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The meanings of morals and ethics do oerlap. !roadl" spea#ing$ morals are indiidual
principles of right and wrong$ and a s"stem of ethics deals with sets of those principles. !oth
terms entered the language in the %iddle &nglish period$ with moral 'eing the older form '"
a'out 100 "ears (c. 1300).
Morals and morality are a'out personal 'ehaior$ ethics more grandl" philosophical.
*oweer$ linguistic use constrains the philosophical use and helps to 'lur the distinction: one
can hae a single ethic$ as in +a strong wor# ethic+ or +an ethic of selfishness$+ 'ut if we tal#
a'out a single moral$ we,e shifted a 'it in meaning to the realm of -esop and .ncle /emus$
as in +the moral of the stor".+ 0n the singular$ a moral is a lesson to 'e learned a'out a single
principle of right and wrong$ and an ethic is a single guiding principle that affects "our
criteria for determining what is right and wrong. 1up$ it2s 'lurr".
The distinction is 'est illustrated '" the contexts in which these terms are used. 3hen we
disparage someone,s 'ehaior$ we sa" that person has +low morals+4 we would neer sa" that
a drug dealer has +'ad ethics.+ Ethics as a 'ranch of philosoph" is studied in uniersities and
theological seminaries. 3e hae an 5ffice of 6oernment &thics and write articles a'out
political and 7udicial ethics. Thin# of it as a hierarch" of detail: when we tal# a'out personal
ethics, we are using the primar" meaning of ,a set of moral principles,. 3e sa" that children
are taught good moral principles$ or morals, if the" don,t lie$ cheat$ or steal$ and if the"
respect other people. %oral principles such as +/espect others+ are further 'ro#en down into
rules such as +8on,t stic# out "our tongue at "our sister.+ 3h" we don,t simpl" call an
indiidual moral principle a moral is that the ,o'7ect lesson, meaning is earliest and is still in
use: the use of morals to mean ,moral conduct, arose around 1900.
0n common usage we spea# and write a'out a professional code of ethics and a person of
high moral character.
;rom http://atheism.a''rar"/;-<s/phil/'lfa=>phileth>what.htm:
There is a distinction 'etween them in philosoph".
?trictl" spea#ing$ moralit" is used to refer to what we would call moral standards and moral
conduct while ethics is used to refer to the formal study of those standards and conduct. ;or
this reason$ the stud" of ethics is also often called +moral philosoph".+ *ere are some
examples of statements which express moral 7udgments:
1. 8umping chemicals in the riers is wrong and ought 'e 'anned.
2. 0t,s wrong that our compan" is tr"ing to aoid the regulations and it should stop.
3. *e,s a 'ad person : he neer treats people well and doesn,t seem to respect an"one.
-s seen in the a'oe examples$ moral 7udgments tend to 'e characteri@ed '" words li#e
ought$ should$ good and 'ad. *oweer$ the mere appearance of such words does not mean
that we automaticall" hae a statement a'out morals. ;or example:
A. %ost -mericans 'eliee that racism is wrong.
B. Cicasso was a 'ad painter.
9. 0f "ou want to get home =uic#l"$ "ou should ta#e the 'us.
Done of the a'oe are moral 7udgments$ although example EA does descri'e the moral
7udgments made '" others. &xample EB is an aesthetic 7udgment while E9 is simpl" a
prudential statement explaining how to achiee some goal.
-nother important feature of moralit" is that it seres as a guide for people,s actions. !ecause
of this$ it is necessar" to point out that moral 7udgments are made a'out those actions which
inole choice. 0t is onl" when people hae possi'le alternaties to their actions that we
conclude those actions are either morall" good or morall" 'ad.
3hen discussing moralit" it is important to distinguish 'etween morals and mores. !oth are
aspects of human conduct and human interaction$ 'ut the" are er" different t"pes of
conduct. Mores are usuall" treated as +harmless customs$+ where +harmless+ means that
failure to follow the custom ma" result in a negatie reaction$ 'ut not a er" serious one.
?uch mores would include the time of da" when meals are eaten and the proper form of
greeting particular indiiduals.
%orals$ on the other hand$ inole much more serious aspects of how we 'ehae and how
we treat others. 3hat this means is that failure to follow the dominant morals will result in a
much harsher reaction from others : examples of this would include discrimination$ ph"sical
a'use and theft.
-nother important distinction in moralit" is that 'etween standards$ conduct and character.
3hen we form a moral 7udgment$ we are emplo"ing moral standards : principles against
which we compare what we see in order to form a conclusion. ?uch 7udgments might 'e
a'out particular conduct$ which includes a person,s actions$ or it might 'e a'out a person,s
character$ which includes their attitudes and 'eliefs.
&thics$ on the other hand$ inoles the study of those standards and 7udgments which people
create. &thics assumes that the standards exist and see#s to descri'e them$ ealuate them$ or
ealuate the premises upon which those standards exist. This is where the field of ethics is
'ro#en down into 8escriptie &thics$ Dormatie &thics and -nal"tic &thics (also called
The 'asic =uestions as#ed in &thics include:
3hat does it mean to 'e good?
*ow can 0 differentiate good from eil?
-re morals o'7ectie or su'7ectie?
;rom http://atheism.a''rar"/;-<s/phil/'lfa=>phileth>alues.htm:
%5/-F? reflect Galues
5ne of the most important characteristics of moral 7udgments is that the" express our alues.
Dot all expressions of alues are also moral 7udgments$ 'ut all moral 7udgments do express
something a'out what we alue. Thus$ understanding moralit" re=uires inestigating what
people alue and wh".
There are three principle t"pes of alues which humans can hae: preferential alues$
instrumental alues and intrinsic alues. &ach pla"s an important role in our lies$ 'ut the"
don,t all pla" e=ual roles in the formation of moral standards and moral norms.
Preerence Value
The expression of preference is the expression of some alue we hold. 3hen we sa" that we
prefer to pla" sports$ we are sa"ing that we alue that actiit". 3hen we sa" that we prefer
relaxing at home oer 'eing at wor#$ we are sa"ing that we hold our leisure time more highl"
than our wor# time.
%ost ethical theories do not place much emphasis on this t"pe of alue when constructing
arguments for particular actions 'eing moral or immoral. The one exception would 'e
hedonistic ethical theories which explicitl" place such preferences at the center of moral
consideration. ?uch s"stems argue that those situations or actiities which ma#e us happiest
are$ in fact$ the ones we should morall" choose.
Instrumental Value
3hen something is alued instrumentall"$ that means we onl" alue it as a means to achiee
some other end which is$ in turn$ more important. Thus$ if m" car is of instrumental alue$
that means that 0 onl" alue it insofar as it allows me to accomplish other tas#s$ such as
getting to wor# or the store.
0nstrumental alues pla" an important role in teleological moral s"stems : theories of
moralit" which argue that the moral choices are those which lead to the 'est possi'le
conse=uences (such as human happiness). Thus$ the choice to feed a homeless person is
considered a moral choice and is alued not simpl" for its own sa#e 'ut$ rather$ 'ecause it
leads to some other good : the well:'eing of another person.
Intrinsic Value
?omething which has intrinsic alue is alued purel" for itself : it isn,t used simpl" as a
means to some other end and it isn,t simpl" +preferred+ a'oe other possi'le options. This
sort of alue is the source of a great deal of de'ate in moral philosoph" 'ecause not all agree
that such intrinsic alues actuall" exist.
0f intrinsic alues do exist$ how is it that the" occur? -re the" li#e color or mass$ a
characteristic which we can detect so long as we use the right tools? 3e can explain what
produces the characteristics li#e mass and color$ 'ut what would produce the characteristic of
alue? 0f people are una'le to reach an" sort of agreement a'out the alue of some o'7ect or
eent$ does that mean that its alue$ whateer it is$ can,t 'e intrinsic?
Instrumental !s. Intrinsic Values
5ne pro'lem in ethics is$ assuming that intrinsic alues reall" do exist$ how do we
differentiate them from instrumental alues? That ma" seem simple at first$ 'ut it isn,t. Ta#e$
for example$ the =uestion of good health : that is something which 7ust a'out eer"one
alues$ 'ut is it an intrinsic alue?
?ome might 'e inclined to answer +"es$+ 'ut in fact people tend to alue good health 'ecause
it allows them to engage in actiities the" li#e. ?o$ that would ma#e good health an
instrumental alue. !ut are those pleasura'le actiities intrinsicall" alua'le? Ceople often
perform them for a ariet" of reasons : social 'onding$ learning$ to test their a'ilities$ etc.
?o$ perhaps those actiities are also instrumental rather than intrinsic alues : 'ut what a'out
the reasons for those actiities? 3e could #eep going on li#e this for =uite a long time. 0t
seems that eer"thing we alue is something which leads to some other alue$ suggesting
that all of our alues are$ at least in part$ instrumental alues. Cerhaps there is no +final+
alue or set of alues and we are caught in a constant feed:'ac# loop where things we alue
continuall" lead to other things we alue.
Values" Su#$ecti!e or O#$ecti!e%
-nother de'ate in the field of ethics is the role humans pla" when it comes to creating or
assessing alue. ?ome argue that alue is a purel" human construction : or at least$ the
construction of an" 'eing with sufficientl" adanced cognitie functions. ?hould all such
'eings disappear from the unierse$ then some things li#e mass would not change$ 'ut other
things li#e alue would also disappear.
5thers argue$ howeer$ that at least some forms of alue (intrinsic alues) exist o'7ectiel"
and independentl" of an" o'serer. Thus$ our onl" role is in reco&ni'in& the intrinsic alue
which certain o'7ects of goods hold. 3e might den" that the" hae alue$ 'ut in such a
situation we are either deceiing ourseles or we are simpl" mista#en. 0ndeed$ some ethical
theorists hae argued that man" moral pro'lems could 'e resoled if we could simpl" learn
to 'etter recogni@e those things which hae true alue and dispense with artificiall" created
alues which distract us.
?omeone else ma#es this distinction:
Morals ( Morality: The ?ocial Hontract itself4 what we all agree we should do$ e.g. our
pu'lic Iout:loudJ consensus.
Ethics: The integrit" of our priate decisions$ e.g. what we choose to do when no one is
loo#ing and we are reasona'l" certain our actions will not 'e discoered.
I%orals s. &thicsJ '" Farr" Lohn
0 am not a moral personM howeer$ 0 am an ethical person. The reason 0 hae chosen not to
rule m" life 'ased on ImoralsJ is that 0 thin# there is an extreme difference 'etween morals
and ethics. 0n m" mind 0 clearl" see a 'ig difference 'etween ma#ing "our decision 'ased on
ImoralsJ and ma#ing "our decisions of life 'ased on "our personal ethics. The dictionar" has
this to offerM
&thics: M choosing principles of conduct as a guiding philosoph".
%orals: Mconforming to a standard of right 'ehaior.
*ere is where 0 see the difference. Morals are rules and standards that we are told we must
IconformJ to when deciding what is IrightJ 'ehaior. %orals are dictated to us '" either
societ" or religion. 3e are not free to thin# and choose. 1ou either accept or "ou don2tN 3e
are taught '" societ" and religion that "ou Ishall not lieJ or "ou should Igie to the poorJ or
"ou must Iloe others as "ou would hae others loe "ouJ or "ou must do something 'ecause
it is I"our moral o'ligation.J The #e" issue with ImoralsJ is that "ou are expected to
Iconform to a standard of right 'ehaiorJ and not =uestion that IconformingJ or "ou are not
a ImoralJ person. !ut again$ where do these ImoralsJ come from to which we are expected
to IconformJ? 1ep$ from societ" and/or religion$ 'ut not from 15.$ and that2s what 'others
Ethics$ on the other hand$ are Iprinciples of conductJ that 15. H*55?& to goern "our
life as a guiding philosoph" that 15. hae chosen for "our life. -gain$ call it semantics if
"ou want$ 'ut 0 see a 'ig difference 'etween IconformingJ and Ichoosing.J 3ith %5/-F?
the Ithin#ing has 'een done4J with &T*0H? there2s a freedom to Ithin# and chooseJ "our
personal philosoph" for guiding the conduct of "our life.
%5/-F?. 0 li#e to watch moies a'out the ImafiaJ or TG shows li#e the I?opranos.J The
people on these shows are extremel" deoted people to their families and religions$ 'ut the"
hae somehow Imorall" 7ustifiedJ their actions of #illing$ stealing$ and l"ing. *ow is it that
these extremel" deoted famil" men and supposedl" deoted mem'ers of the Hatholic
religion thin# that what the" are doing is moral is a m"ster" to me. 1et the" wear their
Icrosses$J cross themseles$ loe their #ids$ and dedicate themseles to the Ifamil"J while
#illing people who get in the wa". Dow that2s an interesting moralit". !ut morals don2t stop
there. Thin# of all the hundreds of cultures who hae totall" different ideas of moralit". ?ome
cultures thin# it is perfectl" fine to hae as man" wies as the" want4 some thin# onl" one
wife is moral in the e"es of 6od. ?ome cultures thin# that it is fine to steal if "ou need food4
other cultures thin# that stealing is stealing and is neer morall" 7ustified. ?ome cultures
thin# that Ian e"e for an e"e and a tooth for a toothJ 7udgment is fine4 other cultures thin#
that this t"pe of moral thin#ing is 'ar'aric. 3hen "ou leae %5/-F T*0DO0D6 to societ"
and religion$ there is no such thing as Ia'solute moralit".J ?o$ is there an"thing as a 100K
%5/-F C&/?5D? 0 thin# not$ at least 'ased on the criteria$ culture$ societ"$ and religion
telling us what our morals should 'e.
&T*0H? is totall" another matter. 3ith ethics$ "ou are free to choose "our personal
philosoph" of conduct to guide "our life. 1ou are not dependent on the 7udgment of societ"
or religion I'ased in fearJ when ma#ing "our ethical decisions. ;or example$ 0 'eliee in
telling the truth not 'ecause 6od ma" curse me$ 'ut 'ecause it is the right and 'est thing to
do 'ased on m" personal ethics. 0 'eliee in 'eing 100K faithful to m" wife$ not 'ecause
adulter" is a sin$ 'ut 'ecause 'eing true to "our wife is the smart and right thing to do. 0t is a
'etter and happier wa" to lie$ again not 'ecause 6od will send me to hell if 0 commit
adulter"$ 'ut 'ecause it is the right and 'est wa" to lie m" life 'ased on m" ethical wa" of
seeing things. 0 'eliee in #eeping the laws of the land$ howeer$ 0 am not liing m" life
'ased on the rules of societ" and religion$ 'ut solel" 'ased on a pragmatic and ethical wa" of
liing. 0 don2t steal 'ecause 02m afraid 0 might go to 7ail. 0 don2t steal 'ecause 0 hae decided
not to steal 'ased on m" ethics. 0 don2t hae to 'e commanded to gie to the poor. 0 concern
m"self with giing to and helping the poor 'ased on m" ethics. 0 hae the freedom to choose
and if 0 am smart$ 0 will choose personal ethics that will enrich m" life and the lies of others.
-s with all other freedoms$ there is alwa"s the ris# that 0 will ma#e ethical decisions that
could cause me to drift oer to the Idar# side.J That2s the pro'lem with the freedom to
choose or free agenc". -n"time we allow people the freedom to choose$ we also gie them
the freedom to ma#e 'ad choices. 0f "ou want to ma#e 'ad ethical decisions that will ma#e
"ou$ and perhaps others$ unhapp"$ then "ou can. *oweer$ if "ou want to ma#e good ethical
decision that will ma#e "ou and others happier$ "ou hae the freedom to ma#e those ethical
decisions too. 0 choose personal ethics to goern m" life that ma#e me happier$ while 0 strie
to enrich the lies of others. 0t2s the ethical thing to do 'ased on m" personal ethics. 1ou
don2t hae to tell me not to lie$ not to steal$ not to #ill$ not to commit adulter"$ etc. 0 hae
alread" made m" ethical decisions to D5T do those things. 1ou don2t hae to tell me to gie
to the poor$ loe m" neigh'or and m" enemies$ use m" free agenc" for good$ etc. 0 hae
alread" made these personal ethical decisions. 0 choose m" principles of personal conduct
'ecause 0 hae thought a'out them. %" ethics are m" ethics$ and "et interestingl" enough$
the" almost alwa"s agree with societ" and religion. The onl" difference is 0 made these
decisions. %" personal thin#ing determines m" ethics. 0 made these ethical choices. Dot
'ecause 0 was told '" societ" or religion to thin# a certain wa" 'ut 'ecause 0 thought it was
the 'est wa" to lie a complete and fulfilled life of happiness.