Why do we feel guilty after letting someone down and not being by their side during a difficult time in their life? And why do we feel satisfied after we return a favour to a loved one?

 

We all have an inner moral compass, a “gut feeling” that guides our decisions and helps us tell right from wrong. This moral compass works differently from person to person; things that some perceive as normal, others may be uncomfortable with. These are moral principles, and are actually one of the main driving factors behind our life choices. 

What are moral principles?

Moral principles are standards of right and wrong that a person or group has. They can be passed down to us by our family and peers, they can be dictated by society or religion, and they can certainly change throughout our lives, depending on our experiences. These unwritten rules often serve as a guide, determining the way we behave, make life choices, and interact with others. 

 

Every person holds ethical beliefs, but we can also find moral principles reflected in various professions. For example, doctors, lawyers, and military officers have to respect a certain code of conduct that differs from the moral principles of everyday people. On a very general scale, moral principles can also be set by laws. 

Examples of moral principles 

The most famous example of moral principle is the “Golden Rule”, which dates back to the early Confucian times and can be found in most of the world’s biggest religions and just about very ethical tradition: Treat others the way you want to be treated. 

 

Other examples of moral principles that can guide our actions include: 

 

  • Do not lie – if you believe strongly in this principle, you will always try to be honest with yourself and with others. 
  • Always stand by your promises – if you have this moral principle, you’ll always try to make promises you know you can keep and, if you’re not able to follow up on them, you tend to be disappointed with yourself. 
  • Don’t profit from someone else’s misfortune – if you follow this moral principle, you’ll always try to build your success on your own work and abilities, and never use someone else’s problems to your own benefit. 
  • Do not cheat – if you follow this moral principle, you’re faithful to your loved ones and do not betray their trust. 
  • Do not judge – if you have this principle, you always try to be open minded and avoid judging others. 
  • Do not disrespect others – if you believe in the principle of respect, you always try to treat people kindly, regardless of their age or social status. 
  • Always help other people – if you live by this principle, you’ll always try to support others when they need it, donate to charities, etc. 

These are just a few general examples of moral principles, but every person can live by their own moral compass. Some believe that family comes first and will always put the needs of their blood relatives above everything. Others believe that burrowing money is wrong or that authority in any form shouldn’t be questioned. Moral principles can vary across societal groups, religions, countries, and also across individuals. For example, while one person can believe that lying is always wrong, another can believe that in some cases, lies are justifiable and will hide the truth if they think this is better for the other person. While one person may believe that authority should always be respected, others may have a more rebellious nature and don’t back away from questioning authority when it could be wrong. 

 

How do moral principles influence our life choices?

Everything we do is guided by moral principles: how we think of ourselves and others, how we interact with other people, and how we behave in society. Our moral principles determine us to seek out certain groups of people, to be more or less forgiving, and even to pursue certain jobs. For example, someone who has a strong sense of justice may pursue careers in law, while those who live their lives striving to help others may be inclined towards healthcare or charity work. If you’re someone who always seeks the truth, you could be interested in investigative journalism. 

 

Whether they are instilled in us by parents, society, or religion, moral principles guide our choices, even though we may not always be aware of them. For example, if you feel uncomfortable or unaccomplished in a certain group of people, that may be because their values are different from yours. 

 

Can we change our moral principles?

Yes, moral principles can change throughout our lives. Sometimes, joining a new group, moving to a new country, or changing our religion can be followed by a change in moral principles, but, oftentimes, our own life experiences mould us and “shift” our ethical values.  

 

What happens if we don’t live by our moral principles? 

Most of us instinctively live by moral principles because, when we respect them, we automatically feel good about ourselves. For example, if one of your moral principles is to give back to the community, then you will take great pleasure in helping others by volunteering and donating to charity, and you will seek out experiences that align with this principle.

 

However, it’s not always possible to follow your moral principles to the letter. Sometimes, you may be forced by circumstances to make compromises and, if this happens repeatedly, you may feel sad, disappointed, or guilty, and this can affect your mental health in the long run. 

 

How can a therapist help? 

While a therapist can never tell you which moral principles to follow, they can help you acknowledge your moral principles so that you gain a deeper understanding of what matters to you and live your life being true to yourself. At the same time, if you have been in circumstances that forced you to violate your moral principles and you are experiencing low self-esteem, guilt, anxiety, or depression as a result, a therapist can help you realign yourself and live in accordance with your values.