(redirected from moral principle)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical, Legal, Wikipedia.


1. a system of moral principles
2. an instruction or lesson in morals
3. short for morality play



one of the basic means of the normative regulation of human actions in society; a particular form of social consciousness and a type of social relationship (moral relationships); the subject of the specialized field of ethics.

The content and character of human activity in society are ultimately determined by the objective sociohistorical conditions of existence and by the laws of societal development. But the concrete ways in which human actions are directly determined and in which the conditions of existence and laws of societal development are refracted may be extremely varied. One of them, normative regulation, expresses in the form of general rules (norms) of behavior, precepts, and values the requirements arising when people live together in society and reflects the need to harmonize mass actions. Like law, custom, and tradition, morality is a basic type of normative regulation. It enters into the others but differs fundamentally from them.

Morality emerges from undifferentiated normative regulations and becomes a particular type of societal relationship as early as tribal society. It goes through a prolonged period of development in preclass and class society, during which its demands, principles, ideals, and values acquire, to a significant degree, a class character and meaning. However, there remain universal moral norms determined by conditions common to all epochs in which people have banded together in societies. Morality becomes most highly developed in socialist and communist societies, where it first becomes common for the society as a whole and then becomes the universal moral system of all mankind.

Morality regulates human conduct and consciousness to one degree or another in all spheres of social life—work, daily routine, politics, learning, and family, personal, intragroup, inter-class, and international relations. Unlike the particular demands made on the individual in each of these spheres, moral principles have a socially universal significance and apply to all individuals, for they represent that which is universal and fundamental and that which makes up the culture of human relationships, the accumulated experience of society’s centuries-long development. Moral principles either support and sanction or demand changes in society’s foundation, in the way of life, and in the manner of communication, formulating these demands and sanctions in the most generalized terms. In this they are unlike more detailed administrative, organizational, and technical norms, as well as traditional-customary rituals and rules of etiquette. Because they are very general, moral principles reflect the depths of the sociohistorical conditions of human existence and express fundamental human needs.

In law and in organizational regulations, precepts are formulated, affirmed, and implemented by special institutions. The demands of morality, like those of custom, take shape in mass behavior itself, in human interaction. Thus, they represent the distillation of life practices and historical experience in group and individual concepts, feelings, and volition. Moral norms are realized in a practical way and are reinforced daily by mass habits, the commands and evaluations of public opinion, and convictions and impulses fostered in the individual.

Fulfillment of the demands of morality may be controlled by all the people as well as by each individual. The moral authority of one person does not depend on any official authorization, practical power, or social position; rather, it is a spiritual authority determined by a person’s moral qualities (force of example) and by his ability to express adequately the sense of what is demanded by morality in a particular situation. In general, the distinction between the subject and the object of regulation, which is characteristic of institutional norms, is absent in morality.

Unlike customs, however, moral norms are supported by more than the strength of an established and generally accepted order of things, force of habit, and the combined pressure on the individual of those around him and their opinions. Moral norms are also expressed intellectually and justified in general, fixed conceptions, such as commandments or principles concerning how one should act. Although they are reflected in public opinion, these fixed conceptions represent something more persistent, historically stable, and systematic. Morality reflects a holistic system of views of social life that contains an understanding of the essence (purpose, meaning, aim) of society, history, humanity, and human existence. The dominant mores and customs of a particular time can be evaluated by morality from the standpoint of its general principles, ideals, and criteria of good and evil. Thus, a moral viewpoint, which may be expressed by the progressive class (or, on the contrary, by conservative social groups) may be critical of the currently accepted way of life. In general, that which should be and that which is actually accepted rarely coincide in morality, as distinct from custom, and when they do the coincidence is far from complete.

In antagonistic class society the norms of universal morality are never entirely or uncompromisingly fulfilled, nor are they adhered to in every instance. Demands for the full and consistent observance of these universal norms (for example, the sanctity of human life, honesty, respect for the rights of others, and humanity) were usually supported by those who had suffered the most from oppression and social injustice or who sympathized with the condition of the exploited and deprived strata of society. The morally critical attitude toward the predominant order that was engendered by these feelings was an important aspect of the development of the oppositional frame of mind and later, of the revolutionary consciousness of the working classes.

Evidence of the role of consciousness in moral regulation is also found in the ideal, spiritual quality of moral sanctions (approval or condemnation of actions), which are expressed not as practical, material measures of social retribution (rewards or punishments) but as evaluations which the individual must feel and accept inwardly and according to which he must direct future actions. In this regard it is not simply a spectator’s emotional-volitional reaction of indignation or approval that is significant but the correspondence between his evaluation of an action and general principles, norms, and conceptions of good and evil. For this reason, the individual consciousness (personal convictions, motives, and self-evaluations) plays a tremendous role in morality, for it permits the individual to control and inwardly motivate his actions, justify them independently, and work out his own line of conduct within the collective or group. In this sense, K. Marx said that “morality is based on the autonomy of the human spirit” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 13). Morality includes the evaluation of people’s actions and of their motives and intentions. Of particular importance is the individual’s upbringing—that is, the formation of an ability to determine and direct behavior in society independently and without daily external control. Moral concepts such as conscience and feelings of personal dignity and honor are formed during upbringing.

The moral demands made on man aim not at the achievement of particular and immediate results in a given situation but at the pursuance of general norms and principles of conduct. In a particular case the practical result of an action may vary, depending upon fortuitous circumstances. But at the level of society, the fulfillment of a moral norm answers some social need, which is distilled in a generalized form in the given norm. Therefore, the manner in which a moral norm is expressed is not a function of external goal-direction—that is, the norm does not state that in order to attain a certain goal one must act in a particular way. Rather, a moral norm is expressed as an imperative, an obligation that the individual must meet, regardless of his goal. Moral norms reflect not merely the needs of man and society under specific circumstances and in limited situations but the needs demonstrated by the vast historical experience of many generations. Therefore, both the particular aims pursued by people and the means of attaining them can be evaluated from the viewpoint of these norms.

There are several basic historical forms of morality, each of which corresponds to a basic social formation. Preclass morality, which is characterized by relative simplicity, incomplete separation from archaic customs, and poorly developed general principles, is associated with the not yet fully independent position of the individual in tribal society. As Engels pointed out, “the tribe remained the boundary for man both in relation to himself as well as to outsiders. … The people of this epoch … are still bound … to the umbilical cord of the primordial community” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., vol. 21, p. 99). The equality of individuals is taken for granted, but for that very reason the specific demand that the equal rights of each individual be respected has not yet been articulated. All members of the collective have the right to justice. This gives the individual various rights and obligations before the tribe as a whole. During the preclass period elementary moral demands on the individual as a member of the tribe, as a producer, and as a warrior developed, including respect for tribal customs, endurance, bravery, respect for elders, and equality in the division of booty. But many types of personal relationships, including marital and familial ones, were essentially regulated by different means, such as customs, rituals and ceremonies, and religious and mythical concepts.

The imperfect correspondence and even contradiction between moral requirements and commonly accepted practices in everyday behavior are first felt in preclass and early class society. The ensuing epoch of social inequality, private property interests, competition among individuals, class oppression, and inequality of the workers promoted the development in the broad masses of a sense of the injustice of the existing order, a consciousness of the degradation of mores, “which from the outset appears to us as a degradation, a fall from grace compared to the simple moral grandeur of the ancient gentile society” (ibid. ). Moral condemnation of the vices of the existing society and a striving to realize fully the basic demands of morality are themes that run through the entire history of the class struggle and are an aspect of the development in the oppressed classes of a revolutionary morality that takes a particular form in each period.

Each of the dominant systems of morals has distinct characteristics. In the morality of ancient society productive labor was regarded as an unworthy occupation for freemen. The slave was usually exempt from the dictates of morality and was considered, on the one hand, a creature on whom none of the demands of virtue could be made and, on the other hand, a party to a relationship not subject to moral criteria.

In feudal society, however, labor was sanctioned by religion and viewed as an obligation of a man, whether he was a serf, a free peasant, or an artisan. Essentially, only military prowess and the honor of a nobleman were considered virtues in the knightly class. Christian morality, which was, according to Engels, the most general synthesis of and sanction for the European feudal order (ibid., vol. 7, p. 361), emphasized humility, particularly humiliation of the flesh and the elimination of “pride.” Classical morality, by contrast, had made a cult of man’s reason, will, or sensuality. In the early and high Middle Ages the primitive Christian precept “love thy neighbor“ scarcely entered into everyday interpersonal relationships—that is, the consciousness of the knightly and peasant classes remained essentially pagan. In the late Middle Ages, however, the Christian precept of brotherly love acquired the abstract religious meaning of serving others by treating them with charity and compassion, for all individuals are “children of god.“ But this did not affect the essence of the dominant relations between classes. The characteristically feudal division of the duties and virtues of the privileged and oppressed strata of the population reinforced the existing order.

Incipient bourgeois morality recognized the equality of all men (F. Engels, ibid., vol. 20, pp. 106–07), but only in the sense of “equality of opportunity” for individuals as potential free entrepreneurs. In essence, this meant equality only for private property owners. In its struggle with feudal Christian morality, bourgeois morality first took up the banner of “rational egotism“ and “mutual exploitation“—that is, its basic assumption was the illusion that any individual could contribute to the good of others and of society as a whole simply by pursuing his own “rational aims.“ Classical bourgeois thought reduced morality to a method by which the individual attains success and happiness. This point of view was especially typical of the period of primitive accumulation, when virtue was equated with the asceticism of industry and thrift and with the delay of pleasures and rewards until the future. Later, the working class was exhorted to practice self-restraint as the means of attaining prosperity. However, as Engels pointed out, the worker feels that “honesty, thrift, and all the other virtues recommended to him by the wise bourgeoisie“ do not in any way guarantee that they “will actually lead him to happiness“ (ibid., vol. 2, p. 265).

Of course, some universal moral norms are expressed in bourgeois morality, but as a rule, the interpretation of them is limited to the support of the supremacy of capitalist relations, and they are practiced only to the extent that they do not contradict the class interests of the bourgeoisie. The actual moral condition of the bourgeoisie, and especially of groups associated with big business and politics, was always very remote from the requirements of universal morality. Indeed, it contradicted even the principles that were professed by the bourgeois moral consciousness. This contradiction is especially characteristic of the period of monopoly capitalism and the politics of imperialism, when the state commits crimes against other peoples and corruption and connivance flourish in economic corporations and political associations. Typical of the bourgeois consciousness are irreconcilable conflicts between the demands of morality and of politics and between the rules of common sense and success and considerations of honesty, humanity, and justice.

Counterbalancing the bourgeoisie, the working class works out its own morality even in capitalist society, insofar as it understands its special historical mission and its opposition to the ruling order. Thus develops revolutionary proletarian morality, whose basic demands are the elimination of exploitation and social inequality, the universal obligation to work, and the solidarity of the workers in the struggle against capital. According to V. I. Lenin, this morality “is entirely subordinate to the interests of the proletariat’s class struggle” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 41, p. 309). In the struggle for its rights “the working class also progresses morally“ (ibid, vol. 21, p. 309), exhibiting, in Engels’ words, “its most attractive, most noble, most human features“ (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 2, p. 438). Revolutionary proletarian morality becomes the cornerstone of socialist and communist morality, in which all the norms of universal morality are most fully expressed.

As the socialist order is established, the new morality becomes the regulator of daily relationships among people, penetrating all spheres of social life and shaping the consciousness, daily routine, and mores of millions of people. Communist morality is characterized by a consistent realization of the principle of equality and cooperation among people and nations, collectivism, and respect for the human being in all his personal and social manifestations, according to the principle that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (K. Marx and F. Engels, ibid., vol. 4, p. 447). Inasmuch as communist morality rejects the idea that either society or individual life are eternal means for the attainment of each other’s aims and believes that society and the individual form an indissoluble unity, it also rejects the concept that is characteristic of bourgeois morality—namely, the sacrifice of one moral principle to another (for example, the sacrifice of honesty to advantage, of the interests of one group to the aims of another group, and of conscience to politics). Thus, communist morality is the highest form of humanism.

In socialist society the problems of the moral upbringing of the masses and of the individual, the struggle against amorality, and the structuring of all social relationships on the basis of moral principles are of utmost importance. The moral code of the builder of communism, as defined in the Program of the CPSU, formulates the most important general principles of communist morality. Responding to the basic interests of the human being, communist morality relies in its practical realization on people’s own consciousness, rejects all formalism and dogmatism, and presupposes each person’s profound conviction regarding the justice and humanity of the principles he professes.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoipartii. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4.
Engels, F. Proiskhozhdenie sem’i,; chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva. Ibid., vol. 21.
Engels, F. Anti-Dühring. Ibid., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. O kommunisticheskoi nravstvennosti (collection of articles), 3rd ed. Moscow, 1965.
Aristotle. Etika. St. Petersburg, 1908.
Hegel, G. W. F. Filosofiia prava. Soch., vol. 7. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934.
Spinoza, B. Etika. Izbr. proizv., vol. 1. Moscow, 1957.
Locke, J. “Mysli o vospitanii. O vospitanii razuma.” In his Pedagogicheskie sochineniia. Moscow, 1939.
Holbach, P. A. Osnovy vseobshchei morali, Hi Katechizis prirody. Izbr. proizv., vol. 2. Moscow, 1963.
Kant, I. Osnovy metafiziki nravstvennosti: kritika prakticheskogo razuma. Soch., vol. 4, part 1. Moscow, 1965.
Solov’ev, V. S. Opravdanie dobra. Moscow, 1899.
Kon, I. S. Moral’ kommunisticheskaia i moral’ burzhuaznaia. Moscow, 1960.
Shishkin, A. F. Osnovy Marksistskoi etiki. Moscow, 1961.
Boeck, H. O marksistskoi etike i sotsialisticheskoi morali. Moscow, 1962. (Translated from German.)
Ivanov, V. G., and N. V. Rybakova. Ocherki marksistsko-leninskoi etiki. Leningrad, 1963.
Shvartsman, K. A. Etika … bez morali. Moscow, 1964.
Drobnitskii, O. G. “Priroda moral’nogo soznaniia.” Voprosy filosofii, 1968, no. 2.
Drobnitskii, O. G., and T. A. Kuz’mina. Kritika sovremennykh burzhuaznykh eticheskikh kontseptsii. Moscow, 1967.
Selsam, H. Marksizm i moral’. Moscow, 1962. (Translated from English.)
Arkhangel’skii, L. M. Lektsii po marksistskoi etike, part 1. Sverdlovsk, 1969.
Titarenko, A. I. Nravstvennyi progress. [Moscow] 1969.
Titarenko, A. I. Moral’ i politika. Moscow, 1969.
Khaikin, la. Z. Struktura i vzaimodeistvie moraVnoi i pravovoi sistem. Moscow, 1972.
Bandzeladze, G. Etika, 2nd ed. Tbilisi, 1970.
MoraVnaia reguliatsiia i lichnosf (collection of articles). Moscow, 1972.
The Definition of Morality. Edited by G. Wallace and A. D. M. Walker. London [1970].


References in periodicals archive ?
Through an investigation of the international norms against interstate assassination and the aerial bombardment of civilians, Thomas exposes how abstract moral principles are refracted through the lens of great powers' interests to become specific precepts for the conduct of international affairs--ones that retain ethical content but that also serve the ends of the powerful.
In applying the moral principle of fidelity, school counselors make explicit and implicit promises to clients that they will actively work against disclosing clients' secrets, except under agreed upon conditions.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have turned to Lincoln to demonstrate the possibility of a politics based on moral principle.
The President re-affirmed the fundamental moral principle that life is the sacred gift of the Creator and deserves protection at its very beginning.
Thus, one such moral principle is "Coercion is morally wrong".
1) Respect for autonomy is an important moral principle for research, medicine, and health care, alongside other equally important principles.
It is a moral principle to unite with the other nations of the EU, in the responsibility to shape a better and much safer world for our children, with shared values.
Last week, state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, threw a fit over deployment: ``As a matter of moral principle and constitutional precedent, we will not be party to budgeting one dime to enable any role for the California National Guard in border monitoring until the Senate immediately and thoroughly reviews the implications of this use of state funds and personnel,'' he wrote to the budget committee chairman.
I will now oppose them on environmental, political and moral principle.
Cropsey calls the law "horrible," saying his opposition is "a matter of moral principle.
Sin is a wilful violation of or offense against a sacred religious or moral principle, and separates man from God.
IN 1948, because of the huge sacrifice made by so many in war, the Labour Government established a new moral principle in British society, that the sick would receive medical attention, in accordance with medical need, rather than their bank balance.