By Andrew Olendzki in Removing the Thorn | Tricycle Magazine.
According to the Buddha, the human world is protected by twin guardians, two forces in the mind that watch over and guide moral behavior. The first guardian of the world is hiri, a word that connotes conscience, moral intuition, and self-respect. It refers to that within the human psyche that knows the difference between right and wrong, between what is noble and ignoble, between what is worthy of respect and what is not. Each of us has within us an innate moral compass, and it is the view of the Buddhist tradition that religion is not the source of this but rather a form by which it is given expression. The second guardian of the world is ottappa, which comprises such notions as social conscience, a cultural or collective sense of morality, and respect for the opinions and the rights of others.This distinguishes Buddhism from religions that insist that the only reason people behave ethically is fear of God's punishment.
Buddhism teaches that anything we do that is wholesome will be done with the support and guidance of these two inner guardians. Conversely, everything we do that is unwholesome can only be done when these moral guides are disregarded. So if there is something morally reprehensible occurring in an individual or in a society, it means that we lack sufficient clarity of awareness of what we are doing. It means we are temporarily blinded by our greed, hatred, or delusion, or by some combination of the three, such that we refuse to attend openly to the deeds we are committing. When attention has been brought to bear on the matter—in sufficient amounts, with sufficient intensity, and with sufficient honesty—we will naturally shy away from doing harm to ourselves, to others, and to both.
This is also consistent with current theories of evolutionary biology that explain how individual behaviors and societal norms evolve and are maintained.