Morals and Ethics

Sorry. Philsophical day.

I am vehemently against adult human beings following a moral system over an ethical one. The reason the 10 Athetistic Commandments bother me so much is that they outline yet another moral system, in place of an ethical one, with the very people you’d hope would reject morals. You could take them as a parody…but they don’t come across as a joke.

Most people accept “morals” and “ethics” as being the same thing. They’re not. I’m going to use biblical examples here, but that’s what I’m familiar with.

Morality is a system of right and wrong, in which one follows given rules. The result of following a given rule is reward; the result of not following a given rule is punishment. The 10 Commandments and the Old Testament outline a moral system. “Thou Shalt.” If someone doesn’t follow the instructions contained in the Old Testament, various punishments are outlined; also, the stories illustrate what happens when someone doesn’t do what God wants, and the result is never good.

Ethics is a system of good and bad (like Ray’s preschool–good choice, bad choice), in which one espouses principals. The result of following a principal is the same as the result of not following a principal–whatever happens, happens. The Golden Rule and the New Testament outline an ethical system. “Treat everyone as you want to be treated.” If someone doesn’t follow the instructions, Christ points out that they’ll never know God. Hell isn’t mentioned, and Heaven isn’t a place of reward–it’s just “knowing God.” They do throw in “life everlasting,” but I hope you see the point.

The difference between the two systems is that with Morality, one’s responsibility is limited to following rules. Whether or not the rules accomplish what needs to be accomplished is not under question, and, in fact, must never come under question. With Ethics, one is responsible for the consequences of one’s actions, regardless of intent or even the supposed worthiness of the principal you follow. Suppose you come across someone who does not want to be treated the way you would want to be treated: you still have to live with the consequences. Maybe next time, you’ll ask first.

This is not to say people who follow the 10 Commandments (either in the Book religions or the Atheistic version) do not take responsibility for their actions or that people who practice the Golden Rule always do; only that the systems themselves push for certain types of behavior and contain different assumptions. Morality assumes you follow instructions; Ethics assumes you’re guided by a principal. Children follow instructions; adults should learn to make up their own minds and accept the consequences of their actions, all the way through. Mistakes will be made. “We are all sinners.” This is something you live with–unless you truly follow a moral system, in which case you find a way to punish yourself or make yourself outcast from your group (or find a Judas goat).


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  1. ***Dave Hill

    Hmmm. An interesting way of looking at it. I don’t necessary quibble with any of your points, just (maybe) your definitions.

    To me, a moral code outlines how to get along with universal principles (personified or not) of good and bad. How to get along with God, essentially. They posit some sort of objective good and evil.

    Ethical codes outline how to get along effectively in a social setting — what works, how to get people to get along with each other. More specifically, how to be seen with respect, honor, professionalism, etc. They can be kissing cousins of morals (the two sometimes bleed together), but they are a lot more situational and identified with particular cultures (social and professional) than folks are willing to admit is true for moral codes.

    As I said, the two of them fall closely together.

    Interestingly, in critiquing the 10C and moral guidelines as “follow instructions,” you hit on the crux of much of Jesus’ criticism of religious society as he saw it — reliance upon “the Law” as the arbiter of good and evil, vs. faith, grace, belief, acting/living on the principles he derived from what God wanted (feeding the poor, loving neighbors as self, etc.).

    Interestingly, Jesus identifies the two greatest “Commandments” as loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Those are both vague enough that you could argue that they are (using your definitions) ethical principals/codes (gauge your behavior against these guidelines, as opposed to instructions of what specifically to do).

  2. DeAnna

    What does it mean to get along with God? And who determines a universal principal? What is a universal principal?

    To me, when I would say, “get along with God,” I would mean something along the lines of, “follow my conscience” or “good karma” or, to flavor it better, “tao.” To me, “getting along with God” would be an ethical action, because nobody else could tell you how to do it, not precisely, and if you followed someone else’s advice which went awry, you’d still be responsible for the results.

    What is a universal principal? Personally, I would say that something people will tend to run into is that while one’s sense of self can seem like all that we can truly know, it isn’t all that exists–other people have feelings too. It is both “good” to care about other people’s feelings and “a good choice” to to do so. It’s good because being kind helps other people (which sounds like a social benefit to me, eh?), and it’s a good choice, because being kind leads to returns of kindness. Morals can lead to the same actions as ethics, and vice versa. But when morals lead to bad places (and ethics do, too), there is no mechanism for correcting the system. An ethical person will change their operating instructions if they don’t work; a moral person will try to force the world to fit instead.

    I’ve always liked Christianity, in theory, and at one point, there probably wasn’t a bigger fanatic for miles around. (Then I tried to teach fourth-graders on Sunday mornings, and man were my eyes opened.) One of the things I like best about it is that it is, at the heart of it, an ethical system. There are no rules; there’s only very good advice. And then there was Paul–back to the rules, rewards, and punishments. It was bound to happen, though. So I don’t argue with you there.

  3. ***Dave Hill

    I really do wonder what would have happened had Paul’s letters not become part of the canon. For all that he preached that the Law no longer applied, he still worked from a Law framework. Most of the problems that Christianity has had, from a theological perspective, have stemmed from Paul.

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