Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Morals vs. Ethics

My friend, Jim Lichtman (author of WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR and blogger at www.ethicsStupid.com) and I were discussing how the ins and outs of "moral vs. ethical" principles. Since he lectures and writes a lot on the topic of ethics, I asked him some questions and he provided me with the following answers. I'm posting them here with his permission. I'll not indent it, but here it is verbatim. The questions are mine. Emphasis is Jim's. My comments in [brackets].


How would you explain the relationship between the terms "ethics" and "moral principle"?

Traditionally, there is little difference between “ethics” and “morality” or “moral principle” and “ethical principle.” Although both have a basis in “right” conduct, “‘morals,’ my teacher Michael Josephson points out, “tends to be associated with a narrower and more personal concept of values, especially concerning matters of religion, sex, drinking, gambling, etc.”

When we speak of “ethical values,” we refer to a set of universal values of “right” conduct irrespective of one’s religion or cultural background. Although there may be differences in “morals” I don’t believe I can find any culture or religion where someone does not wish to be treated with respect, honesty, compassion, etc.; which are all considered universal, ethical values.

Josephson says that “Moral duty refers to the obligation to act or refrain from acting according to moral principles. Moral duties establish the minimal standards of ethical conduct. Moral duties require us to do certain thing (be honest, fair, accountable) as well as to not do other things (harm others, treat them disrespectfully).”

Whereas, “Moral virtue goes beyond moral duty to a higher level of moral excellence (generosity, bravery). Moral virtues are aspirational rather than mandatory. We ought to be charitable, temperate, humble and compassionate,” Josephson says, “however, it is not unethical if we are not, so long as we do not violate the obligation not to harm others.”

There is a difference, as you suggest in your question, between values and principles. “Values” refers to the general belief about something. “Principles” are rules of conduct. i.e. Honesty is an ethical value. It becomes an ethical “principle” when we translate into something like: Tell the truth; Don’t lie, cheat, deceive another.

“Moral relativism” and “Moral absolutes.”

Don’t you remember that scene in The Incredibles where Mr. Incredible explains to Buddy Kant’s Categorical imperatives: the moral character of an action is determined by the principle upon which it is based, not the consequences it produces? [I didn't remember the scene, so Jim told me this was a joke. oh.]

Buddy argued that he could justify his actions based on his own “relative” set of moral values. Thus, whenever a projected consequence did not suit him, he would change his own rules. He wanted to fight crime with Mr. Incredible who turns around and says, “I work alone, kid!” So, Buddy becomes a “bad” guy, instead.

(I think this scene got cut from the final film.... too long on dialog.)

However, Kant contends that ethical obligations are “higher truths” or “moral absolutes” which must be obeyed regardless of the consequences. i.e. Always tell the truth! On that basis, if the Nazis come knocking on your door (assuming you’re not a Nazi) asking where Ann Frank is and you know, you have to tell them. Self-righteousness is a form of “moral absolutism.” [I grew up calling Jim's "moral absolutism" legalism. It easily could have turned me away from Christianity, but I saw the problem as man's selfishness, not God's grace to give us laws that were good for us. More at the bottom of this post.]

“Moral relativism” places all the cards on one side of the table, and allows whoever holds the cards, to change the rules to suit their own needs.

Both are extremes to be avoided.

According to the Josephson Institute’s Ethical Decision-Making Model:
  • All decision must take into account and reflect a concern for the interests and well-being of all stakeholders.
  • Core ethical values and principles always take precedence over non-ethical values.
  • It is ethically proper to violate an ethical value only when it is clearly necessary to advance another true ethical value which, according to the decision-makers conscience, will produce the greatest balance of good in the long run (for the majority of stakeholders, NOT just your own interests). i.e. A friend can’t ask you to lie out of a duty to loyalty.
Now, I’m the one going on too long!

Hope this helps, Stan. Stay in touch.


[The question of the Nazi looking for Anne Frank was interesting. I asked a Catholic theologian. He wrote back the following:
The first edition of the CCC, in no. 2483, would have allowed the deceiving of Nazi soldiers because it stated that "to lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has a right to know the truth." In this case, misleading the Nazis about hiding Jews in your house would not be lying because the Nazis do not have the right to a truth which will result in someone's murder. The second edition of the CCC (of 1997), however, revised no. 2483 by dropping the part about "who has a right to know the truth." With this revision, directly lying or deceiving the Nazis would be difficult to justify. Instead, it would be suggested to use evasive speech.
I noticed that 2483, and 2484 both end with the qualification "...to lead into error." It seems that lying to a Nazi looking for Jews to kill, thus preventing the killing, also prevents the Nazi from being led into error.