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:
- To let anyone who reads what I write know what I mean when I use the words "moral" or "ethical", or "morals" or "ethics";
- 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;
- 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.