You say morals, I say ethics – what’s the difference?

There is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between moral and ethical decisions. Helga Weber

You say morals, I say ethics – what’s the difference?

There is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between moral and ethical decisions. Helga Weber

Certain customs or behaviours are recognised as good and others as bad, and these collectively comprise morality – arguably the summation of our value system as human beings. So a conversation about ethical and moral decision-making is important.

But problems arise when the terms “ethics” or “morals” are used interchangeably.

The words derive respectively from the word in Greek (ethos, ethikos) and Latin (mores, moralis), variously translated as customs, manners or social norms. In fact, however, it is possible to differentiate the Greek root of ethics from the Latin root of morality in a way that may be practically helpful.

According to this understanding, “ethics” leans towards decisions based upon individual character, and the more subjective understanding of right and wrong by individuals – whereas “morals” emphasises the widely-shared communal or societal norms about right and wrong. Put another way, ethics is a more individual assessment of values as relatively good or bad, while morality is a more intersubjective community assessment of what is good, right or just for all.

The relevance of the distinction is seen when questions such as “how should I act?” and “what should I do?” are broadened to Socrates’ question, “how should we live?”. Granted modern society’s multiplicity of cultures and traditions, resulting in a diverse moral collage, with no single truth easily identifiable, the big moral question is surely, “how should we live together?”.

Marco Bellucci

In approaching such a question, the individual ethical answer can be limited by its essential egotism. It can be restricted to one’s own worldview rather than being inherently aware of the existence and relevance of others. Since recognition of others is implicit to moral questions, according to the distinction made above, moral questions can and must be answered universally. This requires having a shared dialogue – precisely since these questions deal with good, right, and justice for all.

Put another way, moral decision-making relocates ethical decision-making away from an individualistic reflection on imperatives, utility or virtue, into a social space. In that space one is implicitly aware of the other, wherein we understand from the start that we need to have a dialogue. There is a difference between what I should do in an ethical dilemma, and what we should do in a moral dilemma.

In ethical dilemmas, individual decision-making may draw on the frameworks of “must-do” imperatives, utility consequences, the seeking of goodness, or a guiding framework from God.

But ethical decisions should recognise the context within which they are set. That is, they must recognise that duties can be ranked in a hierarchy (for example, to stop at an accident to render assistance trumps the promise of meeting for coffee); in a similar way, consequences can be ranked too.

In moral decisions, in which the importance of others and their actual situation in the world, is recognised, community decisions are based on dialogue between all those on whom the decision impacts. That dialogue should aim to be inclusive, non-coercive, self-reflective, and seek consensus among real people, rather than seek an elusive absolute moral truth.

Mike/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

As a simple example, consider the decision of which career I choose.

First I collect the facts (such as the pre-requisites I need in order to enrol in a course). Collecting the facts precedes any ethical or moral decision-making. The ethical dimension of the decision leads me to think about myself and recognise, say, that I have certain talents, or that I would like to maximise my work-life balance.

The moral dimension is added when I recognise my decision affects others – my family, the community in which I live – in terms of being able to serve others, rather than simply earn an income. Thus, I widen my own perspective and discuss with those around me how we should decide.

But it is contentious whether certain dilemmas are seen predominantly (or exclusively) as ethical or moral ones. Just consider euthanasia, homosexuality, suicide, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to name a few.

Each may be seen by different observers as a dilemma either for the individual to make a decision about (an ethical dilemma), or for a society to make a decision about (a moral dilemma). How we see the dilemma in large part determines the approach we will take to the decision to be made. That is, whether I think about it via a monologue with myself, or whether we, all together, enter into a dialogue about it.

In short, there is a valuable difference between ethics and morals.


This article is part of a series on public morality in 21st-century Australia.