What is the question?
Both ethics and morality assist is in answering the question: What should I do?
We are faced with this question all the time. Too often we make important decisions without giving enough time or process to reaching the best answer. Why not? Often we simply don’t know how to make such decisions. Sometimes we ignore them and hope they will go away, sometimes we follow the advice of others, sometimes we just guess.
If we wish to be responsible for our own future and our own decisions we should spend a little time thinking and trying to make a good decision, a better decision than simply choosing the easiest answer.
So, ethics and morality assist us in answering the question: What should I do?
Do they provide the same answer? No.
Which is the better approach and why?
What is the difference between morality and ethics?
Many of us confuse ethics and morality, many people use them interchangeably. But they are very, very different, related but different. The difference is crucial when making important decisions, even deciding whether you are facing a moral dilemma or an ethical dilemma. Important when discussing such popular topics as religion, sexuality, good and bad, right or wrong. So, take a few minutes now to better understand the difference between morality and ethics.
Please, don’t refer to the dictionary. Dictionaries attempt to capture popular usage and much of popular usage of ethics and morality is very blurred. Here I can show you how to use each word precisely, and make these words as sharp tools to cut through some pretty complicated ideas.
Morality is a set of rules or guidelines by which we behave. Simple? Yes, very simple but the implications are very important.
Morals answer problems we face in life. Morals are written down; they’re defined answers to defined problems. Examples that come to mind are: Stealing is immoral. Adultery is immoral. Killing another person is immoral. Abortion is immoral. Homosexuality is immoral. Burning the Christian Bible is immoral.
Now you must appreciate that someone must decide upon these rules or guidelines. In the case of the Bible’s Ten Commandments that were handed down from the Mount thousands of years ago, these rules were spoken and written by the Christian God and then possibly transcribed and interpreted by Moses. As a general rule, morality is determined by others and followed by people who share certain values.
The Ten Commandments were a set of ten rules which defined the behaviour of a group of people many years ago. The rules were effective in that they devolved the Ten Commandments into practical laws and a social structure which defined a people. They provided stability and provided the basis for an ongoing identity and development.
The fact that morality provides stability is a very important and powerful aspect of morality. When the environment changes, when the old leaders and mentors die, morality enables their values, their rules to continue. So people have stability. A change in leadership does not mean everyone must start again. People feel and are more secure when things are stable. Change and uncertainty are somewhat scary. Morality provides a basis for a comforting stability.
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” is my recall of (part of) one of the Ten Commandments. Most people would agree that it is not good to try to seduce your neighbour’s wife (which may be the result if you desire her enough). Even today it would result in some pretty nasty outcomes if everyone went around seducing each other’s wife right, left and centre. It could damage the society substantially. So that is a pretty useful rule to apply within most societies then and today.
In summary, morality is a set of common values that provide stability for societies and differentiate between societies.
Ethics is an approach, a method of making decisions. Ethics is about deciding to the best of our ability, without fear or favour. It is about being aware of the many aspects of each issue and trying to include them into the decision making process. It is about being aware of the outcome of our decisions, good and bad.
Ethics is about making a well-considered decision and having the moral courage to accept the responsibility of our decision.
Ethics is more a way of approaching decisions, ethics is not a set of values but a way of developing values for a certain situation as it is understood.
Do you see how it differs from morality? Morality is a set of values that are applied, ethics is a way to solve something at we understand it. Ethics can develop morals and as the situation changes ethics can evolve morals.
Let us just return to ethics for now and I shall say more about the strengths and weaknesses of each in more detail further on.
Ethics is a way of reaching an answer in any situation. The aim is to reach the best answer. But all problems are complicated. The more we learn about a problem, the more complicated it becomes.
Let us take a simple example. Common morality states “Thou shall not kill another person.” A drug-crazed killer has shot a dozen students in a classroom and is systematically shooting more students, one every ten seconds. You are situated behind him ten meters away. You have a gun and a clear shot at him. Do you shoot and kill him?
Morality says no.
Ethics tells us we should consider the potential outcome of our decision, how it will affect others and how it affects the world we live in. Ethics tells us to make a decision based upon what we think is right for everything and everyone.
My own take is:
Don’t decide for your own benefit, decide for the benefit of others.
Do the right thing, the nicest thing.
Be aware of the consequences. In part they are our responsibility.
Do we kill him? There is no perfect right or wrong answer here We each must make our own decision and live with the outcomes. If we have done so, then the decision was ethical.
Based upon my understanding of the situation, I would shoot to kill because it is in the best interest of the remaining students. It may have a bad outcome for me, but I am less important than the students. I would judge more good would result from my killing him.
This is making an ethical decision.
However, maybe there is something I didn’t know. Maybe it was a movie being shot and I for whatever reason, was unaware that everyone was acting. Sounds pretty stupid, but such things happen.
The Problems of Morality and Ethics
Morality provides answers. Morality provides solutions. Morals are right, absolute and certain. We can be confident that if we decide based upon morality, it is a solution and correct based upon the morality. Morals are convenient and easy. Few questions are required, thinking is limited, and we follow the rules. This is a great strength and a weakness. Morality provides good answers to many day to day decisions.
There are so many decisions we need to make each day, we cannot spend hours on each of them. This is where morality is strong. We can follow our morals with a fair degree of confidence because in the past they have provided a good outcome. Morals are convenient and easy.
But things change. How do the Ten Commandments handle the internet? Genetic engineering? Pollution? Nuclear power? Global warming? The Ten Commandments do not have an answer for these questions because the questions did not exist or were not asked at that time.
Clearly decision making must evolve to adapt to current circumstances. But morality is characterised by stability, by absolute rules. What about ethics? Ethics is the domain of changed circumstance. Ethics is fluid and adaptable.
Ethics can show us how to evolve our morals, how to make decisions in new situations.
Ethics is better for the tricky decisions, morality is more efficient for the regular problems we face day to day. But be aware, do not get complacent, morality does not question and we often need to understand and question the reasons behind even simple looking problems before making a decision. Take care using morality, ask yourself is the answer obvious or do I need to understand a little more?
Let us use a simple example. The morality “Thou shall not kill another person” seems straightforward.
Hitler was exterminating the Jews in 1939. Was it ethical to declare war on Germany? Is war moral? See above… which is right, correct or best?
Take a more complex example within the context of war. Imagine aircraft pilots shooting civilians because they looked like so called dangerous insurgents. Such decisions were made ethically in their view, they were making a decision for the best interest of other parties at some risk to themselves. In hindsight they may have been wrong, but the decision can well be called ethical. It could equally be called moral because the pilots were following the rules.
Morality is applying predetermined values (usually developed by others) and designed for different problems, different dilemmas at a different time and then not accepting the responsibility of that decision. “I did it because the rule said so.” This in my view is taking the easy option, abrogating responsibility in many cases.
Ethics is applying your values to a problem now and making the best decision possible based upon the available information. Such decisions become your decision and you are responsible for the decision and outcome in part. Ethics is characterised by doubt, unanswered questions and knowing that we can only make our best decisions and that such decisions are not the best for everyone. Every decision has costs and costs are not shared equally. So ethics does not answer the question what is right or wrong, but what is possibly better or worse based upon what is known.
Moral decisions provide certainty, an amount of righteousness. But of course because each society has different morality, each society will make differing moral decisions in some cases. Sometimes this is enough to generate major conflicts despite seemingly almost insignificant differences. The fact that religion is a major factor in conflict demonstrates this. The morality of each religion is different and absolute. Absolute differences are irreconcilable, and generate intolerance.
Ethical decisions provide uncertainty and doubt. Even if societies have differing values, taking an ethical approach permits different solutions and an acceptance that perhaps my decision is not the best for all. This engenders an accepting culture, one which takes a more “live and let live” approach. Doubt is good in that is encourages tolerance.
Ethicists are wracked with doubt. Moralists are absolute in their convictions. Find a smug politician and you have found a moral politician. Find a tormented politician and you have found a more ethical politician.
I will close with another example of where today’s society has a moral value which is at odds with ethical decision making.
Euthanasia. Under the same moral code that states we shall not kill, society today demands we maintain the life of aged damaged people who no longer have any desire to live. Our morality demands we keep their hearts beating, their lungs pumping, using all that modern medicine can offer. Ethics asks the question why we should maintain the life in this failing body propped up by technology. What is the good that comes from locking out the grim reaper a little longer? No one wishes to suffer and finally die ever so slowly, causing grief to their loved ones. Yet society forces this morality onto us all.
I ask you the question who gains from this? Look deep into your heart and think for a moment, think ethically. I suspect that some people gain by saying “We did all we could to keep him alive.” This is a way of justifying an unethical decision. A way of avoiding criticism and blame. Being ethical is accepting the consequences for making the best decisions.
Remember morality is about abrogating responsibility? The dying person makes their decision and wishes to die. For our own selfish reasons, not for their benefit, someone else decides they must continue to suffer and others must suffer so they can be moral.
Euthanasia is ethical in the vast majority of cases, but it is immoral in most societies today. Politicians are largely being unethical by allowing this to continue. They are acting in their self interest – their ego removes their ethical component from their actions.
So, I hope you now understand the difference between morals and ethics. It won’t change the world tomorrow, nor should it, but if perhaps you can just take a little more time to consider important decisions in ethical terms in future then your world will be a better, more tolerant place.
If you want to practice straight away, ask yourself what are the ethical questions associated with smoking, with parenting and junk food, computer games or boxing. What about walking across the road safely on a Don’t Walk sign, forcing children to attend classes where they are disruptive in class, smoking a cigarette, working for an alcohol or uranium mining company. What are the ethics of working for a lobby group, being a politician or a vegetarian?
And recall again, there is no absolutely right or wrong answer. There are better or worse answers, yes. But not right or wrong. The best you can do is better understand the issues, the consequences, and who and what is affected before deciding. You cannot make a truly ethically decision until you are on the spot. And each ethical decision will not be perfect nor please everyone, nor will it be valid forever, the answer may change tomorrow, but such decisions will be yours and the best you can make at the time with the information you have.