What Are Moral Principles?

Cut out hearts with different moral principles written on them.

Jennifer A. Smith / Getty Images

Moral principles are guidelines that people live by to make sure they are doing the right thing. These include things like honesty, fairness, and equality. Moral principles can be different for everyone because they depend on how a person was raised and what is important to them in life.

History of Moral Principles

The history of moral principles dates back to Ancient Greece and Ancient China. Moral principles were important in these societies because they believed that to be successful, people needed a clear sense of right and wrong.

Research on moral principles began with Ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle who wanted to figure out the meaning of virtue. Later, moral principles were studied by philosophers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant.

In the field of psychology, moral principles have been studied in the context of moral development. Psychologists have been interested to understand how children develop a sense of morality and how moral principles are applied in different contexts. For example, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg studied moral development in boys from different cultures.

In the contemporary world, moral principles still play an important role. They are considered guidelines for living life successfully. For example, honesty is considered a moral principle because it keeps relationships strong.

Types of Moral Principles

There are two types of moral principles: absolute and relative.Absolute principles are unchanging and universal. Relative moral principles change depending on the situation.

Absolute Moral Principles

Absolute moral principles are based on universal truths about the nature of human beings. For example, murder is wrong because it goes against the natural order of things. These are also sometimes called normative moral principles, or those that are generally accepted by society. Below are some examples of absolute moral principles:

  • Don't kill.
  • Speak the truth.
  • Be careful with what you say and do to others.
  • Respect the property of others.
  • Treat people in need or distress as we would want to be treated if our situation were reversed.

Relative Moral Principles

Relative moral principles are based on opinions and circumstances that may change over time or from person to person or for different situations. Relative moral principles depend on a person's beliefs. Relativism to what people perceive as good or bad in relation to themselves. In other words, when someone says something is good, in most cases they are really saying it is good for them, or perhaps it contributes to their well-being. Below are some examples of relative moral principles

How to Adhere to Moral Principles

Many people strive to live by the moral principles they believe in. But, it can be difficult to follow them all of the time, which is what makes following one's own personal moral values even more valuable.

There are many ways that a person might adhere to their moral principles: through thoughts and feelings, actions, or words. Below are some examples.

  • In thoughts and feelings, a person might strive to be honest by being fair and kind.
  • With actions, a person might live up to their moral principles by not being violent or aggressive.
  • In words, someone might observe their moral principles through politeness.

Impact of Moral Principles

Moral principles are important for society because they help people learn how to get along and live well with each other. They teach us that all human beings deserve the same rights, which is why it's not okay to discriminate against someone based on their ethnicity or race. People who follow moral principles also tend to have a better quality of life than those who don't.

Moral principles can also impact an individual's identity and sense of self-worth. For example, someone who is honest may feel that they are a good person because they follow the moral principle to be truthful at all times. And for people with strong values about equality, it might make them feel better about themselves when they don't discriminate against people who are different from them.

Tips to Develop Good Moral Principles

There are various ways to develop moral principles that transcend culture, religion, and country. If you are just starting on your moral journey, you might consider exploring morals in various philosophical texts.

However, there are also many practical steps a person can take to develop good moral principles:

  • Think about what you would do when faced with an ethical dilemma and why you would make those decisions.
  • Ask yourself what you think is right or wrong and make sure that your actions are in line with those thoughts.
  • Watch out for double standards, like being nice to one person while not being so kind to another.
  • If it helps, write down a list of moral principles and post them where they're easy to see, like on a mirror or in your workspace.
  • Don't worry if you're not perfectly adhering to your moral principles. The important thing is that you are trying your best.

Pitfalls of Moral Principles

There are some things that can go wrong when following moral principles. Below are some examples of how moral principles may not always guide you toward the best course of action.

First, it's possible to make judgments about others based on your personal values and not theirs. For example, if you think all women should dress conservatively because you believe dressing another way is immoral, then you are passing judgment on others based on your own set of standards.

In addition, it can be hard to tell the difference between a moral principle and something that's cultural or part of your upbringing. For example, you might believe women should defer to their husbands because in your culture everyone has traditionally agreed with this idea for generations; however, if you were born into a different country where people don't think this way, you might not feel that it's morally right.

Finally, sometimes people can use moral principles to justify bad behavior like stealing or hurting others in some way. For example, if you steal because you believe it will help the poor, then your thoughts could be twisted to say that stealing is OK.

A Word From Verywell

In general, moral principles are beneficial both to society and the individual person. However, blindly following moral principles without considering their origin or using your judgment based on the situation can be problematic. The best course of action is usually to adhere to a loosely defined set of moral principles that align with your beliefs and society as a whole but to also consider each situation individually and weigh the cost of adhering to your morals in terms of its impact on other individuals.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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. Beauchamp TL. A defense of the common morality. Kennedy Inst Ethics J. 2003 Sep;13(3):259-74. doi: 10.1353/ken.2003.0019. PMID: 14577460.

  2. Chattopadhyay S, De Vries R. Respect for cultural diversity in bioethics is an ethical imperative. Med Health Care Philos. 2013;16(4):639-645. doi:10.1007/s11019-012-9433-5