“Morals vs. Ethics”
By Larry John
For many years I had always said that I am not a moral person… however, I am an ethical person. But when I would say, “I am not a moral person,” I would wait to see the person’s reaction to my saying that before I added the “however, I am an ethical person.” Normally the person would wrinkle their brow and get this confused look on their face, and then I would commence to explain my thoughts on the difference between “morals vs. ethics.”
The reason I have chosen not to rule my life based on “morals” is that I think there is an extreme difference between morals and ethics. Before you say, “This is a semantics issue,” let me explain. I really am not playing “the meaning of words game” here. In my mind I clearly see a big difference between making your decision based on “morals” and making your decisions of life based on your personal ethics. The dictionary has this to offer…
Ethics: … choosing principles of conduct as a guiding philosophy.
Morals: …conforming to a standard of right behavior.
Here is where I see the difference. Morals, to be sure, are rules and standards that we are told we must “conform” to when deciding what is “right” behavior. In other words, morals are dictated to us by either society or religion. We are not free to think and choose. You either accept or you don’t! We are taught by society and religion that you “shall not lie” or you should “give to the poor” or you must “love others as you would have others love you” or you must do something because it is “your moral obligation.” The key issue with “morals” is that you are expected to “conform to a standard of right behavior” and not question that “conforming” or you are not a “moral” person. But again, where do these “morals” come from to which we are expected to “conform”? Yep, from society and/or religion, but not from YOU, and that’s what bothers me. Ethics, on the other hand, are “principles of conduct” that YOU CHOOSE to govern your life as a guiding philosophy that YOU have chosen for your life. Again, call it semantics if you want, but I see a big difference between “conforming” and “choosing.” With MORALS the “thinking has been done;” with ETHICS there’s a freedom to “think and choose” your personal philosophy for guiding the conduct of your life.
I like to watch movies about the “mafia” or TV shows like the “Sopranos.” The people on these shows are extremely devoted people to their families and religions, but they have somehow “morally justified” their actions of killing, stealing, and lying. How is it that these extremely devoted family men and supposedly devoted members of the Catholic religion think that what they are doing is moral is a mystery to me. Yet they wear their “crosses,” cross themselves, love their kids, and dedicate themselves to the “family” while killing people who get in the way. Now that’s an interesting morality. But morals don’t stop there. Think of all the hundreds of cultures who have totally different ideas of morality. Some cultures think it is perfectly fine to have as many wives as they want; some think only one wife is moral in the eyes of God. Some cultures think that it is fine to steal if you need food; other cultures think that stealing is stealing and is never morally justified. Some cultures think that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” judgment is fine; other cultures think that this type of moral thinking is barbaric. When you leave MORAL THINKING to society and religion, there is no such thing as “absolute morality.” So, is there anything as a 100% MORAL PERSON? I think not, at least based on the criteria, culture, society, and religion telling us what our morals should be.
ETHICS is totally another matter. With ethics, you are free to choose your personal philosophy of conduct to guide your life. You are not dependent on the judgment of society or religion “based in fear” when making your ethical decisions. For example, I believe in telling the truth not because God may curse me, but because it is the right and best thing to do based on my personal ethics. I believe in being 100% faithful to my wife, not because adultery is a sin, but because being true to your wife is the smart and right thing to do. It is a better and happier way to live, again not because God will send me to hell if I commit adultery, but because it is the right and best way to live my life based on my ethical way of seeing things. I believe in keeping the laws of the land, however, I am not living my life based on the rules of society and religion, but solely based on a pragmatic and ethical way of living. I don’t steal because I’m afraid I might go to jail. I don’t steal because I have decided not to steal based on my ethics. I don’t have to be commanded to give to the poor. I concern myself with giving to and helping the poor based on my ethics. I have the freedom to choose and if I am smart, I will choose personal ethics that will enrich my life and the lives of others.
As with all other freedoms, there is always the risk that I will make ethical decisions that could cause me to drift over to the “dark side.” That’s the problem with the freedom to choose or free agency. Anytime we allow people the freedom to choose, we also give them the freedom to make bad choices. If you want to make bad ethical decisions that will make you, and perhaps others, unhappy, then you can. However, if you want to make good ethical decision that will make you and others happier, you have the freedom to make those ethical decisions too. I choose personal ethics to govern my life that make me happier, while I strive to enrich the lives of others. It’s the ethical thing to do based on my personal ethics. You don’t have to tell me not to lie, not to steal, not to kill, not to commit adultery, etc. I have already made my ethical decisions to NOT do those things. You don’t have to tell me to give to the poor, love my neighbor and my enemies, use my free agency for good, etc. I have already made these personal ethical decisions. I choose my principles of personal conduct because I have thought about them. My ethics are my ethics, and yet interestingly enough, they almost always agree with society and religion. The only difference is I made these decisions. My personal thinking determines my ethics. I made these ethical choices. Not because I was told by society or religion to think a certain way but because I thought it was the best way to live a complete and fulfilled life of happiness. Freedom to think is a great concept. We ought to use this freedom more often. Think about it.