It’s always fun to go back and read your own work. I often look back at articles that I have written and wonder “why did I say that?” or “that doesn’t even make sense.” Occasionally, I impress myself, which is fun. And sometimes, I am forced to admit a deficiency in my own writing, in this case the fact that I tend to use the terms “ethics” and “morals” interchangeably, when they are not the same thing. One evening, seeking a deeper level of personal clarity, I dove into the shallow pond of the internet to attempt to solidify this subtle but important distinction in my own mind. The results, presented here, were rather surprising.
According to Dictionary.com, ethics is a system of moral principles, while morals are principles of right and wrong conduct. This seems simple enough. Ethics is a framework, a systemic and reasoned basis for making statements about morality. Morals are simply what we believe to be right and wrong. There appears to be a clear distinction here that ethics are more sophisticated than morals. Morally, one can support almost anything, while ethically we require reason and justification for what we believe. When a doctor violates a certain behavioral standard, this is an ethics violation rather than a moral one. This individual has violated a reason based, systemic code of conduct that is held in mutually high esteem by all physicians. If we were to call this individual’s actions unethical, we are making a statement about his or her conduct relative to the standards of his profession. If we were to call such actions immoral, we are simply saying that we consider this behavior to be wrong.
I thought I had this figured out until I tried to explain it to my wife, who promptly crushed my argument by pointing out that in describing ethics, I was using the word moral and continuing to interchange these terms with no regard for specifics. I was frustrated, upset even. I’m a philosopher by trade, for crying out loud. I should know this, this is easy! In fact it is not so easy and is made more complicated by the context in which the terms are used. But wait, there is more.
As my confusion continued, I dived back into the electronic abyss and typed “morality” and “ethics” into Thesaurus.com. According to this site, morality is beliefs regarding appropriate behavior, while ethics is the formal study of morality. This seemed okay, until I realized that using this definition, unethical would mean un-formal study of morality. Sorry, what? Clearly that won’t work either. I decided to play with this inversion concept, and deduced that when something is unethical, it goes against a system of morality, such as utilitarianism. If something is immoral, it is morally objectionable or simply wrong.
It seems that this distinction is actually made more complicated by referring to linguistics-based references. Both of the above sites, as well as Merriam-Webster.com listed morals and ethics as synonyms for one another, even though their definitions make it clear that they are not the same thing. Further research showed an even greater variety of opinion, often with the consistent theme that ethics are systemic, while morals are simply beliefs about right and wrong. One site went so far as to suggest that morals are subjective while ethics are objective and come from the Christian God. The things we find on Google. In any event, my hope is to find a way to clearly and distinctly designate between ethics and morals without finding myself perched atop a high balcony and considering my own mortality. Here goes nothing….
Morals, quite simply, are beliefs about right and wrong conduct. They are often based on sociological conditions and learned behavior, but not always. They do not require reason, consistency, or thorough analysis in their initial shaping or practical application. One can make a statement about morals without making a statement about ethics. If something is immoral, it may or may not be appropriate to call it unethical. I can believe that lying is wrong because my grandmother told me it was, and that is what I believe. No further justification is required. Ethics, on the other hand, is a reason based, cumulative system of moral decision making. It is built upon one or a few basic principles and requires that we be thorough, honest, and comprehensive in making statements about right and wrong. Ethics is about building the kind of world we want to live in, and developing a consistent process by which to achieve this. Ethics is an advanced expression of morality.
For example, let us say that I believe abortion is wrong because all human life is valuable, but I also believe that we should punish murderers by putting them to death. These points of view could be held simultaneously from a position of simple moral belief, but would at a minimum require additional justification before being accepted as a reasonable ethical position. Morality is simply a statement about right and wrong. Abortion is wrong, the death penalty is right. (This is just an example, I do not really think this.) Moral belief does not require that we are reasonable or justified, but ethics does. An ethicist would have to deal with the contradiction regarding value of human life that is created by holding these positions simultaneously.
Still confused? Join the club.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.