The ethics of morals, and vice versa

Apropos of something I heard on NCIS last week.  Yeah, I get this stuff from some really random nether, don’t I.

Contrary to a popularly-held opinion*, ethics and morals are not the same thing. You’ll find all sorts of ways and metaphors to describe the difference.  One tale I’ve heard used in classes in some form or another is Two Guys With a Baseball Bat.  There are two guys, see, and we’ll hand each one a baseball bat and tell him to beat you up.  One guy says, “That’s assault, I’d go to jail or something.”  The other guy says, “You expect me to beat up some guy I don’t know?  No way, I can’t do that.”  The question is then, which guy is a good man?

A common answer is both.  Incorrect, and I will tell you why.

The first guy in the story is the ethical man.  Ethics are compliance with outside strictures – rules and laws placed upon you by someone else and which you obey.  It’s an easy logical trap to think that someone who obeys laws is a good person.  The problem with ethics, however, is that they change, often wildly swinging from one idea to a conflicting notion in less than a lifetime.  Would you like to see historical examples?

The American Psychiatrics Association listed homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973, the American Psychologists Association until 1975 and the World Health Organization until 1990.  Homosexuals could be subjected to various treatments, including drugs and commitment to a facility.

In 1941 in Germany, it was perfectly acceptable to murder Jew, Slav, Romani, homosexuals, the disabled, the mentally ill, as well as blacks, Asians and any Latino who didn’t have a Caucasian appearance.

It was considered right and proper to label women and children as chattel (property) within living memory.

Are these examples hyperbolic, even hysterical?  Not even close.  They are all recent examples of entire populations of normal Joe SixPacks and Sally SoccerMoms who thought themselves good people for abiding by the ethics of the day.  Today we consider locking people up, considering other humans to be your property and killing people to be wrong.  Which just leaves the question, what are we doing today that is perfectly legal and socially accepted and yet will be called barbaric in a decade?

The second person in our story is the moral man.  The primary restriction on his behaviors comes from within – his own moral code.  While he may abide by the rules and laws of the day, if they go against his moral code he is likely to violate them.  Moral men hid Jewish families in 1942, threw tea into the Boston Harbor in 1773, sat in the front of a Montgomery city bus in 1955, and faced the consequences for behaving so “unethically” – ostracism, harassment, arrest, prosecution, death.

The answer to which is the good man is that we lack enough information to call either of them good men.  An ethical man can comfortably live next door to a Holocaust death camp, and a moral man can protests soldiers’ funerals to teach us all the error of our ways.  However, your chances are better with a moral man because he chooses to think for himself rather than allowing outside authority to dictate what is right and acceptable.


* Illustrating with devastating effectiveness that what “everyone knows” is better evidence that “everyone” is an idiot than that people are generally well-informed.

Published in: on January 26, 2011 at 2:50 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Love it, love it, love it…

  2. Oh, yeah, that was the episode where Mr. Palmer was asking questions to Ducky for his test to be a forensic psychologist. Pretty good episode. Next week I think we get a new one.

    • Winner! Ducky’s response was the best I have ever heard for the difference between ethics and morality. I meant to copy it down and put it in my Quotes pages, but got busy at work and forgot every word he said. Bugger. Spent the last week mulling it, never could remember how he phrased it, but by then the ethics vs morals issue was lodged in my brain.

      B and I hold perving on the cast of NCIS to be a favorite pasttime. Many and long are the discussions on who would be more fun in bed, Tony or McGee, and if we could make Jimmy cry. Ha.

  3. What about rules and laws that don’t change? One I can think of is religion, though it is subject to so much interpretation that one might as well say it is subject to change–however, there are some very clear-cut ethical pronouncements in all of them.

    Another is philosophy, such as philosophy based on the principle of non-initiation of force. Also subject to some interpretation, but not as much as religion is.

  4. I always thought of it the other way. I associate morals with negative restriction to sexual Behaviour and Slut-Shaming, because I usually see the word in that context rather than situations like the above. I don’t associate “Morals” with being “good”, but with the standards that some people put up because they’re uncomfortable with the way other people live even if those people cause no direct harm to anyone (appart from others being offended and feeling threatened). But of course, that’s not the real meaning of the word, it’s just how it’s mostly used (in my eyes even misused).

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