Meta:Historical/Ethics vs. Morals

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Ethics vs. Morals
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Adding my two cents' worth: In philosophy, "morals" may be considered an inclusive term for any principle of guiding behavior. Thus, ethics are ALWAYS morals, but of a particular flavor relying on logic and the distinction of creating good versus the opposite. Morals in the sense of religiously-dictated behavior are termed DEONTOLOGICAL morals, that is, morals given by a god-figure. Even behavior patterns that we consider to be completely unethical and even, well, immoral, may be considered moral systems, such as the philosophy of the truly pathological personality that only one's own needs and wishes need be considered in guiding behavior. Of course, this is precisely the kind of moral system that deontological morals and ethics have been formulated to guard against. John Knouse mailto:jaknouse@frognet.net


Is it in any way useful to draw a distinction between Ethicality and Morality? Are they not, after all, synonymous? Doesn't one pretty much imply the other? Let us answer the three foregoing questions, "Yes, no and no" respectively and see whether such a position is defensible.

The root word for Ethical is the Greek "ethos," meaning "character." The root word for Moral is Latin "mos," meaning "custom."

Both words are broadly defined in contemporary English as having to do with right and wrong conduct. Character and custom, however, provide two very different standards for defining what is right and what is wrong. Character would seem to be a personal attribute, while custom is defined by a group over time. People have character. Societies have custom. To violate either can be said to be wrong, within its appropriate frame of reference.

It is possible to draw an objective distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, which does not depend on context for a measuring stick. Let us say that good, or right, would be the quality of those things which tend toward the greatest survival for the greatest cross-section of life and bad, or wrong, would apply to those things which tend away from that greatest survival. This is a standard which can be objectively tested for, in theory.

(more to come, as time permits)


I have studied ethics quite a bit and I can't say that I have seen the word "ethicality" very often, though I found it in a dictionary. I would rename this page "EthicsVsMorals" (or better yet, "EthicsAndMorals") and then it will be a topic that more people are apt to recognize. -- Larry Sanger


As you wish...


Another way to look at the distinction is to say that morals are accepted from an authority (cultural, religious, etc.), while ethics are accepted because they follow from personally-accepted principles. For example, if one accepts the authority of a religion, and that religion forbids stealing, then stealing would be immoral. An ethical view might be based on an idea of personal property that should not be taken without social consent (like a court order). Stealing would directly contradict that view. On the other hand, if one has different basic principles that didn't recognize an item as "property", a similar action might not be unethical. (Helping a slave escape would be ethical if one believes people should not be owned as property.)

Professional and "ethical" codes of conduct are an interesting case--they are very similar to morality in that they are often accepted and adhered to in a moral sense. For example, consider a doctor who follows a professional code of ethics, including a strong requirement to not violate the patient's privacy. The doctor discovers that a patient has a genetic/inherited disease that is treatable, and that the patient has siblings who are likely to have the same disease. The patient asks the doctor not to tell anyone (including the siblings) about the disease. The interesting question is not so much what the doctor should do, but how the doctor should come to a decision. Should the doctor follow the consensus of the professional community, even if it conflicts with personal ethics? Would it matter if the rest of the community was united or divided over the question?


A formal way of distinguishing them is to define ethics as 'those rules which it is rational for a group to possess so as to govern its external relations with other entities' and define morals as 'those rules which it is rational for a group to possess so as to govern its internal relations between members'. These definitions are consistent with the usage of professional ethics (of a profession with regards to clients, patients, et cetera) versus human morality (how one human should behave with respect to another). And keeping these examples in mind, it simply isn't correct that ethics does not derive from an authority (eg, a doctor's association) or that morality does not come from personally accepted principle. It also shows that professional ethics have nothing to do with the consensus or division in the group involved.


The Simple View of Morals and Ethics is now updated to make distinctions more clearly - the framework is the same but two new assertions are made. One is Rushworth Kidder's notion that "ethics is the balance of right versus right" in a tradeoff or case-based process. The other is Craig Hubley's notion that "moral example distinguishes right from wrong, and over time what we choose to emulate creates a 'moral core'" as distinct from a "moral code". Common ideas of etiquette and collective responsibility are put in context. As is the modern idea that morality is aesthetic and personal ultimately, but provides an important fulcrum on which we can balance our ethical decisions "as if we were the other".

This is completely compatible with the "formal view of ethics vs. morals" in the above entry - if we define ethics as 'those rules which it is rational for a group to possess so as to govern its external relations with other entities' and define morals as 'those rules which it is rational for a group to possess so as to govern its internal relations between members' then we just have to see the ethical codes or rules as sharable among untrusting parties, and the morals not sharable directly but only through stories or examples from trusted parties. Morals work on a smaller scale than ethics, more reliably, but by addressing human needs for belonging and emulation.

Ethical codes, on the other hand, can allow for "creative accounting" and such.  ;-)

I don't feel that I changed the character of the article, just made certain distinctions - like a list of ethical keywords and a qualification of context in ethics - that are absolutely critical to moral decisions or ethical process in my own experience. People need to know what they mean by "right", "wrong", "good", "bad", and if they use it at all, "evil". If everyone knew what they personally meant by these words, and how to trade off one "right" for another, the world would have a great deal less conflict.

That makes perfect sense also if morals come from authority that is the self or the bond between mother and child, or family in general, and if ethics are subscribed to when you voluntarily join a tribe or profession or guild or union or party or faction or corporation or other such voluntary association.

I also dealt briefly with religion's focus on morals vs. philosophy's focus on ethics, and with theology itself. That's important, especially as most people's idea of 'ontology' comes from XML.  ;-) And because they never metaphysics they didn't believe in. ;-p

Despite this being in 'meta' I think the anoynimity is also important for this topic, although we should know what sources to look up for details.


It seems to me that there is, in fact, no useful distinction whatsoever that can be drawn between the terms "moral" and "ethical". An earlier writer mistakenly identified these words with their roots, 'mos' and 'ethos'. While these really are the roots, they're not the source; the word in Latin translated as 'moral' is 'moralis', which was coined by Cicero in an attempt to provide an accurate translation of the Greek 'ethikos'.

I have noticed that people who write on the Greeks tend to use 'ethics' while people who write on Kant or Mill (and, obviously, etcetera) tend to use 'morals'. I'm not entirely certain why that is.

url http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Ethics_vs._Morals accessed 9/10