Wee Scoops

Measure for Measure

Ethics vs Morals

I should know the answer to this, having studied Moral Philosophy back in the day  – but this prompt really flummoxed me: how do you draw the line between morals and ethics and if morals were in a battle with ethics, who would win?

Here are my attempts at definitions:

Ethics (I think) are rules and conventions that society generates, when groups decide what is right and wrong in specific spheres and contexts. It’s to do with the “principle” of the thing; the truth about how to behave is known and the ethics lead out from that. There are medical ethics, professional ethics and so on. If someone breaks a rule or convention, they are behaving in an unethical manner.

Morals (I think) are less to do with society and more to do with the individual. One’s morality is to do with the response to right and wrong. If a person has a belief in right and wrong action and chooses to act wrongly, that act is immoral. However, it is only unethical if it relates to a public/social sense of right and wrong. If you have morals, you hold to the understanding of right and wrong in practice.

The trouble with ethics and morals are many: the main problem is figuring out when you are right about what is right and what is wrong; the second problem is to do with human behaviour and our propensity to break rules; the third problem is how to deal with different groups that clash over what is right and what is wrong.

The way through these battles, I think is to do with acknowledging values. (I know, I know – the last thing we need is another term sloshing about in there.)

Imagine you have a historical society – way way back in the dim and distant past – in which infanticide is just fine. You don’t want your baby? Leave it on a hillside and wait for the inevitable. From our perspective, safe in the 21st century, we find this abhorrent! We think that infanticide has always been wrong, whether or not that society thought it was wrong. We think we are right and they were wrong. Murder of the innocents is not a good thing. Of course, but then…

Now we have today’s society where the abortion row continues. I think the most prevalent view just now is that abortion is considered to be morally okay because it’s the woman’s body and she has the choice as to what happens to it. Our society thinks that our society is right and the pro-lifers are wrong, yes?

Can we then imagine a future when we look back and think that abortion in this century was as obviously wrong as infanticide in a previous century? Can we likewise imagine a future when we look back and wonder why there was even a debate when it is so obviously a woman’s right to choose? It could go either way, couldn’t it?

So a society generates a code of ethics based on what they are sure about as being right or wrong. This is based on that society’s values – the things that that society thinks are important. With the abortion example – it really could go either way, depending on whether people go down the path of valuing children above all else, or valuing personal freedom of choice above all else.

Once a society has its values, it is easier to generate the ethical codes. Then morality comes into play; if a person is moral, they will obey the ethical codes.

What about a person who acts immorally but is fine with that? Do they not think that their actions are wrong? I think the difference must be in their values – they are working from a different set of principles of right and wrong. The “immorality” is therefore subjective – unless of course there are absolutes in terms of right and wrong.

More universal is the person who knows right and wrong and is a moral person – but they behave in an immoral way. As the apostle Paul put it: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” I think that he encapsulated well this propensity of the human to fall short, to disappoint and to end up on the wrong side of one’s own moral code. 

If we have a sense of right and wrong in a society, this is all good; we can decide what behaviour is good and which behaviour is bad. Then we can set up a system where some things are legal, others are illegal, some things are accepted and others frowned upon.

But when there is no consensus, there is conflict. And there is conflict because the values beneath the ethics, the morals and the principles are different. Does utilitarianism have it right? Is the most amount of happiness for the most amount of people what we value most? Or is freedom of the individual to do whatever they like to make things better for themselves a good guiding principle? Or is pleasing God the best way to live? Are there real, objective truths about what is right and what is wrong? And if so, are these knowable?

Back to my original prompt: Morals versus ethics. I think I will make them play chess. Ethics plays by the rules, taking all the pawns, then the bishops, knights, rooks and the queen. Meanwhile Morals is trying to figure out whether he should try to dominate the game, or whether that might make Ethics sad; he then wonders whether by not trying his hardest he is not playing honestly and that might be worse. So, in the end, Ethics wins – but that doesn’t make him right.


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