Wordplay: Morals and Ethics

I have noticed something only recently that I have observed for some time in political news and advocacy--the realization coming only from a dinner conversation trying to sort out the more direct translations of words used by Kant and Nietzsche.

That's right, I'm a party animal.

I figured out that there is some interesting wordplay about when we talk about the words ethics and morals. First, let's look at their definitions:

eth·ics

  1. 1.

    moral principles that govern a person's or group's behavior.

    "Judeo-Christian ethics"

    synonyms:moral code, morals, morality, values, rights and wrongs, principles, ideals, standards (of behavior), value system, virtues, dictates of conscience
    • the moral correctness of specified conduct.

  2. 2.

    the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles.

mor·al

1.

  1. a lesson, especially one concerning what is right or prudent, that can be derived from a story, a piece of information, or an experience.

  2. 2.

    a person's standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.

    synonyms:moral code, code of ethics, (moral) values, principles, standards, (sense of) morality,scruples

These words seem to be quite synonymous.

(Fun fact: some time ago, "ethics" was used more generally to mean "the right ways to live," so it included how to be happy, tranquil, and the like.)

The Wordplay

So they are synonyms, but I've found there is some political wordplay in which they are not used as such.

In my personal experience, when one refers in politics to "morals," one is usually saying, "don't impose your morals on others." That is, "morals" are merely an opinion, and are relative.

When referring to "ethics," one casts a judgment, such as, "this senator/organization acted unethically." In this case, "ethics" is being used to represent something absolute and universal.

Nobody says, "do not impose your ethics on others." This is reserved for the word "morals."

Choosing What's "Ethics" and What's "Morals"

If this can be generalized, it implies that we think there is some set of universally-applicable goods-and-evils ("ethics") and one set of goods-and-evils which exist only in the minds of some, but aren't real ("morals"). And, even if sometimes the uses of the words cross-over, we still are left with the same conclusion:

We seem to believe that there is some obvious set of ethics that we all subscribe to: "it is unethical to do XYZ," and we very much want those to be part of law. (For example, we want in our laws to prevent businesses from acting "unethically.") There is a separate set of morals that apparently only a few subscribe to, that others do not want to be part of law.

This leaves us with a dilemma: by what measure do we determine that one person's belief in good/evil is an unassailable and universal ethic by which we should all abide, and another person's belief in good/evil is mere personal opinion, meant to be kept by oneself and not imposed on others?

I don't have an answer; I welcome comments.

1 Comment

Erik Fogg

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