!
I'll bring the Manatee steaks, can we heat up that grill with a little extra styrofoam over the old-growth pine?

Actually kai - you're interpretation of morals and ethics is similar to how it was explaind in my college bioethics class. There was some long, horribly convoluted explanation, but that was pretty much what I got out of it.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Just about any kind of moral argument can be dealt with by means of one of the following three responses:

a. Shit like that happens.
b. It just doesn't matter.
c. Buzz off; I'll do what I want.

kimbo said...

Enjoying reading through your archive posts. In this case you guys are spot on, and there is starting to be research showing it
We literally cannot see the other personality's points of view except with using their values and goals, as these make up perception. Largely the perception is based what our mind decides to notice and what it decides to ignore completely.... check out the gorilla experiment.
My mind boggles at the possibility of extreme hightened awareness, where everything is on the radar, but with a mind discplined not to freak at the info overload.

Anonymous said...


I am doing some introspection and want to define my own beliefs/values/worldview. While doing some research I came across your website.

I have questions about how I can state my beliefs and then organize them into a hierarchy of values. In the article, you use “I belief that all life is sacred” as an example of a belief. To me, this statement is giving value/importance to life but we are at the belief level not the value level. The Cambridge dictionary defines sacred as 1)considered to be holy and deserving respect, especially because of a connection with a god: 2) considered too important to be changed.

Do you have examples of rudimentary beliefs (things you hold to be true) that I can state that don’t already give more importance to one thing versus another?

Do you have further resources that could please direct me to that may help me with my quest?