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What is The Difference Between Ethics and Morals?

Updated on July 6, 2013

General Guidelines

In examining the difference between ethics and morality it is useful to start with a few general guidelines that will inform if you are dealing with an ethical dilemma or a moral dilemma and to then move forward through concrete definitions and to specific examples. In examining the confluence and dissonance between morality and ethical behavior, even if you only read the next paragraph you should come away with a general schema from which to proceed and if you read further on you will be able to more readily and accurately distinguish between the Ethics and morals in practical examples.

A good rule to begin with is that morality deals with what we would classify as good and evil behavior while Ethics concerns itself with questions of right and wrong behavior. Morality transcends cultural norms while Ethics are governed by professional and legal guidelines within a particular time and place. Morality is universal and can be used retrospectively to evaluate the right or wrongness of commonly held ethical practices within a historical contexts. The concept of a universal humanistic morality is unalterable, it only appears malleable in the sense that we come to better understand it through secular debate and reflection upon the errors of history.

The Philosophical study of Ethics examines how morality is applied within cultures to create the legal and professional standards by which people within that culture operate. It would be fair to say that morality once subjected to the overtures of culture and popular sentiment results in a standard of Ethical behavior specific to that time and place.

Basic definitions for the two terms;

Morality- Of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong.

Ethics- The rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture.

Examples of Moral and Ethical Dilemmas

Some examples might help to ossify the differences and similarities regarding ethical and moral behavior. I'll use legal examples as this is the milieu in which ethics and morality seem to most often come into conflict.

Ex; A defense lawyer who puts all his resources into obtaining the acquittal of a serial killer could be said to be acting immorally but is definitely acting within the Ethical imperatives of his profession.

Ex; The same defense lawyer consciously not performing at his best to defend a serial killer could be considered to be acting morally but is in violation of the Ethical conduct prescribed by his profession.

Ex; A prosecutor convicting a man who he knows to be innocent simply as a result of political and social pressure to hold someone accountable for a heinous crime by withholding evidence from the defense is acting neither Ethically nor morally.

Ex; A defense lawyer taking on a case pro bono in which he knows the person indicted to be innocent and utilizing all the legal tools at his disposal is behaving both morally and Ethically.

So as you can see, even with these very simple examples, morality and Ethical conduct can often come into mutually exclusive collision. Other areas in which we find complex Ethical consideration of morality is Biomedical research, Euthanasia, Abortion, and Therapeutic confidentiality. For each of these issues a pervasive sense of morality is tailored to fit a particular situation in accordance with popular sentiment thus transmuting moral sensibility into a specific Ethical practice.


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