Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Morals and Ethics

My husband and I have recently had a debate. There are two points at issue, and any enlightenment you, dear readers, can shed on either of them will be welcome.

(1) What, as you understand it, is the difference between morals and ethics? Your own view, please; we can do the googling ourselves.

(2) Do you think this difference is generally known and understood? By fairly well-educated people, I mean? (0ne of us thinks this is something virtually everybody knows, and the other thinks virtually nobody knows it.) Did you know it before you googled it?

Thanks for any input you may offer.

UPDATE: A genuine expert has responded to an e-mail I sent her, as follows:

Ethics involves system and process whereas morals involve judgement and values. Sometimes the terms overlap, as when we speak of Kant's Deontological decision-making as a "moral system".

I hope that this is helpful.

Best wishes,
Alice C. Linsley


LisaS said...

As a first cut reaction, ethics to me deals with agreed upon codes of behavior of groups - and by that I mean things like professional ethics that might apply to physicians or accountants or lawyers or general business practices. A given act may or may not be ethical.

Morality is, in my first cut response, more personal.

Acts can be ethical but not moral, moral but not ethical, ethically neutral but not morally neutral, morally neutral but not ethically neutral and so on.

Do most people get this? Most people I know and work with probably do. Do most people in a general sense - it might be too nuanced for them. They might have trouble with legal vs. ethical vs. moral as well.

Chris Jones said...

I basically agree with Lisa, though I would put it a bit differently.

Morals refers to an objective and (as we Christians would say) God-given standard of right and wrong. Ethics refers to a humanly-devised set of rules by which humans agree to judge one another's behaviour. While ethics are generally based on (what people perceive to be) objective morality, they are only an approximation of that objective morality, an approximation that has the virtue that it can be applied practically in a given human context.

And yes, I think most people at least intuitively grasp the difference.

123 said...

I think most people treat in America understand these terms as practically synonymous.

If pressed, as you have, I would say that ethics has more to do with professional, public or official codes of conduct or interaction while morals represent personal values about right and wrong covering both personal and professional situations.

Now I will read the other comments and check Google.

123 said...

I would disagree with Chris only in that morals, broadly speaking, need not be understood as in any way God-given. Morals can be based on religious and spiritual values and beliefs, but I know many people who could clearly define their morality without reference to God.

Objectivity is odd, too. I find most people understand their morals to be subjective in that they are written in stone or promulgated based on a particular authority. Once a person is pushed, I think they do believe their moral beliefs are objective based on a sort of utilitarianism that is assumed rather than conscious.

For instance, a Jewish-Catholic agnostic couple I know joked (seriously) that they were raising their kids in the "Don't be a jerk" religion. We all know what this statement of morality means and it is in a way both subjective and objective, and without reference to God. It also begs the question as to how one defines 'jerk', though within a given culture, this is not hard to understand (though a 'jerk' in MN is very different than a 'jerk' in NYC.)

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Thank you all.

And the winner is - my husband! He said the difference was more or less what each of you has said, and he said most educated people knew that.

Well, I didn't! I've learned something. Again, thanks. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator. said...

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