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Ethics and Morality:

Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands. it is automatic, it is thoughtless.

Elizabeth Duckworth 

Theory, Development, Teaching, and Instruction Notes


Groups have a powerful influence on our feelings, beliefs, and behavior.

Happiness is the only good.
The time to be happy is now.
The place to be happy is here.
The way to be happy is to make others so.

Robert G. Ingersoll 1876

We belong in a bundle of life. We Say, a person is a person through other people.

Desmond Tutu 1993

Both of these say that our moral lives should be rooted in the mutual connection between people. People ground our moral reasoning and ethics.

This page reviews ideas related to morality and ethics to provide a background to understand the moral choices and decisions we make and how they are made. Topics include: a process of moral reasoning, its development relative to human intuition, judgment, & reasoning using, an analogy of the elephant & rider. Identifies moral actions with ethical behavior, character, values, & conscience. Includes reasons to help, punish, forgive, or use restorative justice along with rules to live by. Golden, silver, platinum, brazen, iron, bullies, blood, tit-for-tat and the prisoner's dilemma. Also studies, findings, & suggestions along with teaching & learning guidelines, characteristics of learning environments for moral & ethical development, dilemmas to initiate discussion on morality, and resources.

Let's start with some definitions.

Ethics, ethical decisions, and behavior relates to what’s customary in a culture or society. What is morally good or correct and will avoid harm to people, the environment, and so on.

Morality is the differentiation of impulses, intentions, decisions and actions between those that are perceived or understood as proper and those perceived or understood as improper. It can be a collection of standards, principles, procedures, derived from a code of conduct from a particular philosophy, religion or culture, or it can be derived from a standard that a person believes should be universal.

Morality systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. Jonathan Haidt

Reasoning has evolved to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people. Not to find the truth.

Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It binds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.
Jonathan Haidt

Comic align ideas to what already believe

Moral reasoning process & development

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explains the process of moral reasoning and decision making is driven by intuitional judgment, responses primed from our genetic inheritance before any rational decision making is ever made, if it is. He represents the process of intuitional judgments as a very big elephant moving along a path and reasoning as a rider. An experience where the elephant is mainly in control, with the rider maybe being able to guide the elephant down a path from time to time.

So if this process is the same for all people, then how do we have such different ideas on what is moral and what isn't?

People are born with slight variations of their genetic inheritance. Some which creates people who are born with a brain that has connections more tuned to excitement, variety, and less tuned to fear of new and novel experiences. These kinds of brain connections are in people who are predisposed (not predetermined) to be impulsive, take chances, seek adventure, try new things, seek thrills and so forth.

Other variations might cause people to be born with brain connections more tuned to the familiar, traditional, with an aversion or fear of the unknown and a desire to avoid change. These kinds of connections are in people who are predisposed (not predetermined) to lean toward the familiar, not seek adventure, schedule and proceduralize their lives, follow rules closely and not deviate from the familiar.

As a person interacts with their environment and other people (culture, society, reason) their senses send information that interacts with their brain to create intuitions and judgments according to the way their brain is connected. After a judgment is made a reason for the judgment is made and narratives are constructed to support their judgment and any actions taken as a result of their intuition and judgment based on their individual genetics.

While genetic differences move the elephant with intuitive judgments, the rider can sometimes guide it, depending on the personal and social experiences available to construct narratives and the will power to ignore intuitional judgments and access reasoned judgment.

We are born to be righteous, but we search for what to be righteous about. and create naratives to provide explanations to support ours and others judgments and actions. Example of how this works is illustrated in the diagram. The focus is on Rider - A and how intuition leads to a judgment which leads to reasoning. Reasoning which will create narratives to support the intuitive judgment and used to justify their judgment or actions to Rider - B, which shows how morality is a social construct.

The diagram shows that Rider - B will use their own intuition to make their own judgments and create reasoning for it. However, the focus is on Rider A's actions, therefore, interaction arrows are not shown for Rider - B to Rider - A.

The social aspect of morality is its essence. An essence of desire to balance our own individual needs for our survival and well fair with that of others. Inherited differences that created people with a diversity of differences. Differences necessary so that groups have individuals who will take different paths. Paths where people will stay near close to home and care for each other and paths for those who leave on adventures to find resources. It is this diversity that has allowed humans to diversify their labor and expertise and benefit with the technology we have created. Sometimes for better and other times for worse.

These differences urge us to take different paths and when this happens, sometimes the different decisions are made based on different narratives of what is moral.

Next explore dimensions of morality.

Human intuition, judgment, & reasoning as the elephant & rider

Moral thinking diagram of elephant and rider

Intuition dimensional foundations

If genetic differences create different ways for intuition to drive or influence our decision making, it would be helpful if we could identify general ways in which they do. Haidt has identified six contrasting dimensions or foundations of intuition, they are:

  1. Care / harm - compassion & kindness - suffering & needy
    • Benefits for survival - despise cruelty have a desire to protect, aid, and care for children and family to maintain their health and reduce their suffering
  2. Liberty / oppression - free choice - controlled
    • Benefits for survival - to reduce greed and authoritarian blunders
  3. Fairness / cheating - gratitude & justice - guilt & injustice
    • Benefits for survival - desire to cooperate, share, and reciprocate for mutual benefit without deception and exploitation.
  4. Loyalty / betrayal - trust, pride, & loyal - threat & challenge to group
    • Benefits for survival - form and maintain collaborative groups and coalitions to protect the group and trust they can achieve collective goals
  5. Authority / subversion - respect obedience, - fear & deference
    • Benefits for survival - division of labor and group decisions to behave and achieve in expected ways for the culture of the group. Ways which can vary form egalitarian to one of dominance and submissiveness (politics to protect the in-group).
  6. Sanctity / degradation - cleanliness, awe of nature - disgust, dirty, fear of harm and illness
    • Benefits for survival - respect the pure to avoid contamination from waste, poison, disease, parasites, and any environmental condition which could bring harm. Led to awe of nature, traditions, mythology, to devise procedures and rituals.

Morality is more than right or wrong. It is driven by the positive feelings we experience when we participate in or view beneficial acts within these dimensions and the negative feelings we experience from harmful acts we experience or participate in within these dimensions. Feelings that urge us to aid, help, cooperate, gossip, bully, shun, reward and punish as we feel is appropriate for those actions.

Narratives & dimensional foundations

We can construct reasonable narratives to justify all the extremes of these dimensions, as either good or evil. Which one is more likely to happen depends on the elephant and rider who construct their own narrative to justify their actions to them self and within groups of people. As groups communicate within their group, they will have their narratives reinforced in similar, good or evil ways, for any or all of the six moral foundations.

As differences develop, in-groups and out-groups may form depending on the power structures. While being human enables us to understand different conditions in which others might use different values to construct and tell different narratives, it doesn’t mean we will accept those differences. Indeed, many times they are not only rejected, but rejected with the imposition of dire consequences.

Narratives don’t always have to be a tale of acceptance of one extreme and rejection of the other with one extreme being right and the other wrong. Extremes can be considered as necessary to create a yin and yang that need each other to understand morality and consider why a person’s actions are moral, ethical, and just; or immoral, unethical, and unjust. This kind of analysis seems necessary to understand when and why we should support or reject different ways of governance.

Examples of extremes for the six dimensions

  1. Care - harm. One group may focus on a responsibility of government to provide care for its citizens in times of need and if they don’t then they are harming them. While another group is concerned about free-loaders who who do not deserve help, therefore, it is not their obligation to care for them and any harm done to them is on the free-loaders.
  2. Liberty - oppression. One group focus on liberty for all to make decisions and let the buyer beware. Other group see some companies as super organisms willing to harm people and the environment to increase their profits. And because they are so powerful, the only way to constrain their harm is through regulation by big government. Pollution EPA, remove lead from gasoline (1973). PCB's, methyl mercury,
    But a yin and yang relationship has to be maintained to keep healthy free markets functioning with reasonable regulations. Don’t discharge large amounts of cancer causing chemicals.
  3. Fairness - cheating. What is fair? How to eliminate cheating or corruption? How to maintain a healthy government that provides the essential services that are best provided by government in the right amounts?
  4. Loyalty - betrayal. What are our obligations as citizens to be loyal to our country and all the different groups of citizens. Diversity supports survival, but it erodes moral capital when differences are emphasized instead of shared values and identities. Once we join a team we often become entangled in its good and bad.
  5. Authority - subversion. What authority should there be for all?
  6. Sanctity - degradation. What is to be held sacred? What is disgusting, dirty, contaminated, infected?

And uses them to describe the differences between the left, liberals, libertarians, progressives, conservatives, right.


  1. Genes make brains
  2. Dimensions drive children along different paths.
  3. People construct life narratives.

Sample contrasting narratives

Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market.
They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way. ...

Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hardworking Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens. Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to understand them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crime, they worried about the rights of criminals. ...

Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity, and personal responsibil-ity, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex, and the gay lifestyle . .. and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles. ...

Instead of projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag, and chose negotiation and multilateralism.  

Drew Westen

Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unist, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These maditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational tradionalism. ...

But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mision truly worth dedicating one's life to achieving. 

Christian Smith 

Moral intuition & reasoning

My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.
Desmond Tutu

We have defined morality, discussed how intuition is tied to judgment and reasoning, and how different moralities are developed. What are moral actions?

Four Moral Actions:

  1. Act altruistically - act for the benefit of another at ones expense, act with emotional empathy, or act with reciprocity;
  2. Act for retribution act by imposing punishment that is believed to fit the crime appropriate and deserved;
  3. Act with an intent to rehabilitate;
  4. Act to remove by shun, ostracize or kill.

Reasoning for these actions can be related to a person's belief and whether they think whether the offender meant to do it or didn't mean to do it and will act with a desire to throw the book at them, for the former, or let them off easy for the good of the individual, or the good of society, for the latter. See also different ways to respond to a wrong doing.

Acting with ethical behavior, character, values, & conscience

Moral Tribes book coverActing ethically or with character, values, or conscience requires - social competence and moral action or inaction. Moral actions include:

  1. Restraint from doing harm, or anything inhibiting aggression or hurtful actions,
  2. Initiation of actions to help based on caring or an altruistic action, or
  3. Commitment to an agreement or compliance of ethical actions.

"Moral progress only becomes possible when we don't believe everything we immediately think." Joshua Greene.

Which is fostered by social competence and dependent on three variables:

  1. Moral cognition: internalized thoughts and values based on a person's cognitive development across stages of moral development (see Kohlberg moral development theory).
  2. Moral emotion: empathy and compassion that foster care and pro-social activities which can result in guilt, discomfort, shame, or disgust that follow a transgression and may stop harm.
  3. Moral self: personal view as a good person who cares for others by regulating oneself behavior to do right, ethical, care.

Help, punish, forgive, or restorative justive

This section explores different ways groups interact with others when a member of the group behaves in a way the other members of the group do not approve. How our choice to help, punish, forgive or use restorative justice influences our codes of conduct and rules of behavior in groups and ways to reinforce them: positive, negative, social, and punishment.

How individuals, small groups, classrooms, and other social groups interact to share identities to inspire both personal change and social movements for good or bad.

Consider reinforcement, punihment, and restorative justice for these situations ... and their differences.

  • Your friend ignores your snub and invites you to dinner. Should you go?
  • A co-worker makes you look bad in front of your boss. Should you try to get even?
  • Should you cheat on a test?
  • Should we kill killers?
  • If a power company supports a symphony orchestra, ought we ignore its destructive, although legal, pollution of the environment?
  • Shattering a worldwide voluntary moratorium, North Korea resumes its testing of nuclear weapons. Should we?

Does restorative justice work?

It has been more than a decade since school districts began implementing restorative justice practices-focused on building relationships, conflict resolution, and social and emotional learning-as an alternative to exclusionary discipline, or "zero tolerance" policies.

But is it working?

In Chicago Public Schools, the answer appears to be yes.

Researchers at the University of Chicago Education Lab found that restorative practices, adopted in the 2013 - 2014 school year, have resulted in a staggering 35 percent reduction in student arrests in school and a 15 percent reduction in out-of-school student arrests. Students reported that school climate also improved. They felt a greater sense of safety and were more likely to feel they were members of a community. Source: January 2024 neaToday

An example of forgiveness ... & restorative justice:

Ten days after 9/11, Rais Bhuiyan was shot by a White man. His near-death experience causes him to make his death bed promise: to do more for others. His promise and recovery led him to restorative justice and leading an international campaign to advocate to save his attacker from death row.

He was unsuccessful in saving his attacker's life, but before his execution he wrote to Rais:

Attacker's note to Rais Bhuiyan

More about Rais Bhuiyan and his World without Hate Organization:

His promise set him on a mission to prevent and disrupt hate and violence through empathy and storytelling to create a world without violence, victims, and hate.

Most people doubt or don't believe this is possible so what are the different ways people deal with others?

What are the different codes or rules possible, ethical or pragmatic, that people use to make decisions?

What is a process for moral reasoning and ethical bahavior?

Let's consider what these are. Many, which have been given different labels.

Historical codes or rules to live by

The golden rule:

Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Matthew 7:12 - 75 CE

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.
Hillel the Elder a Jewish theologian - 10 CE

Do do unto others as you would be done by.
Mahabharata Hindu code of conduct - 400 BCE

You should not do to others what you would prefer they did not do to you.
Kongzi or Master Kong Shu - 479 BCE

Almost no one follows the Golden rule consistently, since, unfortunately, there are people who will take advantage of such behavior and there is a limit to most resources.

Philosopher - K'ung-Tzu (Confucius) was asked his opinion of the golden rule about repaying evil with kindness, he replied.
Then with what will you repay kindness?

The silver rule:

Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.

Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Asked their followers not to repay violence with violence, but not to be compliant and obedient either. Nonviolent civil disobedience. It works to a point. However, if it is used against those able and willing to harm, there may be injustice.

The golden and silver are complacent. They systematically reward cruelty and exploitation. Imagine a Hitler or Stalin being shamed into redemption by good example.

The platinum rule:

Learn about others and doing for them what they would want done to themself based on their unique values and tastes.

A problem with the second part of the golden and silver rules is to assume that we can know exactly how others do, and do not wish, to be treated.

This idea is included in George Bernard Shaw's play Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy. When he has the character Jack Tanner say ... Do not do unto others as you would that they would do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.

The biggest problem with this may be knowing what others wish.

A good way to find out, is to ask!

The brazen rule:

Repay kindness with kindness, but evil with punitive justice.

An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth and one good turn deserves another.

In actual human and chimpanzee behavior, it's a familiar standard that offers no forgiving.

See tit-for-tat discussion with the prisoner's delema

The iron rule:

Do unto others as you like before they do unto you.

He who has the money makes the rules.

Despite its practicality it has a fatal flaw.

Unending vendetta.

Each act of retribution triggers another.

Violence begets violence.

Rule of bullies:

Suck up to those above you and intimidate those below.

This is the golden rule for superiors and iron rule for inferiors.

Rule of blood:

Give precedence of all things to close relatives, and do as you like to others.


What rule or combination should be used?

What really works?

Is there a way to test these different codes of ethics?

Most games will not work because they use the iron rule. There is a winner and loser.

Team work would, but not if their is an opponent.

Our groups have a powerful influence on our feelings, beliefs, and behavior - and how these shared identities can inspire both personal change and social movements.

For more about this see moral reasoning process?


Adapted from "A new Way To Think About Rules To Live By" By Carl Sagan, Page 12 November 28, 1993 Parade Magazine.

The prisoner's dilemma

The prisoner's dilemma is a game with win-win, win-lose, and lose-lose outcomes (see conflict resolution...). For example: if you and your friend are arrested for a crime, separated, and interrogated. The following are possible:

  • If you and your friend both deny the crime, then the case may be hard to prove and you both get cleared.
  • If you both confess, then the state will not have to spend much for a trial and you will receive a lighter sentence, although not as light as if you both did not confess.
  • If you plead not guilty and your friend confesses, the state will ask for the maximum sentence for you and the minimal punishment, or maybe none for your friend. You are very vulnerable for a double cross and are they.

When you think of it you are better off confessing. So is your friend. However, if both of you confess, you both are worse off than if both of you had pleaded innocent and you get off scott free. That is the prisoner's dilemma.

Robert Axelrod pioneered the study of the prisoner's dilemma with two players playing a sequence of such games with no direct communication. At the end of the game they can determine how the other player pleaded. Will they learn to cooperate? Will both deny they committed the crime even if the reward for finking on the other is very large? If one cooperates too much (pleads not guilty or guilty in harmony), will the other player take advantage of that good nature? If one confesses (in disharmony) too often will the other retaliate more? These questions were investigated by Axelrod in continuing round-robin computer tournaments.


Strategies that are slow to punish, lose. In part because they send signals that non cooperation works.

Both the golden and iron rule always lose, one from an excess of kindness, the other from an overabundance of ruthlessness.


The most effective strategy in many tournaments is tit-for-tat. That is you start by cooperating and in each subsequent round you simply do what your opponent did the last time. You punish defections, and once the other player cooperates, you're willing to let bygones be bygones. At first it seems to get only moderate success, but as time goes by the other strategies beat themselves, from too much kindness or too much cruelty, and the tit-for-tat pulls away. Except for being nice on the first meeting it is like the bronze rule. It promptly rewards cooperation and punishes defection and makes this strategy absolutely clear.

Axelrod describes the superiority of the bronze rule in his book The Evolution of Cooperation.

A variant of the tit-for-tat rule is one that forgives players for defecting occasionally, 10 percent of the time, does better if there's any chance of misunderstanding. Axelrod claims it does so because it breaks out of an unending vendetta.

Conclusions from Axelrod's research related to the classroom:

Be friendly at first meetings. Do not envy. Be generous; forgive your enemy if he forgives you. Be neither a tyrant nor a patsy. Retaliate proportionately to an intentional injury (within the constraints of the rule of law). Make your behavior fairly (although not perfectly) clear and consistent.

  • Most students want to be in school and will cooperate to learn.
  • Build rapport or positive relationships of mutual respect with all students. Ninety percent of the discipline problems come from 5% of the students.
  • Be assertive about teaching and learning. Students won’t respect you unless you are determined to teach and not let anyone or anything interrupt. No fear.
  • Focus on learning and the planned activities. There are less problems when students are learning and the majority want and deserve it.
  • Plan on how you want to start and know when to move on. 95% of discipline problems occur in the first five and last five minutes of class.
  • When students seem to lack social skills, or procedures on what to do, teach them.
  • Be sure you include how students should think about the content you are teaching. Often this can be done with a think aloud strategy. Saying something like: this is what I am thinking about when I ...
  • Humor (not sarcasm) is one of the best tools for developing mutual respect; others particularly look to see if you have a sense of humor about yourself.
  • Provide directions. Either through direct instruction or if negotiated with students, make sure the steps are understood. Best if they are in writing. It is also good to include time frames in which the task or subtasks can be completed as targets.
  • Collaboration. Consider having students work in pairs. More learning usually occurs collaboratively then alone and working with others is often motivational. as well.
  • Provide choices. Both for learning and behavioral. A simple express of a natural consequence for misbehavior or poor choices. Privately stating. You can do it now or ...
  • Have students set goals so they know the expectations and have a time frame for completion.
  • Negotiate with students on plans for achievement for the goals. An individual contract for personal needs on steps of achievement within an agreed upon time frame.
  • Know what you want students to do if they finishes early. So you can say, “Go work on ... Will reinforce the importance of learning and education.
  • Be prepared to remove students who refuse to learn. Remove them from a group, part of the room, or talk to your administrator and make arrangements for removal from the classroom. Students who interfer with other student's learning, need to be removed.


Theory, related ideas, studies, findings, & suggestions

Teaching and Learning Resources

General guidelines and suggestions

Having an instinct to act morally doesn't mean a person will make and choose ethical actions. To act morally a person has to


Characteristics of learning environments for moral & ethical development

Moral reasoning is constructed in a moral community by interacting with others who are moral and support the development of morality along with cooperation, social skills, resolve, and self-discipline. Moral communities are sustained by moral capital, which is ... The degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

If groups don't value moral capital, they won't foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies to increase it. Instead their selfishness leads to corruption, bullying, and other forms of power to maintain control for their benefits. While moral capital will promote and encourage everyone to participate and suppress free riders it does not automatically lead to fairness and equality of opportunities.

Moral capital is built in environments that provide:

  1. Time where teachers assume a non authoritarian relationship and encourage learners to resolve issues themselves in a democratic manner.
  2. Opportunities to correct ones errors through reciprocity with all parties benefit rather than making one party pay through their punishment and sacrifice.
  3. Social interactions in classrooms where questioning, examination of issues from multiple perspectives are examined, students are allowed to ask questions and raise issues, spontaneous moral issues are valued, dealt with openly and not swept under the proverbial rug.
  4. Discussion of moral issues in a manner that causes cognitive conflict and disequilibration necessary for reasoning to proceed and more moral and ethical positions attained.
  5. Learners interactions that encourage their, participate in a meaningful and active way in the school governance, which is cooperative, and truly democratic so that responsibility and self-discipline are required, not optional.
  6. Learners opportunities to construct their own learning experiences.


Dilemmas to initiate discussion on morality



Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes
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