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The single most important source of ethical norms is one’s family. It is the family, particularly the parents, who are responsible for the proper rearing of their children, and that includes inculcating in those children a strong sense of right and wrong. The ethical behavior on the part of the parents, witnessed on a daily basis by their children, and reinforced through informative discussions – and the occasional lecture – form the basis for the mental development of the children. No other source has as much influence on the emotional development of a child during the early formative years than the child’s family. An example of an “ethical norm” that can be communicated by parents to their children is what is routinely referred to as “the golden rule”: treat others as you yourself would like to be treated. Children searching for guidance in negotiating many of life’s obstacles subconsciously fall back upon the teachings of those who are most influential in the development of their character, and that should be parents.
Another important source of ethical norms can be one’s church, temple or mosque. Obviously, this particular sources is only relevant for those for whom the Bible or Koran provide the moral foundation for their existence. In other words, atheists will obviously not look to holy scripture for guidance. For those for whom the existence of a supreme being is accepted, however, the individual house of worship and resident clergy are an important source of guidance on how to live an ethical life. Faith in God, for instance, implies a certain obedience to His word as written in the Bible or Koran. If one is Christian, the teachings of Jesus provide numerous examples of ethical conduct, including helping those in need even at the expense of one’s own well-being – in other words, sacrifice.
A third important source of ethical norms is the law. This particular source of ethical norms is different than the others in that, by definition, it mandates or prohibits certain activities that are considered by society at large as immoral or unethical. Theft is morally wrong; the law also proscribes it as an activity, subjecting those who transgress to penalties that can include financial restitution or prison. We know we shouldn’t steal, as we are taught that it is wrong. The law, however, makes it not just morally wrong, but legally wrong. Similarly, we are, or should be taught that it is unethical to lie to a business associate; under certain circumstances, it is also against the law to lie to a business associate.
Interestingly, the diagram does not include schools as a source of ethical norms communicated to individuals. After parents, teachers are the most influential adults in the lives of most children, and inculcating a sense of ethical conduct is an integral part of the academic process.
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