Origins and effects of diverse moral codes

Origins and effects of diverse moral codes

Jocy He and Jessica Li

At any given moment, someone may be cheating on a test and feeling guilt for their actions. At the same time, a soldier may be suffering from the psychological repercussions of committing atrocious acts of violence. Then there are those who are hailed as heroes for their bravery and courage in standing up for what they believe is right. Such instances demonstrate the dual sides of human morality.

The origin of morality dates back to Sigmund Freud’s theory of psyche, which separates the three regions of mindscape: the id, ego, and superego. The id is a primitive and instinctive part of the psyche that affects a person’s pleasure system; the ego is a decision-making component of the personality that is weaker than and guides the id. Lastly, the superego is composed of one’s conscience and moral compass that controls and keeps the id in balance.

These three regions of one’s mind and subconscious can subsequently be shaped by a myriad of influences in one’s life. They can range from differences in beliefs across religions and cultures to varying life experiences, from one’s upbringing to adult life. As a result, one’s personal moral code gradually evolves into a subjective point of view, and moral standards can vary within cultures and small communities.

“[Morality] is subjective and based off of your own experiences, so for people from different cultures, their culture usually influences whether they have an existentialist or nihilistic perspective,” said Philosophy Club president and senior Harrison Wang.  

Many prominent philosophers, however, argue that despite some opposing views on morality, a universal ethical law exists that most rational people generally recognize and follow. This reasoning was first formulated by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who theorized that a person’s actions are considered “ethical” relative to this universal law. Kant also argued that it is an individual’s duty to do what is good and “right” under the moral law. Under any given circumstances, doing something against this law should be labelled as “immoral” and therefore “wrong.”

Kant’s claims go against what English philosopher John Stuart Mill presented as utilitarianism, which states that a certain action or behavior is deemed ethical or unethical based on the good or bad results that it produces. Therefore, acts that benefit and provide happiness to the greatest number of people should always be obeyed.

“I think that the difference between [Kant and Mill’s philosophies] is mainly based off the intent foresight distinction, which is basically if our actions matter based on the consequences or on the intent of the action,” said Wang. “For example, if I cared for my uncle, but I gave him a poison medicine jar or something, then would that be something that is good or bad based off of my intent of wanting to care for him, or would it be bad because I accidentally poisoned him with the medicine, even though I actually cared for him?”

However, such ethics are very ambiguous and often left up to judgment, causing many debates over ethics where people hold different subjective values. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg supported this idea when he formed his theory of moral development, which splits into three levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional morality. Depending on one’s stage of life and mental development, an individual can have varying views and reasoning on whether or not an action is justified.

“In a situation where you perceive your life is at risk I believe a person can stray from their moral compass,” said World and European Literature teacher Kristy Harlin. “Also, when a person is in a situation where they are removed from the law and order of a civilized society for a prolonged period of time, like in Lord of the Flies, a person might be driven more by reactionary human instinct than moral and ethical constructs.”

A now infamous study conducted in the 1960s by Yale professor Stanley Milgram placed participants in an authority position as a “teacher” in charge of a “learner” who was, in reality, one of the experimenters. The “teachers” were then instructed by a higher authority to shock their “learners” every time they incorrectly answered a question, increasing the voltage with each incorrect answer. From this study, Milgram came across the unexpected findings that 65 percent of participants would continue shocking the “learners” until a fatal voltage was administered.

These experiments prove that particular situations and pressures of a certain environment may render individuals to be more prone to turning immoral and violating their moral compasses. Even ordinary, rational people are susceptible to committing unethical actions when put under tough and troublesome circumstances.

Even though moral compasses may be easily forgotten under certain circumstances, one’s moral code is ultimately a very influential contributing factor toward one’s lifestyle. Whether it be from the guilt and regret of a heinous offense to the questioning of one’s principles, morality will always have a lingering effect on one’s thoughts and behavior.