Moral Principles: Different Answers To “What’s Good?”

Updated February 24, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Kelly Kampf

Since the time that the first great philosophers of Ancient Greece were penning their thoughts, humanity has struggled with the concept and application of morality. Morality is the line of thinking that questions and decides whether certain behaviors and intentions are inherently good or bad.


Throughout the ages, many different definitions of moral principles have sprung up and spread through the fields that would eventually become modern psychology. Nowadays, people are just as likely to want to define moral thought and behavior. They search for the definition of moral principles and sometimes even experience moral panic. So, it’s important to explore different moral principles and have a good grasp on the different ideas of moral philosophy that could guide your life.

But what are these different moral principles, how can they be proven true, and how do they apply to us today? Let’s have a look and find out!

What Are Moral Principles?

Morality looks at the principle that behavior is governed by what we consider to be right and wrong. But how can we define morals in a way that jives with our moral sense of what is right and what is wrong?

Moral philosophy is the field of study that seeks to answer this question. Moral philosophers are constantly questioning each moral guideline that conducts a person’s behavior and trying to prove the proof or absence of universal moral guidelines. Let’s take a look at some of the major contributing thoughts and movements that have helped to shape moral philosophy throughout the centuries.

What Is Moral Absolutism?

Moral absolutism is the proposition that there are absolute moral principles that make a person good or bad. This means that morality is universal; there is a try “right” and “wrong” that applies to every person, no matter who they are. Ancient Greek moral philosophers Plato and Aristotle held to moral absolutism. Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant was also a huge proponent of moral absolutism.

In this moral philosophy, some things are right and wrong. These absolutes are based on a moral obligation to society. Many religions are based on moral absolutism, where each moral agent, or person, is responsible for a god or higher power. The god or higher power establishes an absolute code of moral principles and ethics, and to live a good life, one must adhere absolutely to these moral principles. The moral sense of right and wrong can also come from society, which lays out the parameters of good and bad behavior.

In moral absolutism, there is some pushback to the moral philosophy. The classic example is, “Is it okay to steal?” Most people would say, “Absolutely not!” But what if someone is stealing bread to feed their starving family? In this case, the moral philosophy and sense of moral obligation get a bit muddy. There is no “right” answer when viewed entirely through the lens of an absolute moral obligation. As a result of this ambiguity, the reaction of graded absolutism emerged.

Graded absolutism, a subset of moral absolutism, is a moral philosophy which holds that moral principles exist on a scale. For example, if you’re harboring an innocent person from a government official who wants to kill them, then it’s okay to lie to the official. This is because the graded moral principles claim that lying to a would-be murderer is fine, as long as it’s to save an innocent person. Some would even say that you have the moral obligation to lie and protect the innocent life.

Frank Buchman And Moral Rearmament

One of the most notable modern movements in moral absolutism was Moral Rearmament in the 1930s. Moral Rearmament was a movement spearheaded by Frank Buchman, an American man who was popular for his influence in the church. He claimed that a personal adherence to absolute moral principles, specifically those outlined in Christianity, would make the world a better place. The basic idea of Moral Rearmament was that if individuals acted according to absolute moral principles at a personal level, then the whole world would benefit from the peace that was sure to follow. Thus, each person could take a moral sense of responsibility for the whole world’s wellbeing.


What Is Moral Relativism?

On the other side of the spectrum from moral absolutism is moral relativism. Moral relativism claims that there is no way to say that an action or behavior is inherently right or wrong. Instead, what is right and what is wrong depends on the culture, society, and understanding in which the moral principles are applied.

For example, while people around the world may agree that it is good to treat others the same way that you would like to be treated, the actual behaviors and moral obligation that this implies would differ greatly from culture to culture and from society to society.

Moral relativism is an idea held by moral philosophers going back to the 5th century BCE. The Greek historian Herodotus tells a story where the Persian King Darius the Great pits the funerary rites of two cultures against each other. He asks the Greeks to present if they would ever eat the bodies of their dead fathers; he offered obscene amounts of money for anyone who did. All said that they would never do it because it was wrong and totally against their moral principles. However, this was the funerary custom of the Callatiae. King Darius then asked the Callatiae if they would ever cremate their dead the way that the Greeks did. They also said they absolutely would not because it was morally wrong. Seeing and recording this interaction, Herodotus noted,

“If anyone, no matter who was given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably—after careful considerations of their relative merits—choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his native customs and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best, and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one’s country.” (From Histories 3.38, translated by Aubrey deSelincourt)

Moral relativism has come a long way since then, and the 20th century and the Industrial Revolution, along with growing globalism, saw its rise. Moral philosophers such as Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, inspired and drawing on the work of cultural anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, have contributed to the field of moral relativism. They have laid out works that explain the necessity of cultural, historical, and societal context when it comes to assessing whether moral principles and certain behaviors are good or bad.

What Is Moral Nihilism?

Moral nihilism is the belief that moral principles cannot be classified as good or bad. Instead, all principles of a body or decisions about behavior are “nebulous,” without definition and a sense of moral obligation. It has its very first roots in the Skeptics of Ancient Greece, whose moral philosophers held that since true knowledge is impossible to know, and so neither is truly correct ethical or moral behavior able to be defined.

Moral nihilism is championed by moral philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus, among many others. They claim that no one has any moral obligation to others in their society and that the search to find a correct principle definition or to define moral obligation is essentially futile. The overarching idea that there is nothing objectively true or structured in the world leads to the conclusion that ethics and morals cannot be true or structured, either.

While on its face, it may seem depressing or disheartening to accept moral nihilism, Camus writes about a sort of freedom that comes with accepting it. He writes about it in his piece The Myth of Sisyphus, where he says that even one who lives a life that is void of perceived progress or meaning can be happy in the quest to create their meaning through it all.


Which One Is Correct?

There are so many competing ideas between moral philosophers when it comes to the “correct” definition of moral principles. Each person must choose for themselves what definition of moral principles they’ll choose to adhere to. Their moral sense of right and wrong will cause them to identify with one clear moral principle that behavior will be based on.

Ironically, this answer is nearly the equivalent of moral relativism. However, one who believes and adheres to what they perceive as a universal moral and ethical standard may not accept this definition of moral principles. However, one perceives their moral obligation, whether it is absolute or non-existent, it’s impossible to pinpoint one correct moral principle definition.

Why Does This Matter To Me?

The moral of the story is that our moral principles determine how we act towards ourselves and others. So, to live with yourself and others in harmony, you need to explore your moral principles, as well as the competing schools of thought about moral principles. In this way, you’ll be able to identify and explain how and why you behave the way that you do. This ability to understand and articulate your moral principles will lead to a better understanding of yourself, your behavior, others, and their behavior.

All in all, a strong grounding in moral principles will allow you to live your life as the “good” person you want to be!

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