Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Morality and Ethics

This past week I was exploring a classic dorm room philosophical question: what, if any, is the difference between "morality" and "ethics".

As I've been reflecting on various moral and ethical issues, I've realized that it's actually an important question. It matters in terms of how to properly classify, compare and contrast morals and ethics across the boundaries of belief and skepticism. It matters, as a Christian, in regard to many of these inter-related questions in terms of how to discuss morality and ethics with the world at large:

-- Is what is moral also ethical?
-- How much does any one else's moral system fit in with "ethics"?
-- What do these terms mean to those who are hailing from a different ideology or different belief system?
-- What is it to have a moral debate or an ethical debate?
-- How much is a question of Christian morality "exportable" into the realm of ethical inquiry beyond Christianity?
-- Do I have a Christian ethical system or a Christian moral system, or both?
-- Where, if at all, do moral considerations and ethical blend in?

As with any important philosophical inquiry, I went to the internet. In freedictionary.com, it offers these definitions:

eth•ic ( th k)
1. a. A set of principles of right conduct. b. A theory or a system of moral values: "An ethic of service is at war with a craving for gain" Gregg Easterbrook.
2. ethics (used with a sing. verb) The study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy.
3. ethics (used with a sing. or pl. verb) The rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession: medical ethics.

mo•ral•i•ty (m -r l -t , mô-)
n. pl. mo•ral•i•ties
1. The quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.
2. A system of ideas of right and wrong conduct: religious morality; Christian morality.
3. Virtuous conduct.
4. A rule or lesson in moral conduct.

So to what extent are these terms interchangeable? Here, a gentleman named Lawrence M. Hinman gives his effort at making contrast:

"Ethics. The explicit, philosophical reflection on moral beliefs and practices. The difference between ethics and morality is similar to the difference between musicology and music. Ethics is a conscious stepping back and reflecting on morality, just as musicology is a conscious reflection on music.

Morality. "Morality" refers to the first-order beliefs and practices about good and evil by means of which we guide our behavior. Contrast with Ethics, which is the second-order, reflective consideration of our moral beliefs and practices.

Here is wikipedia contrasting morals and ethics:

"Morality (from Latin moralitas "manner, character, proper behaviour") refers to the concept of human action which pertains to matters of right and wrong—also referred to as "good and evil"—used within three contexts: individual distinction; systems of valued principles—sometimes called conduct morality—shared within a cultural, religious, secular or philosophical community. Personal morals define and distinguish among right and wrong intentions, motivations or actions, as these have been learned, engendered, or otherwise developed within individuals. Bycontrast, ethics are more correctly applied as the study of broader social systems within whose context morality exists. Morals define whether I should kill my neighbour Joe when he steals my tractor; ethics define whether it is right or wrong for one person to kill another in a dispute over property. "

Notice that the two sites listed above distinguish ethics from morality by defining ethics as the disciplined, conscious study applying the broadest examination of society. Morality is portrayed as being more instinctual, reflexive and provincial. Here, below, is a professional trade publication weighing in on the topic. The distinction made here is similar to that made by Wikipedia that morals are personal, and that ethics are global.

"Morals and the expression, “moral values” are generally associated with a personal view of values. Personal morals tend to reflect beliefs relating to sex, drinking, gambling, etc. They can reflect the influence of religion, culture, family and friends.

Ethics is concerned with how a moral person should behave. Ethical values are beliefs concerning what is morally right and proper as opposed to what is simply correct or effective.

An individual may personally believe that drinking is immoral. However, drinking is not, in and of itself, unethical. Further, it is unethical to impose your personal moral values on another.
Ethical values transcend cultural, religious, or ethnic differences.

Ethical values embrace a more universal worldview. The Josephson Institute of Ethics recommends six, core ethical values to abide by: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship. "

Here is a link to an atheist at atheism.about.com who gives a good breakdown of the different ethical disciplines, defining "ethics" in broad enough terms that it could be used to describe any feature of "morality". He does not explicitly define "morality", though in his writing he uses the term "ethics" more in regard to the disciplines of study and "morality" more in regard to their application.

Here are his categories of ethical inquiry listed as links:

Descriptive Ethics
Normative Ethics
Deontology and Ethics
Teleology and Ethics
Virtue Ethics
Analytic Ethics (Metaethics)

Here is a link to a philosopher who draws no distinction, but who is open to others attempting to make a distinction.

"I draw no distinction between ethics and morality. For me, the difference between the two terms is simply the difference between Greek (ethos) and Latin (mores). That is to say: in my lexicon they are stylistic variants of each other. If someone uses these terms in such a way as to suggest a difference, I have no objection as long as the person explains what difference he has in mind. But one should not assume a difference without explaining it."

So with this peek into the web, allow me to take a crack at this question of morality vs. ethics. I recognize that there is a certain value to all of the above attempts at comparing and contrasting ethics and morality, however, all of the above distinctions between ethics and morality, or lack thereof, leave something to be desired. I want to build on the categories of ethical inquiry listed at atheism.about.com to define "ethics" and "morality" in a way that encompasses the way that these words are commonly used, but that allows for a more disciplined understanding of how these terms blend together. So I define

Ethics as the realm of inquiry into questions of right conduct and virtue wherein a common metaphysical understanding among the debating parties is not a pre-requisite.

Morality as a particular value system that is oriented around a particular metaphysical understanding. It is the value system of a morality that will inform matters of right behavior and virtue.

By my definition, ethics is not the only province of conscious examination, nor is it the only idea that is non-provincial. Rather, an ethical discussion/debate occurs when the parties involved do not necessarily have an agreement on a metaphysical principle that serves as an ultimate truth. A moral discussion/debate is an inquiry in which the debating parties agree upon a metaphysical principle and are debating the correct application that flows from that principle.

My definition allows a superficial similarity to some of the definitions offered above, since a system of morality as I've defined it will be more idiosyncratic to individuals, since individuals can have a differing view of what is ultimately true. A system of morality will also be more likely to be connected to religion, since religious beliefs provide people with answers concerning ultimate truth.

It is a tendency among philosophical cognicenti to define morality as the "petri dish" that is examined by the objective "microscope" of ethics. The hierarchical relationship that places ethics above morality that is created for the inquiry elides into the conclusion -- that "ethics" is the meta-morality above morality. The trade publication's definitions of these terms are representative of this tendency.

Based on how I've defined "morality" and "ethics", no one can claim to be a member of a cognicenti that has risen above questions of mere morality. Saying that there is no ultimate truth is, in itself an ultimate truth which functions as the basis of organizing a moral value system. Even those who claim that they have no settled metaphysical understanding, in fact, have one by default. It is also possible for people to have un-examined beliefs and therefore have deeply held moral systems that are in conflict with their overtly stated moral/ethical positions.

A moral system may encompass ideas of right conduct and virtue that are amenable to many others who have differing moral systems. It is these common denominator questions of right conduct and virtue that exist in the realm of "moral overlap" and are considered to be the realm of what is "ethical" by many. Ideas of Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship would fall into this category.

In regard to the blend of morality, morals, ethics and an "ethic", "morals" are generally referred to those principles of behavior and value which are not subject to any debate within a moral system. A "(fill in the blank) ethic" is a term that may be used by moralists to describe conclusions that certain members of a moral system have made in regard to particular chosen code/patterns of mind and behavior. For example, it may be moral in my moral system for me pray, and I may have a "prayer ethic" of praying in a certain way. Based on my definitions, if I am having a discussion on ethics that is informed by moral view in a way that can be commonly understood among those with different moral outlooks, I can be said to be discussing ethics.

It is this breakdown of ethics and morality that I will be using when I refer to "ethics" and "morality" in later blog posts. If I am echoing anyone else who has opined on this topic, please let me know.

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