The difference between morals and ethics

Is there a difference between morality and ethics?

(I found myself asking this question a few days ago when directed by a friend to an article addressed to the business community. The case was being framed up against the 99designs business model within the design industry, arguing that its practices are 'unethical'. Accordingly, my friend made the jump (in terminology), that my engagement with this type of business might actually be 'morally' wrong.)

I recall studying Christian Ethics in my Moore Theological College Correspondence Course. Michael Hill's notes of 1979 formed an excellent course that was not easy to forget. But I did forget the difference between 'ethical theories' and 'moral codes'. Although the terminology of 'ethics' and 'morals' are often used interchangeably in everyday conversation, a distinction can be made that I think is helpful.

At the simplest, morals are about the 'rules' we create for ourselves (or that the Bible creates for us). A moral code is the 'set of rules which governs the way we behave and act.' But we may not be able to justify those rules. And put simply again, ethics are about the 'reasons' for the rules, but more precisely, the underlying principles from which rules may be created.

The principles of ethical theories are meant to be universal. They should be absolute, based on essential beliefs about God, mankind and the world. But the applications of these principles (morals) may often depend on situations and contexts. So the justification of morals depends on our ethical theory. But although morals come from ethics, somebody may adopt or retain morals without necessarily adopting or even understanding the ethical theory that created those morals.

Here's a helpful excerpt from Hill:
A moral code might be defined as a set of practical rules adopted by a person or persons to govern their behaviour within the framework of the obvious obligations of personal relationships. As rules, the moral code applies to particular situations. For example, in relation to speaking to others, the rule "don't tell lies" can be applied in a variety of individual situations. In relation to other people's property, the rule "don't steal" can be applied to a variety of particular occasions.

An ethical theory on the other hand deals not so much with the practical rules but with principles; not so much with applications but with the reasons which justify the acceptance of the moral rules. An ethical theory will be the result of rational activity whereas a moral code may not - although it can be. Ethics, in this sense, has been defined as "a rational procedure for determining what individual human beings ought to seek to realize by voluntary action." It might equally have been defined as the location and justification of moral principles (as distinct from moral rules).
I should acknowledge that I realise that contemporary thinking constantly seeks alternate ethical theories to those of the Bible, and consequently attempts to recreate our morality. I should also acknowledge that there are other ways in which the terms 'ethics' and 'morals' are used, and these differences can be confusing if we don't be careful with definitions.

Christians of course are concerned with working out the ethical principles that create the moral commands (rules) of the Bible.

But I've said all of this to primarily point out that I don't think we can separate Christian ethics from morals. If we believe something to be 'unethical' -- based upon a Christian justification -- then if follows that this principle must follow through in application to our moral rulings as we create boundaries for ourselves to keep us from what is actually, in a Christian sense, 'wrong' and therefore sinful.

Thinking about all this again makes me realise how much work I need to do on my own understanding of the ethics of the Bible and the morals that I've adopted (that may not necessarily be justified from a thoroughly Christian basis).

1 comment:

Unknown said...