Why We Need Values and Morals
Clay Tucker-Ladd, PhD
Moral philosophy is
hard thought about right action.
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.
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
(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
(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.
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
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
More evidence of backsliding:
Statement "Yes" in 1965
"Yes" in 1990
Financial success is very important to me.
A meaningful philosophy of life is important.
I cheat on
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.
& 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.
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
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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
This article is an excerpt from the online book by Clay Tucker-Ladd,
PhD: Psychological Self-Help
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