Ethics is the branch of philosophy which deals with the standards which guide proper human behavior. This includes the principles which govern both individual and collective human relationships. In the collective vein, we often hear the word ethics used in connection with the actions of governments and their officials.
For many people their exposure to the subject of ethics involved religious instruction, either formal or indirect. The standards of proper behavior in a particular area are most often a derivative of the prevailing religions. In such a cultural environment, every child is exposed early and inevitably to these standards. That cultural environment includes many influences, especially the institutions of human government which are by nature created to manage undesirable behaviors and hopefully promote the good ones.
Here in the U.S. we know that Christian theology has been the dominant effect on our understanding of right and wrong behaviors. As has been noted repeatedly, our national beginning took place in a setting in which Christianity, in a variety of flavors, had been a key factor. Religious expression actually prompted much of the colonization of America.
It is enlightening to consider the difference between standards of right and wrong derived from religion and those which might derive from rational human evaluation of what actually prompts happiness, security, and personal freedoms. I choose these three elements in an attempt to define the desired consequences of good behavior. Anyone could argue with my selection here, but there must be some way to identify what constitutes good behavior within any ethical system.
Religiously inspired right behaviors, at least in our normal Christian understanding, is defined by an inarguable written standard. Supposedly, God has dictated through a sacred text how men should act, toward Him and each other. His standards are cut and dry, allowing for no discussion or compromise. There is no need to debate of reconsider. This seeming lack of ambiguity in religious ethics is a great part of its appeal for many. It helps immensely that the sacred text, the Bible, can be taken in a variety of ways and thereby lend support to very different ethical conclusions.
A system of ethics which is personally or collectively developed from rational evaluation is going to be a life long and very messy process by comparison to that above. Determining what is good behavior will require that we carefully consider all the effects of behaviors, short term and long. That development will mean that we often change directions after the lessons of our personal and collective history demonstrate that old standards are not working.
The political polarization we are experiencing is related to these two different concepts of ethics. One group reflects the rigidity of a past steeped in religious ethics, more specifically the ethics of Old Testament Judaism. The other group is not exempt from religious influence either, but they tend to see ethical standards as more nuanced than those proposed by dogmatic religion. For these latter people, determining right and wrong is a constant struggle, one that inevitably requires deep soul searching with attendant uncertainty in many cases. It is not really the easy, "anything goes" system of ethics that the religious like to condemn.
We each invariably face these two choices in our lives. We can be guided by supposedly irrefutable divine laws, leaving all moral decisions to someone else. Or we can choose to follow our conscience and then pay close attention to the results, adjusting as necessary. When it comes to the public policies we support, that choice will be paramount.