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What is the Difference Between an Ethical Person and a Moral Person?: A Speculative Essay

Updated on December 10, 2015
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.

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!


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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Hi, TToombs08!

      Thank you for stopping by and speaking positively about my unworthy hub. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      Thanks again and take it easy!

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 

      6 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      I think you made my grey cells hurt. :) Very good points to ponder, well written and entertaining. Loved it. Thank you! Voting up and across.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Hi, P.W.!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting on my unworthy hub.

      With all respect to Stanford Encyclopedia and the thesaurus, my approach is to try to come to grips with how terms are used in everyday life, even if -- as it appears to be in this case -- those definitions are out of sync with what a reference text says.

      I do have a problem with Stanford's definition of "morality" as "some codes of conduct...." As I see it, if something is codified it is not morality, since we're talking about a healthy concern for the fundamental well being of our fellow human beings.

      For example, recall when the Abu Gharaib torture scandal broke. Or think of any scandal involving the police (excessively rough, humiliating treatment of suspects, etc0. Spokesmen are always, inevitably, blaming the situation on low-level personnel and promising to beef up "training."

      That word, "Training," gets used a lot. But the spokespeople for officialdom are mixing up "morality" with "ethics." In other words, they are confusing "minding your ps and qs," and making sure your "Is and dotted and your Ts are crossed," as it were (what might roughly be called, with a stretch, 'ethics') and "morality," which is generally understood to be a concern with fundamental human welfare.

      After all, what "training" does one need, for example, that it is not okay to take a bunch of prisoners, make them strip naked, and pile on each other? What "training" does one need that it is not alright to put a man in a black hood, attach fake electrodes to his private parts, make him stand on one foot, and tell him that if he puts his foot down, he will be electrocuted?

      As for the system of "Christian ethics," I would say it is different from what one might call "Christian morality." To me, the former seems to a very legalistic, ritualistic approach to the religion (sort of what Jesus criticized the Pharisees for). You dutifully do the things you're supposed to do, and do not do the things you're not supposed to do -- but you do this without any real love; you are a rather mechanical Christian.

      Christian morality is something different. You might get certain details of worship "wrong," (to the consternation of the ritualistic purist), but you are filled with "God's love" for "Him," your fellow believers, and all humankind.

      And so on and so forth.

      Take it easy, P.W.! Thanks again for your support.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      An interesting pov on these two terms, WC. To me they are so close in meaning that I decided to look them up in the dictionary and thesaurus. I found it interesting (from a purely linguistic pov) that the thesaurus includes morality as a synonym of ethics and that one online dictionary defined ethics as "a system of moral principles."

      On the other hand, the Standford Encyclopedia defines morality "descriptively" as "some codes of conduct put forward by a society or, some other group, such as a religion (e.g. Christian ethics), or accepted by an individual for her own behavior" and "normatively" as "a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons."

      An interesting distinction. Your answer and the comments have provided some food for thought. Voted up and interesting.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thank you for the response, rdlang05. I suppose ethics are established by societal norms. I have no problem with that. After all, for society to "work" we have to depend on certain things happening -- like the idea that most people, for example, when they get too much change at the grocery store, will alert the cashier to the mistake and return the money. I think society depends on a certain amount of good ethical behavior to even be functional.

      I can also see why you associate "morality" with religion. After all, for hundreds of millions (if not a couple billion) of people, "God" is the one who, through the various "sacred" books, instructs humankind on how to be good to each other, or protect and preserve the fundamental well-being of the species.

      Anyway, I'm pleased that you like my definitions.

      Thanks again.

      Take it easy! :D

    • rdlang05 profile image

      R D Langr 

      6 years ago from Minnesota

      I guess I mean that when I think of "ethics" I think of things like "philosophy" outside a "code" of absolute laws--mostly things that are established by societal norms. When I think of "morality" however, I think of "theology" and an established code of laws revealed by a God or a religious institution. Your definitions are much more thought out however.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Hey rdlang05. How's it going?

      Thanks for stopping by, and thank you for the kind word about my scribblings. I'm glad to see that I didn't do too badly since I wrote this piece pretty quickly, almost 'winging it,' you might say.

      Thanks very much, also, for the up vote.

      Tell me: What do you mean when you say the difference between morality and ethics is "a religious or doctrinal one"?

      In the meantime, take it easy!

    • rdlang05 profile image

      R D Langr 

      6 years ago from Minnesota

      Interesting viewpoint, and I don't necessarily disagree. I would postulate the difference between the two is a religious or doctrinal one. This however is a very good distinction and definitely a good way to look at this. Voted up.


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