Let’s Not Confuse Morals And Ethics
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.