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Ethics and Morals - Phil's Rambling Rants
July 20th, 2004
10:30 pm


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Ethics and Morals
I've done some thinking about the big question of how to judge whether behavior -- whether our own we're contemplating or someone else's we're critiquing -- is good or bad, and how we go about making that choice. The way I see it, there are two basic approaches. One, at the root, comes down to someone in authority saying "thus and such is the right way to behave, because I say so", or (essentially equivalently) "thus and such is the right way to behave, because God says so, and I speak for God". The other, at the root, comes down to people deciding for themselves, based on rational thinking, whether behavior is good or bad.

Because I need to have labels for these two kinds of behavior, I think of the first one as moral and the second one as ethical. I don't know exactly what the official definitions of these words are supposed to be (who decides which definition is "official"?), but it seems to me that most people seem to use them pretty much interchangeably.

So my points in posting this here are:
  1. To let anyone who reads what I write know what I mean when I use the words "moral" or "ethical", or "morals" or "ethics";
  2. To ask anyone who cares to offer an opinion if they think anyone would understand the distinction without my explaining, and if not, to suggest how I could make a point that hinged on the difference between moral and ethical without spending several paragraphs explaining my definitions;
  3. To invite anyone to comment on the importance of the difference.
One thing I do not mean to do is to equate morals with religion and ethics with secular humanism. Any system of values and rules can be inculcated as morals, whether it is based on religion or not. On the other hand, I don't think ethics can get anywhere without some fundamental values as starting points, and those fundamental values can certainly come from a person's spirituality. (I'm not sure if they actually could come from anywhere else, but there are already enough worms in this can.) The difference is whether a person is supposed to just accept the the morals they have been taught, or if they are encouraged to do their own ethical thinking and actually work out for themselves what they believe.

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(7 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:July 20th, 2004 09:55 pm (UTC)
Okay, I'll preface this by saying that I'm a philosopher (although not an ethicist) and, professionally speaking, I would take the terms to be essentially equivalent.

Leaving that aside, I find your distinction unclear. I think that you're confusing the way something is justified with the thing being justified. In both cases we're trying to decide whether something is good/right/whatever; we just approach the question differently.

Your first case was something like "this is good because X says so" and your second case was "this is good because rational reflection (on whose part?) has shown it to be so." What if we have two people and they both think that some action is wrong (murder say) but the first believes that because the Bible says so and the second believes that because they've rationally reflected on it - is there a difference between them? If so, is it really a difference in what they're talking about (ethics or morality) or just a difference in how they reach that conclusion?

Frankly, I'm more interested in whether you believe
that all rational creatures will reach (or would under ideal circumstances) the same conclusions about what is good? (Or at least the same conclusions in many cases; maybe they disagree in gray areas.) If so, then there are presumably standards of ethical behavior that apply across people/cultures/times. If not, we're going to have relativism problems; my community may deem an action "bad" that yours deems "good" - what do we do when we conflict?

I would note that I don't actually expect you to solve the relativism question (no one has yet *grin*) but I'm interested in what you think.
[User Picture]
Date:July 21st, 2004 09:11 am (UTC)
I tried to keep my post short and on the point of the difference between the words, rather than going into why I thought the difference was important, but I may have kept it too short.

While a person guided by morals and a person guided by ethics are likely to agree on obvious and familiar cases, morals tend to be less flexible, and because they are based on following known rules instead of on working things out, they don't offer sensible guidance when you encounter a new situation. Morals tend to prescribe simple solutions to complex problems, while ethics give more reliable guidance with the subtleties of the real world.

I don't believe all rational creatures can agree on a system of ethics, because I think there are some underlying principles that can't be derived logically and must be accepted as axioms. Some creatures will disagree on the axioms, and different axioms give rise to different logical systems. I do, perhaps naively, believe that it's possible to find a set of axioms that a sufficiently wide range of rational creatures would agree on that not agreeing with those axioms becomes a useful definition of evil.

Relativism is a difficult topic. The word sets off alarm bells in my head, because I usually hear it used by people who construct a false dichotomy between people who believe in Christian morals on one hand and people who think any code of conduct is just as valid as any other on the other.
[User Picture]
Date:July 21st, 2004 06:28 am (UTC)
I tend to think of moral as abiding by a recognized religious code, and ethical as treating other people decently, and as you would hope to be treated.
Date:July 21st, 2004 07:49 am (UTC)
I see your distinction as
Morals = externaly imposed rules
Ethics = inernally developed decisions
[User Picture]
Date:July 21st, 2004 09:15 am (UTC)
Exactly. And because morals come from an outside authority, the moral person must follow them more or less blindly, while because ethics come from within, they can evolve and expand productively when challenged by new situations.
Date:July 23rd, 2004 01:25 pm (UTC)
and it isn't either or. I operate on a combination of Morals and Ethics. Some of my Ethics have developed from morals, and some of my decision to not follow some morals have developed thru my ethics.
[User Picture]
Date:July 21st, 2004 05:26 pm (UTC)
I think the best take had to be when a friend of mine was told to 'behave himself' his response was; "I am. This is myself and it's how I behave."
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