Ethics and Morality: Comparing Moral Values and Ethics

Dr. Purushothaman
December 12, 2013

We are shaped to a large extent by our cultural setting, whose moral values [] imprint themselves on our minds in ways most of us are unaware of. Music, movies and television all carry value-laden messages that bombard us daily. Over time, these messages can subtly develop within us a new worldview. These cultural values become accepted as more mature than previous values, especially by the young, and govern how we see the world. The result, inevitably it seems, is a generational divide.

Expressing nostalgia for the values of days gone by is common to an older generation. We hear and read about the need to return to moral values of previous times without, in many cases, any clear definition of what those values might be. In reaction to change, older people often simply declare that things used to be better.

But is it really a question of whose values are correct? Indeed, do any values represent a correct standard, or are values of themselves relative? If so, should we accept that they can and will differ from one generation to the next?

The nature of the generational differences is in the way we view values themselves. The word value can have a broad range of meaning; in a cultural sense it refers to a principle, standard or quality. A desire to return to past values generally means a return to principles and standards held by society and culture [] at large in previous decades. However, another meaning of value that needs to be considered is "the desirability or worth of a thing." If this meaning is applied to cultural values, then we introduce a moving target, because such a definition implies variation over time.

The perceived value of something differs from person to person and may reasonably change. For example, do we really want to return to the days of men wearing three-piece suits to baseball games? Would it be better if women still wore girdles and white gloves when they left the house? It would be ludicrous to think in these terms to find solutions to generational differences today. But here is the catch: While certain values cannot be replicated today, the principles, standards and qualities they reflect may well be desirable and downright helpful to a younger generation. How can we improve our principles and standards without all the baggage that can come with trying to recapture the moral values of a previous time?

Author Jeremy Rifkin describes the problem in his book The Age of Access: "The world... has become a human construct.... This new world is not objective but rather contingent, not made up of truths, but rather options and scenarios. Reality, it seems, is not something bequeathed to us but rather something we create...."

James Davison Hunter says it quite plainly in his book The Death of Character: "Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character."

To address issues in terms of moral values makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the generations to be drawn together on common ground. Successive generations have created their own values as cultural influences have progressively emphasized the importance of self.

Perhaps a change of focus would be helpful. Instead of addressing values, which are relative, why not think in terms of ethics? Ethics refers to principles of right and wrong, especially in relation to specific moral choices that affect others. Right and wrong become anchor points that keep us from being drawn in by the relativity of values.

Of course, this necessitates some clear and indisputable definitions of right and wrong. The standard for moral choices in regard to relationships with others was written a long time ago. In short, the Creator of human life simply states that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Specifics explaining how to do that are supplied in summary form within the Ten Commandments.

Ethics based on these principles provide a basis for defining right and wrong. From these, each generation can enjoy individual development and progress, but the commonality of these principles allows successive generations to share them as well.

How much happier would relationships be if we were prepared to question the evolving cultural values that have shaped us and to accept a common set of ethical standards? Ethics that transcend humanly devised morality benefit people of all ages simultaneously.

Nostalgia for days gone by might lessen if young and old could enjoy their differences because of shared underlying principles of right and wrong.

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