Common Sense Ethics
DAPL Issue Not Sexy Enough for Media Coverage

What is a ‘Moral Organ’

Nourishing our Ethical Self

To lead an ethical life, we cannot rely on our feelings no matter how powerful they might be. Our feelings may be irrational and may be the product of prejudice, selfishness, or cultural conditioning. Our decisions must be guided by reason and the (ethical) motivation to do the right thing as we journey through life.

Each of us possesses the ability to act in a moral way. Mark Matousek speaks of the concept of a ‘moral organ.’ The strength of our moral organ depends on achieving the goals of right behavior: Are we concerned with harm and care to others? Are we devoted to justice and fairness for all? Do we depend on in-group loyalty to influence our actions and decisions? Are we respectful of others and their rights? Do we strive to improve the human condition?

The Hippocratic Oath requires physicians to ‘First do no harm.’ Harming others by our actions is inconsistent with moral behavior. We all know people who will do anything, say anything, be anyone so long as it gets them to their end goal. It’s an ‘ends justify the means’ approach to decision-making. We weaken our moral organ when we put our interests first without considering the consequences of our actions on others – the stakeholders of our decisions.

Justice as fairness is the underlying tenet of our judicial system. Justice is a philosophical concept of rightness or correctness. A “just” person is one who typically “does what is morally right” and is disposed to “giving everyone his or her due.” Our judicial system is not based on retribution but fair treatment.

One of the reasons we deviate from ethical norms is in-group loyalty. We want others to like us. We believe in the concept of loyalty to the group whether it be our family unit or in the workplace. However, what if we know a family member is going to commit a crime or a member of our work team has committed fraud? Should be stand idly by out of loyalty?

Loyalty can get you into trouble. All kinds of misbehaviors have occurred out of loyalty to another. The most glaring occurred during the Nazi era. More recently, during the financial crisis of 2007-2208, many stood idly by while so many others were harmed by greedy behavior. Those who could have stopped it, didn’t. They chose not to rock the boat; instead to act in their self-interest.  They chose to be a team player and ignored the basic values of a civil society -- honesty, integrity, respect responsibility and duty to others.

Respect underlies ethical behavior. Whenever we tear down others to enhance ourselves, we travel off course and, taken to an extreme, we lose our moral compass. Here, we should harken back to the ‘Golden Rule’ – treat others the way we want to be treated.

Each of us should try to leave the world a better place than we found it. I ask myself all the time: What am I trying to achieve by my life’s decisions? How do I want to be remembered?

I’m a college professor. The biggest challenge for me has been to make a difference in the lives of my students. However, it’s difficult for me to know whether I’ve been successful. As Henry Adams said: “A teacher affects eternity; [s]he can never tell where his [her] influence stops.”

At the end of the day, our ethical life is sustained by allowing our moral organ to do its job. Our moral self depends on the functioning of the moral organ. We need to nourish it through ethical actions and the ethical treatment of others.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 22, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: