Month: July 2023

Morality and Ethics

What is the relationship between morality and ethics? I have the impression that some people see morality as baseless/arbitrary, purely cultural, categorical, opinionated values that people tyrannically or otherwise forcefully impose on each other, with ethics on the other hand being a rational, objective exploration into how we should and shouldn’t act for the benefit of all. My view is somewhat more nuanced than that. (Someone has informed me that this is a straw man. If the above impression is totally off/a straw man, please stay with me; it’s just an opener and a framing for my general insights into the nature of ethics and morality and how they relate to each other.)

Those characteristics of morality I listed are true to some degree, but there’s also a large degree to which morality is—or is particular values derived from—what maximizes the harmony and well-being of all involved. I won’t list a ton of examples, so just to name one, homicide is considered highly immoral in practically every society (with the exceptions of authority-sanctioned punishment, self-defense and acts of war).

Going a little bit further into what moral values are derived from, I have a list I often use of the various things I see morality as being based on, including both the good and the bad: Morality is mainly sourced in love, empathy/compassion/sympathy, values/what things we value, beliefs/worldview/ideology, desires, fears, judgment and condemnation/hatred/disgust, generalization/prejudice, personal experiences, peers/societal influence/groupthink, and more.

So, what is ethics, and how does it relate to morality? Ethics is the more academic, intellectual/philosophical, analytical/reasoned and systematized brother of morality. It’s closer to morality than one may think, because even ethics must be based on some subjective human value(s), desire(s) or other emotion(s) fundamentally, just like morality is, because without those, there would be no reason to do anything, ever. You wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, eat, or even go so far as to move or blink. All those activities, and all the activities that ethics presides over, are done or not done because of emotions, such as pleasure and pain (but not just those—also less base ones), impelling us to do or not do them. There are no objective “shoulds”; what would they possibly be based on, and how would we measure them, besides some instantiation of the is-ought fallacy (such as appealing to blind biological-evolutionary drives/principles)?

So, ethicists have no reason to suggest that we do or do not do anything without it being based on some emotion(s), ultimately. Yes, a lot of logic and reasoning goes into deciding ethical positions, but that’s all on a layer above the fundamental, unreasoned precept(s)/axiom(s). Those axioms are likely that ethics should seek to maximize positive/desirable emotions and states, such as happiness, well-being, contentment, satisfaction, joy, pleasure, fulfillment, peace, freedom, etc. and minimize negative/undesirable emotions and states, such as pain and agony, suffering and misery, sadness, and grief. There are probably other precepts like personal rights (which are themselves based on the directive of personal well-being and such), valuing life itself (which protects people who love those who would otherwise die from grief, and enables the continuing possibility of joy, etc. in those whose lives are protected), and fairness (as witnessing unfairness makes us angry).

Note that all of these precepts are some of the same values and sources that comprise or underlie morality, again making morality and ethics siblings, or even two facets, modes or outcrops of the same basic thing.