What Does Morality Really Mean? (2024)

Morality refers to the set of standards that enable people to live cooperatively in groups. It’s what societies determine to be “right” and “acceptable.”

Sometimes, acting in a moral manner means individuals must sacrifice their own short-term interests to benefit society. Individuals who go against these standards may be considered immoral.

It may be helpful to differentiate between related terms, such as immoral, nonmoral, and amoral. Each has a slightly different meaning:

  • Immoral: Describes someone who purposely commits an offensive act, even though they know the difference between what is right and wrong
  • Nonmoral: Describes situations in which morality is not a concern
  • Amoral: Describes someone who acknowledges the difference between right and wrong, but who is not concerned with morality

What Is Objective Morality?

How Morals Are Established

Morality isn’t fixed. What’s considered acceptable in your culture might not be acceptable in another culture. Geographical regions, religion, family, and life experiences all influence morals.

Scholars don’t agree on exactly how morals are developed. However, there are several theories that have gained attention over the years:

  • Freud’s morality and the superego: Sigmund Freud suggested moral development occurred as a person’s ability to set aside their selfish needs (id) to be replaced by the values of important socializing agents, such as a person’s parents, teachers, and institutions (superego).
  • Piaget’s theory of moral development: Jean Piaget focused on the social-cognitive perspective of moral development. He theorized that moral development unfolds over time alongside the progressing stages of cognitive development. Early on, children learn to adopt certain moral behaviors for their own sake (it makes them feel good), rather than just abide by moral codes because they don’t want to get into trouble. By adolescence, you can think more abstractly, and begin to make moral decisions based on higher universal principles and the greater good of society.
  • B.F. Skinner’s behavioral theory: B.F. Skinner focused on the power of external forces that shaped an individual’s development. For example, a child who receives praise for being kind may treat someone with kindness again out of a desire to receive more positive attention in the future.
  • Kohlberg’s moral reasoning: Lawrence Kohlberg proposed six stages of moral development that went beyond Piaget’s theory. Through a series of questions or moral dilemmas, Kohlberg proposed that an adult’s stage of reasoning could be identified.
  • Gilligan's perspective of gender differences in moral reasoning. Carol Gilligan criticized Kohlberg for being male-centric in his theory of moral development. She explained that men are more justice-oriented in their moral reasoning; whereas, women are more care-oriented. Within that context, moral dilemmas will have different solutions depending on which gender is doing the reasoning.

What Is the Basis of Morality?

There are different theories as to how morals are developed. However, most theories acknowledge the external factors (parents, community, etc.) that contribute to a child's moral development. These morals are intended to benefit the group that has created them.

Morals That Transcend Time and Culture

Most morals aren’t fixed. They usually shift and change over time.

Ideas about whether certain behaviors are moral—such as engaging in pre-marital sex, entering into same-sex relationships, and using cannabis—have shifted over time. While the bulk of the population once viewed these behaviors as “wrong,” the vast majority of the population now finds these activities to be “acceptable.”

In some regions, cultures, and religions, using contraception is considered immoral. In other parts of the world, some people consider contraception the moral thing to do, as it reduces unplanned pregnancy, manages the population, and reduces the risk of sexually transmitted illnesses.

7 Universal Morals

Some morals seem to transcend across the globe and across time, however. Researchers have discovered that these seven morals seem somewhat universal:

  • Be brave
  • Be fair
  • Defer to authority
  • Help your group
  • Love your family
  • Return favors
  • Respect others’ property

Examples of Morals

The following are common morality examples that you may have been taught growing up, and may have even passed on to younger generations:

  • Be polite
  • Have empathy
  • Don't steal
  • Tell the truth
  • Treat others as you want to be treated

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People might adhere to these principles by:

  • Being an upstanding citizen
  • Doing volunteer work
  • Donating money to charity
  • Forgiving someone
  • Not gossiping about others
  • Offering their time and help to others

To get a sense of the types of morality you were raised with, think about what your parents, community and/or religious leaders told you that you "should" or "ought" to do.

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Morality vs. Ethics

Some scholars don’t distinguish between morals and ethics. Both have to do with “right and wrong.”

However, some people believe morality is personal while ethics refer to the standards of a community.

For example, your community may not view premarital sex as a problem. But on a personal level, you might consider it immoral. By this definition, your morality would contradict the ethics of your community.

Morality and Laws

Both laws and morals are meant to regulate behavior in a community to allow people to live in harmony. Both have firm foundations in the concept that everyone should have autonomy and show respect to one another.

Legal thinkers interpret the relationship between laws and morality differently. Some argue that laws and morality are independent. This means that laws can’t be disregarded simply because they’re morally indefensible.

Others believe law and morality are interdependent. These thinkers believe that laws that claim to regulate behavioral expectations must be in harmony with moral norms. Therefore, all laws must secure the welfare of the individual and be in place for the good of the community.

Something like adultery may be considered immoral by some, but it’s legal in most states. Additionally, it’s illegal to drive slightly over the speed limit but it isn’t necessarily considered immoral to do so.

There may be times when some people argue that breaking the law is the “moral” thing to do. Stealing food to feed a starving person, for example, might be illegal but it also might be considered the “right thing” to do if it’s the only way to prevent someone from suffering or dying.

Think About It

It can be helpful to spend some time thinking about the morals that guide your decisions about things like friendship, money, education, and family. Understanding what’s really important to you can help you understand yourself better and it may make difficult decisions easier.

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5 Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Merriam-Webster. A lesson on 'unmoral,' 'immoral,' 'nonmoral,' and 'amoral.'

  2. Ellemers N, van der Toorn J, Paunov Y, van Leeuwen T. The psychology of morality: A review and analysis of empirical studies published from 1940 through 2017. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2019;23(4):332-366. doi:10.1177/1088868318811759

  3. Curry OS, Mullins DA, Whitehouse H. Is it good to cooperate? Testing the theory of morality-as-cooperation in 60 societies. Current Anthropology. 2019;60(1):47-69. doi:10.1086/701478

  4. Encyclopædia Britannica.What's the difference between morality and ethics?

  5. Moka-Mubelo W. Law and morality. In:Reconciling Law and Morality in Human Rights Discourse. Vol 3. Springer International Publishing; 2017:51-88. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-49496-8_3

What Does Morality Really Mean? (1)

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk, "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.

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What Does Morality Really Mean? (2024)


What is the true meaning of morality? ›

Morality is a system or set of ideas about right vs. wrong and good vs. evil behavior; it is subjective rather than objective, and is part of the philosophical study of ethics.

What is morality explained simply? ›

Morality is the set of standards that dictate what is right and wrong in terms of behavior and beliefs. Examples of morality include being honest, treating others with respect, helping those in need, and adhering to laws and social norms.

What does morals literally mean? ›

The moral of a story is the lesson that story teaches about how to behave in the world. Moral comes from the Latin word mores, for habits. The moral of a story is supposed to teach you how to be a better person. If moral is used as an adjective, it means good, or ethical.

What is morality in a person? ›

The moral sense refers first and foremost to our predisposition to evaluate some actions as virtuous, or morally good, and others as evil, or morally bad. Morality, thus, consists of the urge or predisposition to judge human actions as either right or wrong in terms of their consequences for other human beings.

Is morality defined by God? ›

Some theists have argued that morality depends on God because God is the only person who can assure that justice is done, namely that in the next life one receives good and evil in proportion to the good and evil one has done.

What are examples of bad morals? ›

Morally wrong acts are activities such as murder, theft, rape, lying, and breaking promises. Other descriptions would be that they are morally prohibited, morally impermissible, acts one ought not to do, and acts one has a duty to refrain from doing.

What is the main idea of morality? ›

Morality refers to the set of standards that enable people to live cooperatively in groups. It's what societies determine to be “right” and “acceptable.” Sometimes, acting in a moral manner means individuals must sacrifice their own short-term interests to benefit society.

What is morality in the Bible? ›

Morality in the Bible is often perceived as ethical laws imposed by God upon humanity, violation of which warrants divine retribution. Scholarship tends to neglect biblical narrative since such episodes generally do not include moral instruction in imperative form.

What is moral in layman's terms? ›

Morals are what you believe to be right and wrong. People can have different morals: you might say, "I like his morals" or "I wonder about his morals." Your morals are your ideas about right and wrong, especially how you should act and treat other people.

What is the deep meaning of moral values? ›

Moral values are principles or standards that guide an individual's behaviour and choices based on what is considered right or wrong. They are shaped by culture, religion, upbringing, and personal experiences, and can include honesty, empathy, loyalty, and respect for others.

Why is morality important? ›

Without such rules people would not be able to live amongst other humans. People could not make plans, could not leave their belongings behind them wherever they went. We would not know who to trust and what to expect from others. Civilized, social life would not be possible.

What is the best definition of moral? ›

1. a. : of or relating to the judgment of right and wrong in human behavior : ethical. b. : expressing or teaching an idea of right behavior.

Can morality exist without God? ›

Now, to simplify the argument—even at the risk of making it simplistic—you can be moral without belief in God, but you cannot have objective morality if God does not exist. But again, none of this is to say atheists can't be or aren't good people, or that theists can't be or aren't bad people.

What makes a person immoral? ›

Immoral describes a person or behavior that conscientiously goes against accepted morals—that is, the proper ideas and beliefs about how to behave in a way that is considered right and good by the majority of people. Immoral connotes the intent of evilness or wrongdoing, and it is a true antonym of moral.

What is morality in your own words? ›

2. Answer: Morality refers to the set of standards that enable people to live cooperatively in groups. It refers the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.

What is the true basis of morality? ›

The true basis of morality is utility; that is, the adaptation of our actions to the promotion of the general welfare and happiness; the endeavour so to rule our lives that we may serve and bless mankind.

What makes morality real? ›

To make the case that morality is real, objective, and natural, it will be argued, first, that morals exist in human nature as part of our evolutionary heritage; that morality involves how we think and act toward other moral agents in terms of whether our thoughts and actions are right or wrong with regard to their ...

What is the old meaning of morality? ›

mid-14c., "associated with or characterized by right behavior," also "associated with or concerning conduct or moral principles" (good or bad), from Old French moral (14c.) and directly from Latin moralis "proper behavior of a person in society," literally "pertaining to manners," coined by Cicero ("De Fato," II.

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