Morality: Definition, Formation, and Examples

Morality is the behavior and beliefs that a society deems acceptable

Morality involves doing the right thing.
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What Is Morality?

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. 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

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 were replaced by the values of important socializing agents (such as a person’s parents).
  • Piaget’s theory of moral development: Jean Piaget focused on the social-cognitive and social-emotional perspective of development. Piaget theorized that moral development unfolds over time, in certain stages as children learn to adopt certain moral behaviors for their own sake—rather than just abide by moral codes because they don’t want to get into trouble.
  • 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, Kohlberg proposed that an adult’s stage of reasoning could be identified.

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 STDs.

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 Morality

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

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 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.

Morals 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.

Morals 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.

A Word From Verywell

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 decision making easier.

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.
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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, 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.