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What is the Difference between Morals and Ethics?

Morality v Ethics in Society

Many people bristle at the word “morality” but are quite comfortable using the term “ethical”, and insist there’s some crucial difference between the two. For instance, some people say ethics are about external, socially imposed norms, while morality is about individual conscience. Others say ethics is concrete and practical while morality is more abstract, or is somehow linked to religion. Among philosophers there’s no clear agreed distinction, and most philosophers use the two terms more or less interchangeably.

I like to think about it this way: Morals is about how we deal with people we know while ethics is about how we deal with people we do not know. The Golden Rule is instructive and applies to both: We should treat others the way we want to be treated. For those we know, we expect to be treated with respect and with empathy. For those we don’t know we expect to be treated fairly, a more subjective standard of behavior.

Now, there is no question that morality and ethics cross paths and intersect at integrity. That is, if we are moral and ethical people we will act based on principled behavior following virtues such as honesty, respect, responsibility, and loyalty to the truth as we see it; not so much to a person who might ask us to do something we sense is wrong but to an objective sense of what is right and what is wrong in a particular circumstance.

Moral questions tend to deal with issues such as abortion, capital punishment, and the like that pertain to how we view others’ behavior. Our morals are formed by core values such as how we see the right to life or the right of a woman to choose what she does with her body.

Ethical questions tend to deal with deciding correct conduct. For example, let’s assume your neighbor is growing organic vegetables and has more land than the eye can see. You think about “harvesting” some of these vegetables for your own use. Now, if you decide to stay off your neighbor’s land, you have acted ethically. You considered the interests of your neighbor and acted based on the universal ethical principle known as the Categorical Imperative. It holds that we should act in a way that we would want others to act if faced with similar conditions. In other words, I wouldn’t want my neighbor to use my property and what I grow for her own selfish needs so I should not do that to my neighbor. Thus, ethical action takes on a universal appeal; however we can imagine all kinds of "moral" viewpoints on the right to life versus a woman’s right to choose.

I like to think of ethics as the rules for deciding correct conduct. We can turn to philosophers for guidance as discussed above or the rules may be embodied in codes of ethics such as those of many professions. The following items are characteristics of ethics:

  • Ethics involves learning what is right and wrong, and then doing the right thing.
  • Most ethical decisions have extended consequences and ethics requires weighing the consequences of alternative course of action.
  • Most ethical decisions are not black or white but rely on reasoning through conflict situations using some standard of guidance.
  • Most ethical decisions have personal implications.
  • Ethical decisions should respect the rights of those who are affected by our actions.

Some people believe that most of us know what the right thing to do is in most of the situations we face in life. That may be true -- for most of us, but not all --. However, the hard part is doing it. How do we ward off the pressure that might be imposed by a boss or friend in trying to make the ethical choice? This is where a strong moral fiber comes into play.

A strong moral fiber is the capacity to do what is right, no matter what the circumstance. It all gets back to integrity – having the courage of our convictions. The problem is ethics is easier said than done.

In today's society it seems that people do not get that there is a difference between what we have the right to do and what the right thing to do is. We have a right to post offensive comments about another person or our employer on social media. But, is it the right thing to do? How will we know? The answer is each of us has a moral compass. Unfortunately, for all too many in society today their moral compass is pointing due south rather than up to the heavens in a northerly direction.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 27, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: