Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ethics vs. Morality

When discussing morality and what it is, one must concede that it is entirely possible that morality does not exist. In fact, quite a strong argument can be made that morality is merely a human construct, a completely artificial concept.

However abstract it may be, “morality” is a perfectly acceptable moniker for the basic idea behind “proper action.” At this point, it may be useful to discuss very briefly the delineation between morality and ethics.

Ethics is larger than morality. Morality is system of proper behavior. The subjective nature of “proper” is what makes morality so flimsy. Ethics, on the other hand, is much broader. Ethics can encompass extra-moral behavioral systems, such as utilitarianism or consequentialism, as well as morality systems.

Perhaps the largest shortcoming of morality is how culturally biased it is. Beyond the very nature of what actions are considered “morally acceptable,” even the question of “what sort of action should be defined by morality” is one of great confusion.

Take sex, for instance. Modern Western thought attaches quite a bit of morality to sex. However, several cultures place few moral boundaries on sexual behavior. This idea may be hard to grasp for the average Eurocentric thinker, for while a liberal may not condemn pre-marital sex or homosexuality as immoral, it would be remarkable to find someone who would publicly argue in favor of rape or pedophilia.

Yet, there are many cultures throughout history which have reveled in both, seeing nothing wrong with either. In truth, the things we attach moral significance to can change as often and as quickly as the weather.

To provide some perspective, consider this: food is a moral issue in nearly every culture and religion. Because Christianity has shrugged off the morality attached to food, the Western world has been bequeathed a sort of apathy for consumption ethics – excluding the late addition of a stigma against alcohol and other intoxicants.

However, this absence in traditional moral views has not stopped the re-emergence of food morality. Beyond prohibitions on psychoactive substances, there is an undeniably passionate movement against the consumption of animals. To a vegetarian or vegan, one’s food is most certainly a matter of morality.

And that’s the rub: one person’s deep moral convictions can so easily be considered by their neighbors as a matter of simple indifference.

Another primary difference between morality and ethics is that a moral system need not truly be a system at all, but rather a hodge-podge of behavioral preferences. Morality is a patchwork ideology that is less (or not at all) concerned with “Why?” A moral code simply states what actions are acceptable without any need for explanation. Ethics can be quite the opposite: many ethical systems are built upon ideological principles, however compromised they may become.

Take, for instance, the ethical principle, “Do no harm.” The idea is simple enough, but there is enough ambiguity for a vast spectrum of ethical systems to emerge from this core doctrine. Is one allowed to use force in order to prevent harm? Is it implied that one should not harm only humans, or are our vegetarian friends extending this courtesy to animals? Moreover, how far removed from a harmful action is one permitted to be before one loses accountability?

Buying a pair of jeans may not seem like an action which pertains to morality, but if those jeans were knowingly made through the use of slave labor, is this still the case? These issues are what makes ethics simultaneously more meaningful than morality and more difficult for the average person to put into practice effectively.

Morality is ethics simplified. Rather than saying, “be good to others,” morality seeks to codify precisely which actions one ought to perform in order to be good, while ethics leaves the specifics largely up to the interpretation of the individual. In a sense, morality is limited by the wisdom of those who spell it out, while ethics is limited by the judgment of those who adopt it.

Despite both of these methods for dictating behavior, there is a third thing to consider: the unpredictability of humanity. We are beings that defy systemization. We can be told to do something from the day we are born, we can consciously accept it as true and right, and we can turn around and do the exact opposite when confronted with the opportunity. We are capable of doing regrettable deeds.

There is no way of knowing how any of us will act in any given situation, even one we have been in before. We are influenced by our every-changing wants, desires, passions, vengeance, even the simple condition of whether or not we think someone else is looking. Of course, not knowing for certain how we will act is no reason to reject the idea that one can prepare or train oneself to do what is “right.”

Not only do individuals fall short of their instilled moral and ethical teachings, but there are those who are able to rise above their imperfect and misguided ideologies. Perhaps the most damning characteristic of morality is that it leaves so little room for circumstance, while ethics provides for the basis of transcending an oversimplified view of the world.

We are all told from the day we are born that lying is wrong, and yet we all come to the same conclusion: lies are not necessarily wrong. Now, we can waste time discussing stupid little lies involved wives and how they look in a pair of jeans (which has nothing to do with morality, just opinion), but my favorite example of moral deception involves civil disobedience.

You are a German in the 1940’s who sympathizes with the Jews and you decide to harbor a family in your attic. If the Gestapo come knocking on your door and ask you if you know of the location of that Jewish family, are you obligated to tell the truth?

This example also illustrates the last concept I believe people must consider when making moral and ethical decisions: consequences. It’s easy to argue that you shouldn’t turn in that Jewish family, but many people would do it. Are they horrible people? Well, let’s consider the consequences of lying in this case.

Lying can protect the fugitives, but it can also endanger yourself and those you know. If you are discovered to be harboring criminals, you stand to be punished for doing “the right thing,” because it is clearly not seen as being the right thing to do by those looking for Jews to exterminate. To tell the truth and turn them in is a safe choice, but you have to ask yourself: can you live with your decision to save your own ass at the expense of others?

I would like to think I would take the risk of suffering the consequences of doing the right thing instead of the certainty of my own personal safety in exchange for subjecting others to injustice. However, I can see how both sides can easily be argued as valid.

In any case, I think it’s fair to say that one can blend both morality and ethics to create a comprehensive ideology that is both clear cut for simple matters and open to interpretation when faced with more complex scenarios.

However, how many of us truly sit down and think about this stuff? How many of us are concerned with the fact that morality is black and white, while ethics paints with shades of gray? Are most of us even spending a great deal of time considering the ramifications of hypothetical scenarios? Or, are most of us simply living our lives as best we can and making decisions based on intangibles while on the fly? How often are we confronted with a difficult decision which we have time to deliberate upon?

In the end, I have a feeling most of us are just reacting to a strange and confusing world the best we can, and that morality and ethics are merely post hoc justifications for choices we make after little consideration.

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