Ethics And Morality

For a while now, I have been concerned with Ethics and Morality. What they mean,  how they relate to each other, how humanity interprets and implements them, whether they extend beyond humanity and planet Earth, the history of Ethics and Morality and how they have evolved through time. Ethics and Morality did not start with Greece and the classic period, but for all accounts, at least as far as I know, the concepts were formalized then.

I have spent a few weeks now reading definitions. In the original version of this post, I had included a few of them. But then the post became too technical and about definitions rather than discussion and intellectual investigation. Moreover, I encountered contradicting definitions from different sources. I am enclosing a summary of the encountered definitions since they provides a frame of reference for the rest of the post:

  • In one set of definitions Ethics was defined as the study of Morality, while Morality as the study of Ethics.
  • A second set defined Ethics as the study of Morality and Morality as “the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior”.
  • A third definition defines Ethics as the study of “what is good and what is bad and how it applies to behavior” and Morality as the study of Ethics.

Now you see the problem. The first definitions create a circular reference. It defines one in terms of the other and provides no scope as to what the true nature of these words really is. The second and the third are in direct conflict with each other. One defines Ethics in terms of what the other defines Morality.

My concern with these concepts goes beyond definitions, meanings and interpretations. I often argue that humans as a specie has yet to develop intellectually. We lack vision and imagination to truly incorporate time expanses of trillions of years and distances of billions of light years. And along those limitations, we lack the capacity to understand the true nature of the universe. Moreover, we have developed this limitation in the tongues we speak and write.

I try to think outside the box. I try, with some level of success, to think beyond the intellectual limitations inherent to humanity. Not because I am more intelligent, but because at least I recognize the limitations are there and I attempt to break through them. At the risk of sounding conceited and arrogant, if Einstein did it, so can I. In trying to break through the limitations I often try to organize concepts in hierarchies. Proof of my limitation is that I have started to think in trillions of years and billions of light years, while time and space are infinite; and no matter how I reconstruct my hierarchies, I can not visualize and internalize this infinity. But slowly, I am getting there.

Ethics and Morality are part of this thinking outside the box and organization. Just as Mathematics (I will argue the universality of Mathematics in a separate post) and mathematical concepts are true here on Earth, as in the Moon, Alpha-Centauri or 100’s light years away in any direction, other constructs and concepts must be as well. So, if the concept of  1 + 1 = 2 here on Earth or 10 Billion light years away holds, so does the concept of Good and Bad. However, before we can define this concept we need a framework.

Looking back at the summary of definitions above, I subscribe to the second one:

“… defined Ethics as the study of Morality and Morality as ‘the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior’”

This definition provides a workable framework for the way I see Ethics and Morality. Ethics is an abstract concept while Morality deals with specifics. In other words, Ethics is a theory, a collection of ideas and concepts that describe esoterically a state of being, while Morality is the implementation of the theory. There is no weight in Ethics. There is no judgement in Ethics. There is no bias in Ethics, just the description of how to build a system of moral values, whatever these values may be. On the other hand, Morality is all about weight, judgement and bias. Morality is the implementation of an ethical system.

The table below is provided as an example of other conceptual and implementation associations in the hopes that it will clarify the argument above:


From the definition and table above I have established that Ethics is a theoretical construct while Morality is its individual implementations. Thus, what follows is that there is more than one morality, which indeed there are.
If we want to think of Morality as a complete concept, whether or not as an implementation of Ethics, we need to think of it as a collection of individual moralities. These moralities, in the majority of cases, are based on religious or cultural basis. We can consider a Christian Morality, which in itself could be considered a collection of individual moralities following the different Christian splinters (Roman Catholic, Baptist, Episcopalian, Church of England, etc.) Similarly, a Jewish Morality may follow an alike pattern and be a collection or moralities in the same form as Christian Morality. So on and so forth. (But, outside of religious based moralities, what other moralities can we find? We will come back to this later.)

These moralities all deal with specific behaviors. In the case of Judaism, in particular within the orthodox communities, there are 613 Mitzvoth (commandments) that must be followed and observed. A portion of these are regarding good: “You Shall”, and a portion regarding not good:”You Shall Not”. These commandments are the basis for a behavior and the compendium of moral codes. Yes, I am equating commandments to behaviors, but that is exactly what a commandment is: a discrete behavior. A commandment is a quantifiable action and the collection of quantifiable actions represents a behavior(s). I will assume that Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc., follow a similar pattern of commandments and behaviors. Furthermore, while I do equate commandments or compendiums of moral codes to behaviors, I am not equating religion and dogma with morality. This distinction is important.

Does Ethics deal with good and bad? Or Good and Evil? This is an important question. In my opinion no it does not. However, when discussing Ethics we normally fall into discussion of good and bad, Good or Evil. Why is that? Because our inability to maintain a level of abstraction. Based on the above definition: “ … Ethics as the study of Morality …” we can clearly see another reason why we fall into identifying Ethics with good and bad, Good and Evil, it seems implicit in the definition since Morality is defined as the study of good and bad “behaviors”. What seems implicit, it may not be.

Athenians and Spartans shared the same logical bases and by at large the same code of Ethics. But their moralities had points of difference. While Sparta condoned euthanasia, Athens repelled it. The moralities of the two city-states where based on the same set of religious beliefs, the same set of logics, same philosophical backgrounds and bases of governments. However, Spartans, based on their needs supported the systematic disposal of undesirable genetics traits by killing new-borns that did not measure up. Today, we would consider this practice evil. But that would be our morality speaking and not Ethics.

To summarize

  • Ethics is the theory of actions and behaviors that can lead to good and bad, Good and Evil. However, it does not label any of the identified actions and good or bad, Good or Evil. It also deals with the concept of good and bad, Good and Evil but does not create an association between actions and these concepts.
  • Morality creates associations between actions and behaviors and good and bad, Good and Evil. These associations are normally built in the context of religious dogma and culture.
  • Ethics is universal. Since it does not deal with associations, the concepts can be transposed to any part of the Universe without loosing validity.

The exceptions that prove the rule

There are two questions that I will not answer, but are pertinent to the topic in this post:

  1. When we talk about business and the concepts of good and bad, we discuss them in the context of Business Ethics. However, isn’t this the case of a mislabeled morality?
  2. Is “truth” (not THE TRUTH) part of Ethics or Morality?


Filed under General, Thoughts

5 responses to “Ethics And Morality

  1. Mike Polek

    Personally, I like the definitions.

    moral: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior
    ethical: conforming to accepted standards of conduct

    They are treated as synonyms with nuance:
    ethical may suggest the involvement of more difficult or subtle questions of rightness, fairness, or equity

    Both deal with the notion of right/wrong in theory and practice. Ethics shows up as a business course because of the “fairness” aspect, I think.

    In any case, the notion of right/wrong…. the “mores” of society… are largely custom. And people adopt personal morals/ethics or codes of conduct. Either can be studied in the abstract… using logic and mental exercise to extrapolate the behavior. But it really gets dicey when one takes a step back and realizes that the behavior itself may not be moral or immoral, but rather the motivation behind it can be influential. I.e. can you do the right thing for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing for the right reason, etc.

    Truth is a separate discussion, depending on your context. If you’re in the world of logic, it’s an abstraction, but easy to discuss. If you’re talking about some “universal truth” … well… I don’t know of any. And I don’t know of anyone who
    claims to have any. Truth as I experience it is largely relative and personal.

    Your mileage my vary.


  2. Fair enough. I did not suggest, however, that there is a UNIVERSAL TRUTH and in THE TRUTH. But I do suggests that there is a universal commonality in certain areas. In the case of Mathematics for example. Whether you use the symbols we know or other symbols, the concepts remain the same. Furthermore, I think that this idea extends to other subjects that enjoy the same possibility of abstraction. Ethics, as I discussed, is universal. The concept of killing an individual exists across the Universe, while Morality, also as I discussed, is not universal and dependent on local sensitivities.

    The question of truth, and again not as in THE TRUTH, is more about placement. Is truth about Morality or about Ethics? If it is about Ethics, still does not need to be universal but then it needs to be elaborated as a concept which may collide with THE TRUTH. And as a concept, then its universality has to do more with its existence and provability.

    Business Fairness?? it rings just as poorly as Business Morality 😉

  3. Tony

    Fabian, I’m certainly not smart enough to engage in any deep-mind debate about all this. One aspect of this ethics/morality question I find interesting is the coincidence of many familiar and easily identified morality elements that seemed to have arisen independently in a variety of largely uncorrupted (by civilization) and ancient primitive societies. More interestingly, a few of these moralities have no obvious survival value to tribe or individual. It would be interesting to learn the true extent of coincident and divergent morality among largely untainted human groups (if it is still possible), although alongside that there will inevitably be moralities, or at least mores, that clash horribly with those of other groups, and with ours. Sorry to be so airy-fairy and long-winded, but as I say, active braincells are in short supply here nowadays. I think it possible religions and God-cultures may have arisen as something convenient, and unifying, to hang strands of evolving morality (oe rules), on, rather than the other way around. This may not be a new idea, although I have never heard it expressed. In other words, all varieties of Gods are a just human construct, or at least the construct of one-time priests, shamans and wise men, intended to authorise and to solidify a desirable moral code, and to discourage argument. This is God made in our image rather than vice versa.
    If there is a tribe somewhere without any Gods, this could be because of a nil or very low key moral code, thus Gods are unnecessary. This as an alternative to their having no morals because they recognise no God.
    If I am all at sea just zap this message.

  4. Hello Great Job. I think you made some great points in your points and I am goign to do some follow up research topic related and learn more.

  5. Pingback: 2010 in review | Don't Be So Serious

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s