Let’s Not Con­fuse Morals And Ethics

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - TIMES NATION - Jug Su­raiya

Many of us use the words ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’ in­ter­change­ably. But the two are not the same, and when we con­fuse one with the other we may cre­ate a lot of prob­lems.

I learnt the dis­tinc­tion be­tween morals and ethics from an un­likely source: a pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion drama se­rial. One of the char­ac­ters – a pro­fes­sor of the­ol­ogy – ex­plained the dif­fer­ence suc­cinctly.

Morals, he said, are the codes of be­hav­iour that we can, and, in­deed, must, ap­ply to our­selves.

Our codes of be­hav­iour are con­di­tioned by many things: what is ap­pro­pri­ate, or in­ap­pro­pri­ate, in the faith sys­tem we sub­scribe to, and in our so­cial and fa­mil­ial en­vi­ron­ment.

Morals are what Sartre might call the ‘fac­tic­ity’ of our in­di­vid­ual sit­u­a­tion: who and what i deem my­self to be in terms of my re­li­gious be­liefs, or lack of them, my so­cial obli­ga­tions, and the choices i make in my per­sonal life.

Ethics are the codes of con­duct and be­hav­iour that we ap­ply to all so­ci­eties, in gen­eral, in­clud­ing those which are to­tally for­eign and un­fa­mil­iar to us.

In many cases, the two codes, of morals and ethics, co­in­cide. For in­stance, to take the life of an­other hu­man be­ing is deemed to be wrong, both morally and eth­i­cally.

But, even here, there are di­ver­gences of views. For ex­am­ple, if the coun­try you live in is at­tacked by a for­eign power, your po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship might have to de­clare a state of war, oblig­ing you, if you are of con­script­able age, to fight the en­emy, to kill those deemed to be your na­tional foes.

To de­fend your­self and your coun­try against ag­gres­sion is not only eth­i­cally sanc­tioned, but is also in many cases an eth­i­cal duty which goes by the name of pa­tri­o­tism.

But, if you are a be­liever in the Gand­hian code of ahimsa and are a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor to any form of vi­o­lence, your per­sonal code of moral be­hav­iour could be at vari­ance with an ob­jec­tive code of ethics.

Much of the con­fronta­tion tak­ing place in the world to­day is caused when in­di­vid­u­als and so­ci­eties seek to project their moral codes and make them the eth­i­cal obli­ga­tions of oth­ers.

My moral code, based on my re­li­gious be­liefs, may pro­hibit me from eat­ing cer­tain foods. That’s fine. But do i have the right to im­pose my code of di­etary moral­ity on oth­ers whose so­cial en­vi­ron­ment and re­li­gious con­vic­tions might be to­tally dif­fer­ent from mine?

Much the same holds true for other moral codes, such as ap­pro­pri­ate, or in­ap­pro­pri­ate, form of dress in pub­lic, gen­der re­la­tions, rights of in­her­i­tance, among other so­cial cus­toms.

What is morally right, ac­cord­ing to one in­di­vid­ual or com­mu­nity, might not be so for an­other. But if i try to make my moral code your eth­i­cal obli­ga­tion i am trans­gress­ing against you.

This is one of the fun­da­men­tal prob­lems in try­ing to im­pose a Com­mon Civil Code, which, in the name of so­cial equal­ity, i per­son­ally en­dorse.

And that’s just one of the cross­roads we face when it comes to the of­ten dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions our morals and ethics might have to choose be­tween. The rightwing aca­demic Alan Bloom de­cried what he called ‘moral rel­a­tivism’ which he be­lieved had un­der­mined the Protes­tant val­ues of Amer­i­can civil­i­sa­tion. By as­sert­ing the moral hege­mony of Amer­i­can val­ues over all oth­ers, couldn’t Bloom be ac­cused of ‘eth­i­cal im­pe­ri­al­ism’?

In the in­ter­play be­tween morals and ethics there are no right an­swers, only right ques­tions.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.