A Troubling Division between 'Morality,' 'Ethics'

By Hancock, Ralph | Deseret News (Salt Lake City), October 11, 2017 | Go to article overview

A Troubling Division between 'Morality,' 'Ethics'


Hancock, Ralph, Deseret News (Salt Lake City)


Some want to separate public "ethics" from private "morality." It's been tried. It doesn't work - if our morality doesn't control our ethics, our ethics become our morality.

Have you noticed how often we use the practically equivalent words "morality" and "ethics" to reinforce each other, doubling the terms to convince ourselves that we're talking about something quite sophisticated and academic, and not merely appealing to some plain teaching about right and wrong learned from our mother or from the Bible? For example, we might hear: "Climate change raises questions not only of politics and economics, but of great significance from the standpoint of morality and ethics."

The formula is a little puzzling as well as amusing, since it's far from clear what one term adds to the other. "And ethics" seems to suggest that I'm not just talking about my own moral feelings, but about some rational ethical principles approved by ethical experts. It's true that a university philosophy course on morality is likely to be entitled "Ethics 201," a lingering tribute to Aristotle's great treatise "The Nicomachean Ethics." But it might also appear in the catalog as "Moral Philosophy 201."

There seems to be a faint and unstable distinction in our usage: "Morality" is more private and more a matter of rules or commandments honored by an individual, and "ethics" is more a question of a public ethos or body of shared customs and practices. We also use "ethics" to apply to the more or less established code of a profession or other distinct body, as in "medical ethics." But even this public/private distinction is a matter of inconsistent usage: A quick Google search produced an article that confirmed my hunch (morals, private; ethics, public) - but then the very next article reversed the polarity, confidently explaining that "ethics" has to do with the individual's "subjective understanding of right and wrong," whereas "morals" concerns "societal norms." So go figure. It's all "ethics and morals" in any case - or, if the air of expertise or sophistication has worn off that phrase, then I suppose "morals and ethics."

In light of this fuzziness in our usage, I was interested to learn (from an excellent website: squaretwo.org) that a certain organization of religious women for the pursuit of "ethical government" had insisted quite pointedly on the distinction between "ethics" and "morals. …

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