Who are you? Everyone is always saying that you have to be true to yourself. Yeah, but just who are you? Philosophers, religious leaders, neurobiologists and psychology researchers have been trying to define what it is that makes you you, and it all comes down to this: Morality + Ethics = You.
Who you are is defined by the relationship between how you feel about the things you value (your morality), and how you choose to act on those feelings and values (your ethics). This formula gives a basic shape to your identity that can guide you in deciding what is, or is not, a good decision for you.
To understand your morality, first you have to understand your values. Though we often use these 2 words interchangeably, values and morality are not the same thing. Values are the building blocks of your morality, those things that have worth to you, that you’re willing to make sacrifices for to have or protect. They can be tangible, such as your children, a pet, your car, or jewelry, and they can be intangible, such as love, humor, freedom, or honesty. Values start out broad and universal, shared by all human beings, like health, family and security. They begin to narrow and become more particular depending upon your country, culture, religion, economic status, occupation, education, and other categories related to where you grew up and your place in society. Picture an up-side-down pyramid, with the true you at the bottom.
Your list of values continues to taper down and become more specific to you, personally, as you begin to take the shape of a unique individual–you. Some people value a luxurious lifestyle of material things versus living simply, some value having a large family versus being child-free, some value apartment living versus a country farmhouse. Values continue to be refined further and further, down to even the smallest of details, such as which toothpaste you prefer, laundry detergent, brand of lipstick or after shave.
When it comes to what you value, you have little control. After all, the heart wants what the heart wants. Fortunately, values are not static, but change as you age and your needs begin to have greater influence over what has worth to you at any particular time in your life. What you value today may mean much less or nothing at all to you 10 years from now, or even 10 days. For this reason, values, alone, do not define you.
The miracle of being human is that you have more than values, you have morality—the power to prioritize your values, to assign each value its own degree of worth as compared to other things you value. Your morality is the way in which you collect and prioritize your values to create an overall belief system of what you consider is “right” versus “wrong” and “good” versus “bad.” If honesty is a value that has a high priority for you, then your morality is the belief that being honest is good and the right thing to do, while lying is bad and the wrong thing to do. You are morally good if you tell the truth and immoral if you lie.
Where there is a clear connection between the priority you give a value, say honesty, and the conduct that promotes that value, such as being truthful, then being a moral person is simple. Choose to act in a way that falls in line with your moral belief of what is good or bad, right or wrong (based on the order in which you place each of your values on your priority list), and you will be a happier, more content person.
So, why is it so hard to be true to yourself and make good decisions? Because the more things you value, the more those values will conflict, making it more and more complicated to get a clear idea of who you are. Yes, you value honesty, but you also place a high priority on not hurting people’s feelings. Your morality, then, is compromised, because being honest is good and right, unless it will hurt someone’s feelings. Now, you are morally good if you lie and tell me you like my new hair cut, and immoral if you’re honest and confess it makes me look like a pumpkin head. You have to compromise how you value honesty so that you can also value sparing another’s feelings.
The more compromises you have to make in resolving the conflicts between your values, the harder it becomes to know what is good or is the right decision. As the number of compromises becomes more complicated in a particular situation, your values become diluted and your morality becomes less predictable. It is when you can’t predict how your belief system applies from one situation to the next that it becomes harder and harder to get a clear sense of who you are or which decision is the right one for you.
The thing that helps bring predictability and stability to your efforts to make the right decisions and be true to yourself is Ethics. Morality + Ethics = You. Ethics is the code of conduct you adopt, the standards of behavior that you chose to live by that express your values and morality. Your ethics are what give you choice and control over being true to yourself regardless of the circumstances.
Check in next week to learn more in Who Are You? Part 2: How Ethics Tailor the Best Fit For You. In the meantime, sort through your mental closet and take an inventory of the values you store there. Where did they come from? Do they still fit? Are they suitable for today or out-of-date? If you have a hard time knowing what’s right or wrong, what’s good or bad for you, the search for answers begins there.