To act morally means to act in accord with a moral code, one that you believe brings goodness into the world and prevents badness from occurring or spreading.

I recently tried to figure out what my moral code is and it was pretty hard to do. Not because I don’t have a moral code, but because I have too many!!

Here are the moral codes I came up with. And while you look them over, think about which one best fits you.

Level 1: The Code of Self. Using this moral code, doing what’s right means doing what’s right for me. When faced with a choice my primary consideration is what the consequences will be for my own wellbeing (material, emotional, spiritual, what have you).

Level 2: The Code of Loyalty. Using this moral code, doing what’s right means doing what’s right for those I consider my own (my family, my country, my religion, my team, etc.). When faced with a choice my primary consideration is what the consequences will be for those I hold dear or whose interests I wish to protect or defend.

Level 3: The Code of Humanity. Using this moral code, doing what’s right means doing what will cause the least harm or most benefit to the greatest of number of human beings, regardless of whether or not I consider them my own. When faced with a choice my primary consideration is what the consequences will be for people in general, regardless of whether they are part of my family, my country, my religion, my team, etc.

Level 4: The Code of Nature. Using this moral code, doing what’s right means doing what will cause the least harm or greatest benefit to all living things, not just humans. When faced with a choice my primary consideration is what the consequences will be for the planet and all of its living creatures.

So what’s YOUR moral code? If you’re like me, you don’t have just one. Instead you have several, and which one seems most important to you depends on the situation you find yourself in.

You see, each moral code is rooted in a particular social institution. The Code of Loyalty is rooted in the family and also in the military. The Code of Humanity is rooted in religious texts (think “love thy neighbor”). The Code of Self is rooted in the business world or any situation where money is involved. The Code of Nature…well, I can't really think of a clear home for this one, which is probably why getting people to care about the environment is such a challenge.

The other thing you may have noticed is that the codes clash.

Protecting and defending my own (Code of Loyalty) may require self-sacrifice (deviating from the Code of Self). It may also require me to harm those outside my own group (deviating from the Code of Humanity). War is a good example of this.

Protecting the wellbeing of an overpopulated planet where resources are increasingly scarce (Code of Nature) could require allowing a certain number of people to die by natural causes when those deaths could have been prevented medically (thereby violating the Code of Humanity). Or it could mean stopping people from using fertility drugs. In each case, some people who die (or remain unborn) could include my own, or even me (thereby violating the Codes of Loyalty and Self). There are many other possible contradictions.

I want to make two related points before ending. One is about heroes. The other is about leaders. Then I’ll pull it all together.

Heroes are people who uphold one of the higher level moral codes (Code of Humanity, Code of Nature) while knowingly violating one of the lower codes (Code of Self, Code of Loyalty).

For example, a person who reports wrongdoing by members of her organization, such as illegal dumping, doctoring up earnings reports to mislead stockholders, etc., violates the Code of Loyalty (to the organization) in order to uphold the Code of Humanity (to protect other people from harm). This person is a whistleblower.    

Similarly, a person who jumps onto a subway track to rescue a stranger who has fallen from the platform violates the Code of Self (by putting his own safety at risk) in order to uphold the Code of Humanity (protecting another person from harm). This person is a Good Samaritans.

The clash of codes experienced by whistleblowers and Good Samaritans is what makes their acts heroic. They show moral courage by being willing to violate one moral code in order to uphold a higher one.

Now for leaders. True leaders are capable of raising the moral code of a large number of people to the next level.

For example, when John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country,” he sought to raise the moral code of Americans from the Code of Self to the Code of Loyalty.

Similarly, by sharing his dream of equality between the races, Martin Luther King Jr. sought to raise the moral code of Americans from that of Loyalty (to one’s own race) to that of Humanity (including the human race as a whole).    

My conclusion from all this is that it’s hard to be moral, but not because we lack moral codes. Instead, it’s hard to be moral because we have too many moral codes to choose from! And, to make matters worse, the codes we have often contradict each other. With this many cooks in the kitchen it’s almost impossible to satisfy them all.

So the next time you have a moral choice to make, don’t be paralyzed by it. Don't be surprised if you feel confused or if you get conflicting advice from those around you. Instead, remember that morality exists at many levels and that each moral choice you make will involve a trade-off.

Each choice also is an opportunity to show moral courage by reaching for the next higher moral level, and maybe bringing others along with you. Do this frequently and one day you may just find that you have become a hero or a leader.

Eric Silver, Founder, NonJudgment Day Project

To submit a story, or poem, or whatever you got to the NonJudgment Day Project blog, send it to NJDProject@gmail.com  

Christopher Uhl
7/3/2012 07:20:05 am

nice piece. You write that you can't really see a home for the "code of nature." How about its home being our very bodies? In our shared breath, animating us moment by moment? In our daily bread enlivening us day by day? In the water we receive and exchange with the biosphere hour by hour?

Eric Silver
7/3/2012 08:57:20 am

Yes Chris. The Code of Nature lives in all the things you mention. And yet it is difficult for us to see. Why? The reason I think is that, unlike the other Codes, it's hard to think of a social institution whose goal it is to promote the Code of Nature in each new generation of people - like the economy does for the Code of Self and the family does for the Code of Loyalty.

I wonder what it will take for the Code of Nature to find an institutional home in our society. In my darker moments I think it won't happen until people are coughing blood - in other words, when the Code of Nature coincides with the Code of Self.

4/3/2013 06:18:33 pm

For a clear Moral Code try The Moral Compass Foundation at www.themoralcompass.co.uk

The Moral Compass

Never instigate the use of coercive force.
Accept responsibility for personal actions and the consequences of those actions.
Practice a duty of care.
Affirm the individual’s right to self-determination.
Put the truth first.
Never use a person as merely an unconsenting means to an end, even if the end benefits others.
Be honest.
Honour agreements.
Treat others as you want to be treated yourself.
Leave a positive legacy to future generations.


Leave a Reply.