Religious people look to scriptures and traditional teachings for guidance on how to behave ethically.
Religious people look to scriptures and traditional teachings for guidance on how to behave ethically.

Our ethical beliefs help us decide what's right and wrong, how to live a good life and how to be a good person. Each of us is guided by our own set of ethical principles, and these principles can vary widely depending on our religious and spiritual beliefs. Many people view religion and ethics as inseparable, but ethics can and does exist apart from religious belief.

Revelation or Reason

Many people who are devoutly religious view ethical principles as concrete and unchanging directives given by God. They espouse certain ideas, behaviors and prohibitions because God tells them what is right and what is wrong. The religious texts they consult are considered divine revelation, not to be argued or questioned. They often believe that a system of ethics is not possible without religion.

People who don't strictly adhere to a set of religious teachings also have ethical principles, but these are more likely to be based on logic, reason and science. Nonreligious people, and those whose religious beliefs are more flexible, question whether an action is likely to be good for themselves and for others. They don't ask whether they are living the way God wants them to live, but whether they are living in a way that positively impacts those around them.

Punishments and Rewards

Many people who argue that ethics depends on religion believe this is because people need to be motivated to do good things and avoid doing bad things by the reward or punishment of an afterlife. If you are good, you are rewarded after death with heaven. If you are bad, you are punished with hell. This deterrence-type argument depends on reasoning but is only likely to be accepted by those who believe in the underlying religious principles. Nonreligious people generally do not subscribe to it. Multiple academic studies conducted over the past 50 years have shown that individual religiosity deters some criminal behavior, but so does secular respect for society and the law. There is no compelling tie between religion and social control.

Conflicting Ethical Views

Since many people's ethics are based on their religious beliefs, and religious beliefs vary from religion to religion, people's ideas of what is and isn't ethical sometimes differ. It can be difficult to argue these issues, because a person's ethics is the basis of his moral code and is not likely to change easily, especially if he sees ethics as mandated by God. Many divisive issues in our current society are fraught with this problem, including equal rights for women and sexual minorities, abortion and euthanasia.

Finding Common Ground

Although there are differences in ethical systems among different religions and the secular population, there are also many similarities. People guided by religious ethics and those guided by secular ethics both generally value helping the poor, for example. Aristotle viewed ethics in terms of virtues, or qualities people exhibit through their actions, instead of what is absolutely right and wrong. Approaching ethics from an Aristotelian perspective may be a way to discuss and debate ethical principles without hitting the wall of irreconcilable differences in belief.