Ethics and morals


Well-known member
Is there an authoritative definition of these two terms? My lay investigation says no. There are different views of what these two concepts are and of how these two concepts interact, though every one of them does explain ethics in contrast with morals in some way.

One way is that ethics is the study of morals. Ethics is moral philosophy, or moral theory.

Another is that ethics includes morals but also includes cultural mores and norms that do not rise to the level of good and evil, while morals is only concerned with good and evil.

Still another thinks of ethics as a matter of character, of continued patterns of behavior, that can be judged as either wise or foolish.

I'm reading Ronald Dworkin's Justice for Hedgehogs, which is a work of moral philosophy, the now late RD was a moral philosopher. And he uses a definition of these two terms (pg. 25 I think) that I find very helpful in thinking through these very important topics. He says that ethics is concerned with living a life of quality and success, and that morality is how we should or ought to treat other people. The line between them is i m o clear, and it's easy to get my head around this distinction. As such I'm finding that it bears fruit.

The reason I'm finding this position so helpful is because it distinguishes between the valid use of coercion or force, and what basically amounts to barbarism or tyranny or totalitarianism. If someone is living a poor life, then that's no justification to use force against them. And it's a moral matter when we're using force against other people, most of us would say that's self-evident. If it is justified, then it is moral, and if it isn't, then it's evil.

This then bears on politics, which shouldn't be surprising since many famous political thinkers are also moral thinkers, such as Plato, Aristotle, many Enlightenment philosophers, and RD. Politics has to do with force and coercion, force and coercion are inherent to politics, force and coercion identifies politics and political matters.

The other consequent of using the words in this way is that I can think of Christianity in these terms, and distinguish between Christian ethics and everything else. Christianity agrees with most people about what is immoral or evil, we all think that "torturing babies" is wickedness for one example, but where our faith clearly distinguishes itself is in ethics. We believe that there is a correct way to live that is not exactly the same as saying there is a moral way to live. We can be 100% moral and still not be living our "best life", or living life the best way.

One of the big areas of difference between Christian ethics and our culture's ethics is in our reproductive behavior, what we do with our privates. We believe in chastity, to use a word. This includes all the matters of marriage and fornication and pornography and masturbation, we believe that chastity is the ethical way to live w r t our privates, and this is in stark contrast to the Nonchristian ethics pervading our society, where reproductive activity in the presence of consent is always celebrated and encouraged.

But there is another habit that up until the 20th century was widely held by Christians of all stripes, and that is, that it is ethical to go to church weekly, and unethical to abstain. It's important here to remember the meaning of the word ethical that I'm using. I'm not saying that not going to church is justification for using force or coercion or even penalties of any sort. I'm saying that going to church weekly is part of living the best life, or of living life the best possible way. Not going to church, is not immoral or evil, i o w, according to how I'm using the words here.
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The Catholic bishops claim authority in teaching "faith and morals". Loosely, what we believe, and what we do. But really, it's what we believe and what we believe about what we should do.

Whenever we think about obligation, we feel like we're dealing with morals, but not according to this conception I've got of ethics and morals. In the sense of the Christian life, it's not primarily morals but ethics with which we're concerned.

We believe that we will all be judged at the end of time, and it's not our morals that we're going to be judged according to, but our ethics.

Moral obligation is fulfilled by us obeying the law. Our Christian obligations are what the bishops mean when they say "morals". It's ethics. Catholic or Christian ethics is the difference between us and the rest of the world. We're all the same when it comes to morals, since we all believe that vandalism and theft and murder and such are all crimes, these are immoral and we all agree, no matter our religion.

But we don't all agree on ethics: The pursuit of happiness, in a nutshell.