Values and Morals Clarification

Brindusa Vanta, MD, DHMHS
Medical editor

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Values represent an individual's beliefs and the principles that drive their behavior. They are the foundation upon which people build their identities and motivate themselves toward personal growth. For instance, valuing self-improvement propels individuals to engage in activities that enhance their knowledge and skills. Understanding these guiding principles and how they align with societal norms for behavior is crucial for personal development and ethical decision-making.


Morals, on the other hand, are the societal norms that dictate what is considered right and wrong within a community. These norms guide behavior and help maintain social order, reflecting the collective ethos of a society. Morals are not static; they evolve with society and vary across different cultures and communities. However, certain fundamental behaviors, such as honesty and respect, are widely upheld across diverse societies.

The interplay between morals and values is fundamental to decision-making. While values are personal and internal, guiding an individual's aspirations and motivations, morals serve as an external compass, guiding interactions within society. Decisions are often a negotiation between personal values and the moral frameworks of the community. Understanding this dynamic is essential for making choices that not only fulfill an individual's personal goals but also resonate with broader societal expectations, leading to more harmonious and fulfilling lives.

Understanding Your Values

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It's important to develop a good understanding of your values because of how influential your values are in determining and motivating your behavior. If you don't understand your values, you may not understand how to orient yourself in a direction that's likely to be satisfying. As a result, your behavior may be more focused on putting out fires (satisfying your immediate needs) and less focused on developing your long-term potential. If you don't define what you value, you may not understand what motivates you—or what could motivate you—toward becoming a better person.

Understanding Morals

People's values define what they want personally, but morals define what society wants for them. Certain behaviors are considered desirable by a given society, while others are considered undesirable. For the most part, however, morals are not written in stone but, instead, reflect local sensibilities. Diverse societies have different ideas about what is acceptable and unacceptable. There are a few behaviors that are almost universally despised by stable societies, such as murder.

People are not born understanding their society's morals. Instead, these understandings develop and mature over time. Psychologist Lawrence Kolhberg's famous work has provided us with a developmental mapping of how moral understanding tends to progress through childhood and early adulthood.

According to Kohlberg, infants have little or no moral sense because they aren't born with an understanding of the nature of human relationships. As children reach elementary school age, they enter into the first major stage of moral understanding, known as the pre-conventional stage. Pre-conventional children are essentially selfish in orientation. They don't think about what behaviors will serve the greater good, but rather, they think in terms of what will most benefit themselves. They respond primarily to power and think of morality as a matter of following rules to avoid punishment.

As children grow into adulthood, they typically enter into the stage of conventional moral understanding. Some children will be developmentally delayed in this regard and become adults who have a moral understanding of children. Some researchers believe that certain conditions, including narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders, are moral rather than medical conditions, and their development is closely linked with the impaired conventional moral understanding stage described by Kolhberg.

The majority of people who do make it to the conventional moral understanding stage start thinking in terms of duty: a duty to do what's necessary to promote the greater good. They orient toward behaviors that are most likely to gain other people's respect and admiration. Part of conventional morality is the duty to behave lawfully. Some people take this duty further and understand it as a duty to conform to what other influential people around them want.

Most adults never actually achieve the final stage of morality, known as post-conventional morality, mostly because in order to get there, people have to throw off their sense of duty to what others around them want and reinvest their moral sense in higher principles, such as honesty, reciprocity, and social welfare. Such people become willing to take unpopular stances simply because they represent the right thing to do. For example, a post-conventional CEO may decide to offer full medical coverage for all employees because it's the right thing to do (to use the company to raise all participants), even though doing so may anger shareholders who may see this decision as a drain on profits.

As Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD, says, "The theory suggesting that antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders are moral rather than medical conditions is highly controversial. It's widely recognized that these complex mental health conditions have multifaceted causes. Oversimplifying their nature and labeling them as moral issues can negatively affect both the understanding of these conditions and  how to treat them effectively."

Ethics vs. Morals vs. Values

Understanding the distinctions between ethics, morals, and values is crucial for navigating the complex landscape of personal and professional decision-making. These concepts, while interconnected, serve different roles in guiding an individual's behavior and choices.

Ethics refer to the rules provided by an external source, such as codes of conduct in workplaces or professional guidelines. They are often formalized standards that dictate how individuals should behave in specific contexts. For example, an organization's code of ethics may prohibit conflicts of interest to ensure fair dealings.

Morals are societal norms about right and wrong. They are less formal than ethics and are often absorbed through cultural or familial teachings. An example of moral behavior is telling the truth, which is typically recognized as morally right across many cultures.

Values are personal beliefs and principles that individuals adopt to guide their behavior. Values are subjective and vary greatly from person to person. For instance, one person may value freedom above all, while another prioritizes security.

Relevance in Personal and Professional Spheres

In the personal sphere, these concepts guide daily interactions and decisions. Your values determine your priorities and deeply influence your personal goals and relationships. Morals help you navigate social dynamics, ensuring your actions align with societal expectations.

In the professional sphere, ethics play a critical role in establishing trust and credibility. Professionals are often bound by ethical codes that dictate their conduct, ensuring they perform their duties responsibly and with integrity. For example, medical professionals follow a strict ethical code to do no harm, prioritizing patient safety above all else.

The interplay between ethics, morals, and values influences decision-making and behavior in all aspects of life. Understanding and reflecting on these differences can help individuals make choices that are not only legally and socially acceptable but also true to their personal beliefs and principles.

Personality Disorders Involving Moral Issues

Certain personality disorders, notably antisocial, narcissistic, and borderline personality disorders, can be intricately linked with aberrations in moral development. These disorders often manifest as a profound disregard for societal norms and the rights of others, impacting the individual's ability to function ethically within society.

Relationship Between Moral Development and Personality Disorders

Moral development, as outlined by psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg, progresses through stages from a self-centered understanding of right and wrong in childhood to a more sophisticated, principle-based approach in adulthood. Individuals with personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder may experience disruptions or arrests in this developmental process. They often remain at a pre-conventional level of moral reasoning, where personal consequences outweigh societal norms or ethical principles. This arrested development can play a role in a pattern of antisocial behavior, a lack of empathy, and an inability to form meaningful personal and social relationships.

Psychological Underpinnings

Psychologically, personality disorders that involve moral issues are characterized by an impaired ability to empathize with others, a skewed perception of social norms, and an inflated sense of self. These traits hinder the individual's capacity to engage in reciprocal social interactions and adhere to societal expectations of moral behavior.

Neurological Underpinnings

Neurologically, research has indicated that individuals with disorders such as antisocial personality disorder may have differences in brain structure and function, particularly in areas related to emotional regulation, empathy, and impulse control. For example, reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with decision-making and impulse control, has been observed in some individuals diagnosed with this personality disorder. Additionally, abnormalities in the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotions, may contribute to the diminished empathy characteristic of sociopathy.

Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD, explains, "It's important to note that while these personality disorders may involve moral issues, they are complex conditions. A combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors contribute to the development of these conditions."

The Relevance of Morals and Values

The process of understanding morals and values is not merely an academic exercise; it's a vital endeavor for both personal growth and societal harmony. Reflecting on values and how they align or conflict with societal morals enables an individual to navigate the complex tapestry of human interactions with integrity and purpose. This reflection informs decisions, shapes relationships, and ultimately defines character.

Active participation in moral discourse is both beneficial and necessary. By engaging in conversations about what they value and deem morally acceptable as a society, individuals contribute to the evolution of a collective moral compass. This discourse can challenge outdated norms, address ethical dilemmas in the face of rapid technological and social changes, and forge pathways to a more equitable society.

Individuals are encouraged not only to introspect and align their actions with their values and morals but to actively partake in shaping the moral landscape of their communities. Whether through dialogue, education, or advocacy, their involvement in shaping societal morals ensures they reflect a collective vision of justice, respect, and human dignity.

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