This is a
publication of


~ ~

Why We Need Values and Morals

by Clay Tucker-Ladd, PhD

Moral philosophy is hard thought about right action.
Goodness without knowledge is weak; knowledge without goodness is dangerous. We have to build a better man before we can build a better society. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing. Our purpose is not to make a living but a life--a worthy, well-rounded, useful life. Morality is not a subject; it is a life put to the test in dozens of moments.
-Paul Tillich

Why We Need Values and Morals

It is important to carefully consider your values for several reasons:

(1) they could guide your life minute by minute towards noble goals, rather than your life being controlled by self-serving motives, customs, accidental occurrences, bad habits, impulses, or emotions. You have to know where you are going before you can get there.

(2) Values and morals can not only guide but inspire and motivate you, giving you energy and a zest for living and for doing something meaningful.

(3) Sensitivity to a failure to live up to your basic values may lead to unproductive guilt or to constructive self-dissatisfaction which motivates you to improve.

(4) High values and some success meeting those goals are necessary for high self-esteem.

(5) Professed but unused values are worthless or worse--phony goodness and rationalizations for not changing. We must be honest with ourselves, recognizing the difference between pretended (verbalized) values and operational (acted on) values.

Of course, no one lives up to all their ideals, but values that only make us look or feel good (including being religious) and do not help us act more morally must be recognized as self-serving hypocrisy.

Thus, self-help is not just for overcoming problems; it also involves learning to become what you truly value, achieving your greatest potential. That is why your values and strengths should be considered along with your problems.

For every fault or weakness you want to lose, you have a valuable strength to gain; for every crude emotion to control, you have an opposing good feeling to experience; for every awkwardness, a helpful skill to acquire; for every denial, a truth to be found.

Optimally, you will identify your problems, as in chapter 2, but also decide on lofty goals that are worthy of your life. I would like to help you find out where you truly want to go.

Then, I hope you and I become sufficiently discontent with our shortcomings and dedicated to our highest goals so that we are motivated to achieve our greatest potential. Trying to be good is important, perhaps more important than solving personal problems. Both are self-help.

Moral development teachers often say that becoming moral requires enough emotional development to feel guilty when we do wrong, enough social development to accept our responsibility for behaving in agreed upon ways towards our group, and enough cognitive development to be able to place ourselves in another person's shoes.

But just because you develop some of these qualities, it doesn't guarantee that you will develop a wise and effective philosophy of life.

As Steven Covey (1992), the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, points out, many people set goals and strive for years to achieve one after another, only to discover when they get to the end goals that they didn't want to go there.

He says, "no one on their death bed ever complains that they should have spent more time in the office."

In a new book, First Things First, Covey (1994) says everyone and every family (and every organization, every nation, etc.) should have a well thought out "Mission Statement," a set of values, or a guiding philosophy of life.

At the end of life, intimate relationships and how you have dealt with others are the things that count. I recommend his books.

Are we Americans becoming more moral? Perhaps in some ways. Reportedly, more and more people are volunteering to help the poor, the sick, and the elderly. For the first 80 years of this century, US citizens have gradually paid more taxes (that is doing good!) but more recently political conservatives have been encouraging us to hate taxes.

In addition, there is a lot of evidence we are backsliding morally, e.g. a few years ago 9 out of 10 defense contractors were under criminal investigation. In 1990, when tax payers were required to give the Social Security numbers for every dependent, seven million names disappeared!

More evidence of backsliding:

Statement     "Yes" in 1965          "Yes" in 1990
Financial success is very important to me.    25%     75%
A meaningful philosophy of life is important.    75%     25%
I cheat on tests.                                       20%    37%
I'd lie about possible exposure to AIDS (with one-night stands)    ---    45%

A nation-wide survey by Ralph Wexler of the Institute of Ethics indicates that 1/3 of high schoolers and 1/6 of college students admit stealing something in the last year.

Over 1/3 said they would lie on their resume to get a job. Over 1/2 of college students admit cheating in some way, over 60% say they would cheat on an important test. Other surveys show that 8 out of 10 high school students admit cheating. Likewise, 1/4

Americans think it is okay to cheat on their auto insurance, 30%-50% think goofing off at work is okay, 1 in 6 use drugs on the job, and 1/3 to 1/2 cheat on their spouses. Almost 60% of American adults have used force against another person; 7% say they would kill someone if paid enough; 25% would abandon their families for money (Etzioni, 1993).

Furthermore, Wexler says only 2% of students get caught cheating because teachers don't watch carefully; therefore, maybe crime does pay and maybe honesty is, in some ways, not always the best policy from a selfish point of view. What about from society's point of view?

Immoral behavior comes from somewhere. Our current environment is not highly moral or supportive of morality and our society doesn't seem to know what to do about these permissive conditions.

About 20% of high schoolers feel a lot of peer pressure to do something wrong. About 80% of teens think schools should teach basic values; yet, 90% of them are already "satisfied" with their values (Ansley & McCleary, 1992) and probably don't want to think seriously about values.

In general, many adults fail to provide good role models. Psychology Today (August, 1997) recently reported a survey showing that about half of American workers did something unethical at work this year--padding the expense account, stealing property, lying about what they did or did not do, using sick days inappropriately, etc.

Even at the highest levels, half of the top executives admit they are willing to "fudge" figures to look good. More than that, a whopping 75% of MBA students say they would be willing to distort the facts to make company profits look higher.

This lack of moral restraint, according to Secretan (1998), is epidemic in the workplace. He says we can change that.

Buford & Whalin (1997) take a different approach, namely, change your goals in mid-life from success to significance. Still others suggest simplifying your life by doing what really matters (Aumiller, 1995).

In any case, all of us face temptations frequently to be dishonest and almost all of us could improve our moral behavior in some way.

Avoiding being immoral is a very worthy endeavor; however, it is important to realize the immense gap from being "just barely on the side of the law," i.e. on the edge between moral and immoral, to being highly ethical and noble.

We can't all be like Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer, but we can recognize the highest levels of ethics humans are capable of achieving. It must, in some cases, require a long and hard struggle to get there.

Examples: the parents who sacrifice greatly so their children can have advantages they didn't have. The merchant who works hard 12-hour days to be sure his/her customers are given the best possible service, not just to make money.

The soldier who gives his leg, his sight, or his life to protect others. The caring person who takes a needy child to raise.

The person who undergoes great personal loses in order to right a wrong or to fight for a worthy cause. It is a giant leap from deciding to tell the truth on your resume about your grades or work experience to devoting your life to a civil rights cause, fighting on the side of the oppressed against an abusive authority, opposing daily the wanton destruction of the earth, etc., etc.

It takes great self-control to transform yourself from the lowest level of just barely acceptable morality to the highest level. But who can say that we can't all do it?

It isn't just that so many wrong things are being done, it is an equal problem that so many right things are not being done.

There are facts we can't deny (and remain moral), such as one billion people are illiterate (and it is estimated that could be corrected with 7 billion dollars, a small part of our federal budget). Likewise, 841 million people, one out of every five, are hungry (and we have surplus food).

The median income of black families is lower than the income of 92% of white families. About 45% of Americans regularly attend church (36% think God has actually spoken to them), but Americans give less than 2% of their income to charity. So, don't think the world is fair and that most social problems are being taken care of adequately.

Just in case you believe that great social problems are beyond your scope, consider this story: God said to me: Your task is to build a better world. I answered: How can I do that? The world is such a large, vast place, so complicated now, and I am so small and useless. There's nothing I can do. But God in his great wisdom said: Just build a better you.

The last quote helps us see that morality, i.e. being a good person, is important for our own well being as well as for the good of others. Several noted writers have recently tried to convince us that being good pays off. The better books are Sherwin (1998), Twerski (1997) and Kushner (1996), all three Rabbis.

Gough (1997) has a book that is perhaps more appropriate for teenagers and apparently is well received by them. Their point is that being good is part of being successful--having self-esteem as well as being a good worker, good parent, and kind/grateful/forgiving towards others. There are so many books that can inspire you.

Everyone needs a philosophy of life. Mental health is based on the tension between what you are and what you think you should become. You should be striving for worthy goals. Emotional problems arise from being purposeless.
-Victor Frankl (1970)

Why it is hard to deal with values

In contrast with the next chapter on how to eliminate unwanted habits, dealing with values is fraught with special pitfalls. For example:

There is little research about which values yield the greatest good for the greatest number of people or about how to change one's own values or about how to live in accordance with one's basic values. Few candles have been lit here, thus far. My discipline, psychology, has not contributed much to our becoming a moral, compassionate society.

Our best thinkers have not even decided the content and structure of values--what the hell is involved? See Schwartz and Bilsky (1987). LeShan (1993) tries to explain our failure to reduce wars and crime or to increase fairness and justice. One might speculate that many people do not want to research values, preferring to believe their values are the best.

Most of us have little help in developing a philosophy of life. Values tend to be picked out in a haphazard, piece-meal fashion from friends, parents, the media, teachers, popular heroes, and clergy in that order (Behavior Today, Feb., 1981, p. 8); therefore, values are frequently contradictory and not logically connected with how we actually behave.

For example, we accept the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) but at the same time we struggle for money and "the good life" for ourselves without much consideration of the needs of others. We say we value honesty but cheat on our exams (up to 67%), on our income taxes (38%), and deceive our best friend (33%).

We claim to value being understanding and forgiving but sometimes become nasty and revengeful. We supposedly value hard work but procrastinate. We seek a devoted partner but are unfaithful (45%), etc., etc. (Psychology Today, Nov. 1981, pp 34-50).

There are many moral decisions made by each of us every day and always new moral dilemmas to resolve, mostly on our own without help.

Perhaps because many people equate values and religion (yet, I hope it is obvious to you that a person can have very high values--honesty, loving, giving--without having any religious beliefs in God or salvation at all), a discussion of our values may be considered an invasion of our privacy and our personal religious beliefs.

Asking a person why he/she holds a particular moral opinion is encroaching on sacred ground reserved exclusively for "persons of the cloth" and God. The place inside where we store our values and our conscience is a scary place to which we invite few people, resenting those who intrude and question our values or preach to us.

Perhaps, values are a touchy topic because our own guilty conscience, when aroused, can hurt us.

It is true that many people loosely "expect" their religion to keep them moral, but, on the other hand, insist that religion shouldn't get too deeply involved in their "private" behavior or challenge their rationalizations for selfish, immoral behavior.

Most importantly, I think we avoid discussing our values because we are unsure of them and afraid our self-serving denials and illusions will be revealed by an open airing of our beliefs.

From my teaching, I have an illustration of how the human mind protects its beliefs: I have indicated many times in many ways to my students that I have doubts about God. Although thousands have come to ask me about other concerns, not one student has ever approached me to find out more about my reasons for doubting God or my explanation of peoples' beliefs in God.

Quite a few have come to "save" me, but they only wanted to talk, not listen. When was the last time you heard of a church inviting an atheist or agnostic to join them in discussing the existence of God? We maintain many of our beliefs by avoiding questions and doubts, by closing our minds.

Perhaps closed-mindedness is a good coping mechanism in terms of religious beliefs, but I doubt if a locked mind is the best processor of ideas to guide our lives. It is hard to even help yourself, if you have a mind that is afraid to think.

A leading researcher of values, Milton Rokeach (1973), believes that it is often necessary to become dissatisfied with yourself before you will change your behavior, attitudes, or values.

That makes sense, but it means one has to (a) create a problem (self-dissatisfaction) in order to (b) solve a problem of morals (e.g. becoming more considerate).

Naturally, we will be tempted to take the easy way out and avoid dealing with both "problems," but this chapter will try to stimulate and confront our thinking in such a way that each of us can arrive at a consistent, meaningful, just, and motivating set of values to live by, day by day.

If we are successful, however, each of us will surely feel some uneasiness during the process of clarifying our values. That is to be expected.

As you know, there is a bewildering assortment of values thrust upon each of us, e.g. by family, religion, teachers, friends, ads, media, movies, music, etc. And, many people and groups take their beliefs and values very seriously.

They are certain they are right. If you reject their beliefs, you may encounter serious, real threats, e.g. "you'll burn in hell" or "get out of my house" or "you'll never be happy" or "how can you look yourself in the mirror?" or "that will end our relationship."

This is playing hard ball. Sometimes, especially when the other person's values and purposes have not been clearly revealed to you early in the relationship, their moral judgments, rejection, and threats can be very powerful.

I will not deceive you about my beliefs nor will I attack your beliefs. I want you to know that I have doubts about the existence of a God, but there are certain values I believe in, especially the Golden Rule or caring for others (a central theme of most religions).

I offer no threats if you don't believe as I do, instead I offer my understanding because philosophies are hard decisions... and may strip us of comfortable self-delusions and lead us to a hard life.

I can not even assure you that I am certain about my own ideas regarding values, but as Mahatma Gandhi said about his beliefs, "they appear to be absolutely correct, and seem for the time being to be final. For if they were not, I should base no action on them."

I have done my homework; I only ask that you consider my opinions. Your beliefs are always your choice (so long as they don't hurt others).

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose.
-Albert Einstein

Lastly, our philosophy of life and the meaning we find in life may change as we go though life. We mature, we learn, our needs change, we have new relationships, our jobs make new demands on us, we have children, we are successful, we fail, we approach death.

These things change our values. Changes in values usually result from conflicts: we act in ways we don't value, we see another viewpoint, we recognize inconsistencies among our values, we are pressured to change our values by others, and so on.

In many of these conflicts, such as individual freedom vs. responsibility for others or happiness vs. achievement, there are persuasive arguments on both sides. The lady symbolizing justice carries a balance scale. Such a scale constantly moves because reasoning and the weight of moral arguments constantly changes.

But logic and moral judgment are not the only factors changing our values. More important may be rationalizations, biased self-protective thinking, emotional personal needs, and even unconscious factors. So, to have true wisdom about our values requires knowledge and reasoning skills, awareness of our irrationality, insight into our emotions, and some probing of our unconscious. That is hard.

The Golden Rule

Religions claim to be the source of our values and morals. These may often be false claims, because the values are older than the religions, because many religions claim the same ideas, and because several studies provide no evidence that religious people are more caring, loving, generous, or helpful than non-religious people (Kohn, 1989). (Kohn cites evidence that religious folks are, on average, more intolerant of minorities.)

Perhaps the rewards of religions--salvation, nirvana, reincarnation--are their big attractions, not their demanding guidelines for being good. Yet, being reminded of what is good, hopefully will nudge us in the right direction.

"The golden rule," so called because it is the highest rule of life, is an important part of most religions. It is expressed in slightly different ways:

General wording: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." (Matthew 7:12)

Judaism: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." (Leviticus 19:18)

Islam: "No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself."

Note: Traditions interpret the Golden Rule in different ways, however. The above statements say DO SOMETHING! About 1000 to 3000 years before Jesus and Muhammad, there were both positive and negative (DON'T DO) versions of the golden rule:

Confucianism: "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." (Analects 15:23)

Buddhism: "Hurt not others with that which pains yourself."
(Udanavarga 5:18)

Hinduism: "Good people proceed while considering that what is best for others is best for themselves." (Hitopadesa)

Note: Somewhat related values are expressed by secular groups:

Humanists: "Every person has dignity and worth, and, therefore, should command the respect of every other person." (This is in contrast to medieval scholars who taught that life on earth was to be despised and that humans were sinful creatures who should be devoting their lives to getting into heaven.)

Communist motto: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

Indian saying: "Don't judge others until you have walked in their moccasins."


This article is an excerpt from the online book by Clay Tucker-Ladd, PhD: Psychological Self-Help

~ ~ ~