The final thing you will benefit from becoming more aware of is your own values and how those values correspond to your community's moral sensibilities, and to your own actions. Your values are the principles you believe in and have invested in (which is why they are said to have "value" in the first place). Values are the goals towards which you aspire. They largely define the core of your identity. More importantly still, they are the source of your motivation to improve yourself. If you did not value self-improvement, for example, you would not be reading this document right now.
It is 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 won't understand how to orient yourself in a direction that is likely to be satisfying. Your behavior, your actions will be more oriented towards putting out fires (satisfying your immediate needs), and less oriented towards developing your long term potential. You won't have a plan. You will instead, just be reactive. Because if you don't understand what they are you don't know what motivates you. Or what could motivate you - towards becoming a better person.
People's values define what they want personally, but morals define what the society around those people want for them. Certain behaviors are considered to be desirable by a given society, while others are considered to be undesirable. For the most part, however, morals are not written in stone, or proclaimed by God above, but instead reflect local sensibilities. Different societies have different ideas about what is acceptable and not acceptable. There are only a relative few behaviors (usually including murder, and various forms of abuse, including incest and adult-child sexual contact of any sort) that are pretty much universally despised by stable societies.
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.
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- According to Kohlberg, infants have little or no moral sense, because they are not 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 do not think about what behaviors will serve the greater good, but rather think in terms of what will most benefit themselves. They respond primarily to power, and think of morality as a matter of following rules so as 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 the moral understanding of children; we call them sociopaths, narcissists, and anti-social personalities. The majority of people that do make it to the conventional moral understanding start thinking in terms of duty; a duty to do what is necessary to promote the greater good. They orient towards 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 (but not limited to) "honesty", "reciprocity", and "social welfare". Such people become willing to take unpopular stances and make unpopular decisions simply because those decisions represent the right thing to do. For example, a post-conventional CEO might decide to offer full medical coverage for all employees because it is the right thing to do (to use the company to raise up all participants), even though to do so would anger shareholders who might see this as a drain on profits. It is very difficult to achieve a post-conventional morality in what is largely a conventional world. The CEO in our example would probably not last long, unfortunately.