Fulfilling Your Values through Moral Obligation

June 25, 2019
There's a difference between moral norms and moral obligation. One has to do with culture and society in general, and the other about an individual's own principles. In this article, we’ll analyze both concepts more in depth.

Everyone has morals. Each person knows or has an idea of what’s right or wrong. However, knowing that something’s wrong doesn’t necessarily mean that people don’t do it. Sometimes, the benefits of certain actions don’t come from following universal principles or a moral obligation. Actually, it doesn’t matter how great the benefits are, sometimes people refuse to do things that go against their own morals.

Therefore, there’s a moral conviction or a set of norms that you, as an individual, will decide whether to follow or not. In particular, you’ll tend to follow moral obligations. When it comes to your values, you could think that taking care of the environment is a moral value for example. However, if you don’t have any moral obligation to take care of it as a value, then sometimes you may not act accordingly.

A woman writing moral norms on a notebook.

Moral Norms

Moral norms are beliefs affected by culture. To some degree, these norms refer to whether a particular action should be carried out or not. Although moral norms may change from person to person, they’re generally similar among people from the same culture. For example, eating pork is deemed good in some religions and evil in others.

In short, everyone has beliefs about what’s right and wrong, but these beliefs aren’t the same for everyone. As a consequence, when other people do the actions you deem immoral, you’ll tend to think that they’re doing something “wrong”.

Moral Conviction

Beyond moral norms, there’s moral conviction, which is a metacognitive belief that people have about a certain attitude. In other words, it’s what you think about a particular belief.

A moral conviction is a specially strong and important moral norm. But there’s also a qualitative difference between moral norms and moral conviction. The big difference is that the former evaluates whether an action is right or wrong, whereas convictions evaluate whether a belief is right or wrong.

When a person has a moral conviction about the environment as a value, it means that the environment is important to that person. However, it doesn’t mean that doing a certain action for the environment is good or bad to them.

Moral Obligation

If this were a hierarchy, then moral obligation would be at the top, over moral norms and convictions. Moral obligation is a personal decision of participating in a collective action based on the belief that that’s the right thing to do. In fact, moral obligation is a strong motivational force.

When it comes to personal behavior codes, moral obligations play an important role. It means being congruent with what you believe in. That’s why people do these actions without caring what others think of them. When they do it, they feel good about themselves. If they don’t do it, then they feel guilty.

People protesting in the street.

Moral Obligation Components

The difference between moral conviction and moral obligation is that the former is a set of beliefs, whereas the latter is a motivational trigger that leads a person to do a certain action. In other words, moral obligation is the motivation to act according to moral conviction. 

Furthermore, moral obligation has different components: a sense of obligation toward doing the action due to the consequent autonomy and personal fulfillment, and the uneasiness as a result of not carrying out the action, as well as the sacrifice it takes to actually do it.

If you take into account all that we’ve mentioned so far, you could conclude that moral norms define which behavior is right and which is wrong, and moral obligation is the motivation to comply with those moral norms. Thus, the former is a guide for the individual and the latter is the motivation to behave accordingly.