March 2006


Ethics and Morality - what is the difference between these two things, or are they essentially the same, but treated differently by reason of some person's own internal prejudices?

Our good friends at the Cambridge Dictionary define morality as:

a personal or social set of standards for good or bad behavior and character, or the quality of being right, honest or acceptable

and they go on to define ethics as:

a system of accepted beliefs which control behavior, especially such a system based on morals

It seems to me that the difference between these two is that we use morality to define goodness or badness of a thing, whereas we ethically define the goodness or badness of an action. Morally, I can decide that you are a bad person and ethically I can decide that you are a person who does bad things. Five year olds are moralists. As most people become teenagers, they wrestle with the ethical contradictions of the morality they've been taught. Adults temper their personal moral judgments according to the ethical standards which a) they have worked out for themselves or b) have been received from a trusted source or c) they have mixed together from a and b. Method c) is the most common. People who strive to do ONLY a) OR b) drive themselves mad: they become a danger both to themselves and to others.

All the world's major religions have worked very hard to figure out what responsibility a person has to morality. Christianity sits squarely on both sides of the fence by granting that there are absolute rights and wrongs (morality) and that a person's conscience is the final arbiter of their rightness or wrongness(ethics). Let's say that you and I agree that there is a moral law that says we should cut down a blue tree as a bad thing, but that we ought to protect a green tree. If I pass tree A and think it looks green then I have morally correct to leave it be. If you pass tree A and think it is blue, fetch an axe and begin to chop it down, then you have been morally correct. The difficulty lies in putting us both together. You think I'm wrong for leaving the tree alone and I think you're wrong to chop it down. Does your moral responsibility mean that you must compel me to help you chop down the tree? Does my moral responsibility compel me to try and prevent you from harming the tree?

Leftist radicals and many liberals would argue that you have no right to compel me to help you but that I have every right to stop you, even if it's your tree. Rightist radicals and many conservatives would argue that you have every right to compel me to do right, but that I have no right to stop you, if it is your tree. Even people who hate relativistic morality are still guilty of it: we just don't live in a world of absolutes.

Legal systems have to deal with this kind of different perception of reality all the time. Most legal systems, including our own, resort to a polite fiction: a reasonable or normal person. If a normal person were to see this tree, would this normal person see it as green or as blue? If that won't work, the law tries to find a consensus among the majority and apply that.

Some people believe in majority rule only when the majority agrees with them. Democracy is only right or just when its ethics don't trespass on their personal morality.

A good example of this was a recent vote at the United National about a comprehensive nuclear non-proliferation agreement. Under the terms of this agreement, the nations of the world would cooperate together to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and strive to find ways to reduce the numbers of existing weapons, since these are a major factor in proliferation of these types of weapons. It was voted on by the full assembly and the vote was 142 to 1 in favor, with two abstentions. Any reasonable or normal person could see the good sense in reducing the threat of nuclear war by limiting the proliferation in nuclear arms and technology. The assembled nations of Earth showed their resolve with a virtually unanimous vote. Yet the USA voted against this treaty: we vetoed the agreement.

As a nation, we have a pretty solid record for moral speech and immoral action. We champion democracy as an ideal but do not support it as a fact. As a nation, our morality follows in the wake of our profits - a conscience of convenience is no conscience at all. Any morality applied on this basis is and must be ultimately immoral and anti-ethical.

Fortunately, we do still live in a democracy and we can force our leadership to make their morals just as obvious in their deeds as in their words.

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