Morals vs Ethics
June 9, 2005 12:01 PM   Subscribe

What's the difference between morals and ethics anyway? Anybody?

The wikipedia articles on each give an answer that doesn't really fit with common usage of the two words, and certainly not with the way the question is framed in Election.

posted by cillit bang to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total)
I've always been mostly inclined to illustrate the difference by example... A teacher I once knew is currently in prison for having sex with his underage student and her 13-year old sister. That? That's immoral. As to the conduct, frankly, none of us were too surprised....

But if you told me that he'd given either of them better grades? Mr. Nick wouldn't do that. It'd be unethical.
posted by piro at 12:14 PM on June 9, 2005

Uhhh... they're actually different? I commonly use the words to mean the same thing, although I might use the word "moral" to apply more to personal ethics than the word "ethical" which I would apply to professional morals.

ie: You're an unethical bastard == Embezzling company funds.

You're an immoral jerk == Cheating on your spouse.

posted by shepd at 12:14 PM on June 9, 2005

Morality is a system to judge right and wrong.

Ethics is the study of that system.
posted by Jairus at 12:16 PM on June 9, 2005

In the examples given above by piro and shepd, you will notice the 'immoral' examples are things people do that are very obviously considered 'wrong' by the people doing them.

In the 'unethical' examples, you have things that the people rationalize the wrongness of - and rationalizing is a form of study.

Unethical things (as compared to immoral things) involve a considered and conscious reflection on the morality of the situation.
posted by Jairus at 12:23 PM on June 9, 2005

Ethics and morals are indeed roughly synonymous.

In modern connotaton, however, there does seem to be a bit of a difference. The word 'ethics' typically seems to be used to describe the rules of behavior handed down by a profession or a particular secular position in society, whereas the word 'morals' seems to be typically used in relation to rules of behavior handed down by organized religions.

But that seems to be what's going on when moral judgements are decried as unethical, and ethical judgements are derided as immoral.
posted by eschatfische at 12:45 PM on June 9, 2005

I heard this cute (if not perfectly accurate) saying once:

Morals are what keep you from running a red light at 3 pm. Ethics are what keep you from running a red light at 3 am.

Personally, I think of ethics as amorphous principles and morals/morality as the implemenation of those principles in practice.
posted by Crushinator at 1:17 PM on June 9, 2005

Personally, I think of ethics as amorphous principles and morals/morality as the implementation of those principles in practice.

Wow; that's pretty much exactly the opposite of how I think of it.

Ethics, in the common parlance, are rules delineating which behaviors are acceptable in which situations. Laws, professional regulations, and personal codes of conduct are all ethical systems. "Ethics" is also a branch of philosophy, sometimes called "moral philosophy", which studies morality and its application, including such real-world systems as laws, professional regulations, and codes of conduct. The difference between the technical use of the word "ethics" and its common use is that, as a branch of philosophy, ethics also concerns itself with the more esoteric aspects of morality, such as how moral systems come into being and how to resolve conflicts between moral systems.

In common usage, "morality" is more closely tied to this second sense: it includes not only the applied systems of rules, but the sources of these systems, ideas of consistency between and within these systems (justice, fairness, piety, etc.), and attempts to weight the values of different moral systems.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:36 PM on June 9, 2005

Expanding on what mr_roboto has said, I think it would be more helpful first to distinguish between kinds of ethics:

Normative ethics - what people should do, specifically. Example: Killing is wrong. You could say that the 10 commandments are 10 normative ethical claims. Now whether you agree with the 10 commandments or not, that can lead to either a different, competing set of normative ethical claims, or it can lead to an argument about:

Meta-ethics - the nature of ethics. Meta-ethics asks questions like: Are ethics by nature subjective, or are they objective? If objective, what makes ethical statements true or false?

Within these definitions, morals are normative ethics. "What you ought to do when." Its meta-ethics that attempt to answer why this ethical claim exists and what it means. Morals are the end result of rational, philosophical ethical inquiry (in my imaginary, utopian world at least).

Of course, there are applied ethics, situational ethics, etc... and then people that argue that morals are merely folkways taken to another level.

Ethics is sort of an umbrella word to describe a wider number of things than morals.
posted by tweak at 2:02 PM on June 9, 2005

Here is a good example of popular connotation (thanks shepd):

You're an unethical bastard == Embezzling company funds.

You're an immoral jerk == Cheating on your spouse.

(these are both normative ethical claims)

In this example, most people use "ethics" to mean your actions have an impersonal object. "Morals" gets used when your actions are somehow more personal.
posted by tweak at 2:08 PM on June 9, 2005

Morals are how you know what's right and what's wrong.

Ethics are how you decide when you have to make a choice between two conflicting things that are right and/or two things that are wrong

(e.g. the classic WW2 example is choosing to lie to the authorities by saying no when they ask if you've got Jews in your house)
posted by winston at 2:27 PM on June 9, 2005

mr_roboto pretty much sums up the understanding I've always had of the distinction--that "morality" has to do with the underlying system of values, and "ethics" has to do with their application.

Some broad example of moral issues, in my view: "Killing is wrong." "Life begins/doesn't begin at conception."

Examples of ethical issues: The legality of capital punishment, killing in self-defense, or abortion.

That also meshes with eschatfische's point about morals being more religious, while ethics are more legal/professional/societal, which is something else I've always thought.
posted by LairBob at 2:29 PM on June 9, 2005

Morality governs actions that are mala in se (bad in and of themselves). Murder is an example of immoral behavior. If murder were legal, it would still be morally wrong.

Ethics governs actions that are mala prohibita (bad because they are prohibited). "Cutting in line" is an example of unethical behavior. It's wrong by convention, but there are nations where it wouldn't be considered improper.
posted by gd779 at 6:05 PM on June 9, 2005

A doctor having sex with a patient could be unethical rather than immoral, since it may be acceptable were they not doctor/patient. Is ethics the morality of business?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:55 PM on June 9, 2005

Ethics is applied morality.

So, following the WW2 example, deciding whether or not the Nazis were right to murder Jews is a moral choice. The decision to hide Jews in your house and lie to the authorities is an ethical decision, which flows from a moral principle.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 2:09 AM on June 10, 2005

Professional philosophers do not commonly distinguish between ethical theory and moral theory. Both try to separate the actions or character traits that would be right from those that are wrong, to the extent that this is possible.

There are occasional diversions from this usage. The way the words seem to be used in modern American society, the cluster of terms surrounding "morality" seem to designate standards that apply to anyone whatsoever or to heinous wrongdoing (aside from the obvious religious usages). The cluster of terms surrounding "ethical" seem to designate special standards that apply to someone insofar as he or she is in some role (professional, largely). So not everyone will have the opportunity to tamper with a witness.

The reason philosophers don't bother distinguishing is that both are answers to the question, "How should we live?" or "What should I do?" That, and in almost all cases, moral duties would trump ethical ones (by the above usage) anyway. Even if there were ethical, but immoral, actions, they probably shouldn't be done. This tells us that ethical standards get their weight from moral standards and are, in fact, just a species of them.
posted by ontic at 4:18 AM on June 10, 2005

In my view ethics and morality are different things but closely related. Ethics owes its existence to the fact that human interests come into conflict. For example, consider a poluting manufacturer's financial interest versus the communities interest in clean air and water. Or consider your interest in in keep a $100 bill you saw someone drop versus what you know to be the dropper's interest. Your ethics is how you make sense of the sorts of situations. Ethical theory is concerned with understanding the principles that provide justified resolutions in cases of conflict of interest. Btw, a legal system, while it might aim at being ethical is not an ethical system. The law is the set of societal rules backed by force. Ethics is deeper.

Morality, on the other hand, concerns the basic principles live by. For example, work hard, try to be a good parent, and so on.
Our morality is our view of how our society and ourselves ought to be. While some moral principles are a lot like ethical principles, such as be honest, morality is broader. It includes principles that have little to do with resolving conflicts of interest and our behavior toward others. For example, striving to be healthy can be a moral conviction, but has little to do with the treatment of others.

General speaking morality and ethics essentially have nothing to do with religion. Religions might talk more about these things, and perhaps try to co-opt it, but essentiall ethics and morality are logical consequences of the inescable problem of life.
posted by Como Gomez at 10:47 AM on June 11, 2005

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