What is the Difference Between an Ethical Person and a Moral Person?: A Speculative Essay
Good Day alifeofdesign!
Thank you for the question: "What is the difference between an ethical person and a moral person?
You have given us a nice inquiry to exercise the "gray cells," as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot calls the organ. And in keeping with Poirot's custom of 'order and method,' why don't we start at the obvious place, with definitions. Without using a dictionary, here's how I understand the terms 'morality' and 'ethics.'
Morality: This is the quality of dealing in truthfulness and compassion in one's personal relationships, and with other people in general, as it relates to the general well-being of humanity. For example, I would consider a 'moral' person to be one who, say, gives ten dollars to a homeless man so that he can buy a hot sandwich and a cup of coffee. A moral person is a man who honors the commitment of the intimate relationship he's in and maintains his sexual faithfulness to his partner.
A moral person might make sure that she does not use beauty products that have been tested on animals. She might talk about her views with friends and relatives, encouraging them to take the same position. She might go further participate in political protest around the issue.
And while I'm thinking about it, let me say that I would consider a breach of morality of human beings toward animals something like, say, hosting dog fights in the backyard of your mansion a la Michael Vick.
A moral person might run a company with an unconditional no-layoff policy, say. I would consider it a breach of morality (not just 'ethics') to fire 10,000 NOT for reasons of a slowdown in business, but solely for the purpose of boosting the stock price of your company as well as your compensation as CEO (this kind of thing has been known to happen, alifeofdesign, and is well documented). And so on and so forth. I could go on but I won't.
Now, then, a lapse here and there in one or more of these departments does not necessarily make an immoral person. We can all succumb to moments of weakness. Even sustained shortcomings in one or two areas of morality does not necessarily make an immoral person, perhaps one that is merely flawed.
But when we come to a person who regularly trangresses in several areas where morality comes into play, then I think we've reached the point where we're looking at a fundamentally immoral person. That is because his whole life is about compromising the fundamental well-being of others for his own advantage. Come to think of it, I do believe that is the textbook definition of a sociopath!
Ethics: To have good ethics is to deal with honesty in business matters. I use the term 'business matters' very loosely and broadly. An 'ethical' person would, for example, return the excess change if she is given too much by the cashier at the supermarket.
An ethical person finds a wallet stuffed with cash and turns it into the police.
We are not talking about 'fundamental human well-being,' in this realm of ethics. As you know, alifeofdesign, ethics are attached to specific professsions in a way that 'morality,' per se, is not.
I hear they teach courses in ethics in business schools.
Ethics attach to the Catholic priesthood involving the confidentiality of confession.
Ethics attach to the legal profession in the form of 'attorney-client privilege.'
Ethics attach to the medical and counseling professions in the form of doctor-client confidentiality.
It is possible, strictly speaking, for an unethical person to be simultaneously moral. So he might engage in a series of actions that he regards as 'victimless crimes,' on a regular basis. He might go to Atlantic City or Las Vegas and see if he can get away with 'card counting' or some other scam to cheat the casinos. He might be a hacker who does some funny business with the computer, and get all of his long distance calls for free.
He might embezzle from his place of employment, and feel less guilt about it depending on the size and profitability of the company he works for. He finds
At the same time, it is perfectly possible that this same man is moral. He could be a good, supportive father and faithful husband, a loyal friend, and devoted son, brother, uncle, and 'godfather.' Also, he may even have a 'Robin Hood' complex in that he circulates some of his ill-gotten gains in the form of charitable giving to people less fortunate than himself.
In fact, Robin Hood is a good example from cinema, of a character that is 'unethical,' because he STEALS from the rich; and yet he is 'moral' because he then GIVES to the poor, who need it more. Though I think 'Robin Hood and His Merry Men' would probably say, accurately, that the rich stole it first, and therefore there is nothing unethical in Robin Hood and his troupe stealing from them.
Now then, it is possible that a fundamentally 'moral' person might have ethical lapses in moments of weakness or desperation. A psychologist may have an affair with a patient. If he, the patient, is married this act would, of course, be immoral, as I see it. If the patient is single then the act would merely be unethical.
A Catholic priest may have taken a confession from a person, who turns out to be suspected by the police of a felony crime of violence of some kind. His professional ethics demand that he keep the person's confession strictly confidential. However, the priest may feel a larger responsibility to society. Therefore he tells the authorities everything he knows about x person and what he has confessed. Here, the priest's morality outweighs his ethics.
I'll close with this...
While I believe it is POSSIBLE for a fundamentally unethical person to yet be systemically moral -- I'm not sure a fundamentally moral person (though subject to 'lapses' like any other imperfect soul) could be systemically unethical. This is because it seems to me that a moral person would be more able to see the potential immoral consequences of unethical actions.
For this reason a fundamentally moral person probably does not accept the idea of 'victimless crimes. Fail to return a wallet full of cash and perhaps someone suddenly cannot get a life-saving operation or something. One never knows the various ways in which actions can connect and what they can lead to, no matter how innocuous they may seem.
Alright, I'll leave it there. This is a complex issue -- the difference between morality and ethics -- and we cannot hope to do it justice in one essay.
Take it easy!