What is the difference between morals and ethics?

Do you think there’s a clear distinction between the two?

To me Ethics pertains to a subject’s ‘rightness’ and Morals pertains to personal Conduct towards a rightness.

For me (and me alone), morality has a tribal element — it’s concerned with behavior that assures the survival of one’s group, and also its ability to distinguish itself from “them heathens over there.” In addition, its rules are frequently imposed from without, perhaps by an old man in a nightshirt or the group’s collective ancestors.

Ethics, on the other hand, tend to be more universal and arise from a sense of respect (for other humans, puppies & kittens, slime molds, whatever).

To reiterate, this is only a personal distinction. I happen to prefer ethics to morality because I feel the former is harder to subvert to other ends.

This is a hard one, and one most people, including me, screw up all the time. IIRC, ethics are large principles and morals are specific rules. They are very closely related because a set of morals will fall under an ethical principle. If one is right-thinking, your morals and your ethics are in agreement, although they may not be identical to others holding that ethic. But if they aren’t internally consistent, cognitive dissonance happens.

A good work ethic: you believe in the value of work. The details of how to do that: working hard, showing up on time, not stealing from your boss, etc. are morals, and may vary from person to person and job to job.

Human rights must be protected = Ethic. Killing unborn babies is wrong = Moral. Forcing a woman to bear an unwanted child is wrong = Moral.

It is good to be nice = Ethic; share your toys = Moral.

For me, ethics are societal and morals are both societal and personal.

Ethics is the natural result of “do unto others.” You wouldn’t want to be bitch-slapped; consequently, it would unethical for you to bitch-slap someone. You wouldn’t want your property stolen; consequently, it would be unethical of you to steal someone else’s belongings. You wouldn’t want to eat tainted meat; consequently, it would be unethical for you (if you worked in the meat industry) to overlook safety standards that ensure that tainted meat doesn’t make it to the store shelves.

Morality, OTOH, encompasses ethics but also goes a step beyond. It is both unethical AND immoral for you to bitch-slap someone, or be complicit in their being served tainted meat. But looking at pornography? No one else is harmed by it*, so it’s only immoral if your personal moral code (perhaps dictated by your culture and/or religion) deems it so. Gambling? No one else is harmed by it*, so it’s only immoral of your personal moral code deems it so. Eating pork? Having a homosexual relationship? Washing dishes on Saturday? All of these things are moral considerations, but not ethical ones.

*In some ways, the arguement can be made that these activities do harm someone else. For example, my wife may argue that my looking at porn hurts her. A woman who has to work two jobs to support her familiy because her husband gambles away his paycheck may also argue that gambling has hurt her. But in the main, I believe that these types of things do not directly bring harm to another person simply by means of being done; it’s largely dependent on others’ reaction to it, on whether it’s done to excess, etc.

Also, I make no claim that my definitions here are unassailable, and an educated ethicist may feel called to punch holes in my defiinitions, but since this is IMHO I feel that that isn’t the point of this thread.

No. The two words may be used to refer to different ideas, but they don’t have two commonly accepted, clearly distinct definitions. That’s what my old philosophy professor said, and my own experience bears it out. The fact that you’re even asking the question indicates that there’s not an obvious difference between the two.

This isn’t to say that the words are totally interchangeable. Changing a phrase like “medical ethics” to “medical morals” seems odd. “Ethics” is often used to relate to professional standards of conduct, but “morals” usually is not. “Morals” is much more likely than “ethics” to be used with a religious connotation. But these aren’t the only ways in which these words can be used, and in some other contexts there isn’t any clear difference between their meanings.

I recently watched the movie Election, where this was actually the topic for a class discussion this - but I forget what they said! :stuck_out_tongue:

Really good flick, BTW.

Good question. This often gets me into trouble in conversation if I’m not careful, because the definitions I use for these terms are used by me and perhaps three other people, and are markedly different from any of the commonly accepted standards I’ve seen. When speaking with others, I try to use them more or less as WhyNot describes, but it involves a mental “translation” that I have to consciously process as I speak. That said, the following explanations are what morality and ethics mean to me.

Morality is a system of rules concerning interactions of sentient individuals. Its rules are derived from an assumption of self and an inductive conclusion that other “selves” are abstractly, and thus morally, innately equivalent to one’s own. Morality applies only to action and intent, and has no direct bearing on physical entities, such that neither a person nor an object can be said to be innately “moral” or “immoral”.

I could go on (and believe me, I’d love to) about what exactly this means, but unless you want my 50-page thesis version, suffice it to say that morality is the universal framework that defines “right” and “wrong” in terms of actions and intent. Morals have to be derived logically from two simple assumptions, and you’ll find that they tend to be rather minimalist in practical terms – for example, a consistent moral system can be posited in which it is immoral to kill another person, but not immoral to knowingly allow others to die.

Ethics, on the other hand, are personal in nature. If morality is the skeleton of the guidelines for a person’s behavior, then ethics are the meat on its bones. A consistent system of morality will likely allow for many actions that the individual feels are “wrong”, and fails to compel actions that the person considers “right”. So, that person can define their ethics to govern their own behavior beyond their morals. Ethics don’t need any particular justification, logical or otherwise; I can decide that it is unethical to kick puppies without having to prove that it is wrong to do so. The only constraint on ethics is that they cannot violate the rules defined by morality (if I believe it’s immoral to steal, I can’t turn around and say that I find it ethical to knock over a 7-11).

Personally, I find this a far more useful distinction than the ones usually bandied about. YMMV.

Heh. I guess I am (as usual) the weirdo. For me, I always saw it backwards from what other posters say. In my mind, ethics is more of a societal thing. “Is it ethical?” is a question one would ask someone else. Morals are personal, one would say “that goes against my morals.”

You see, I might be a moral person by my own standards, but I am most definitely not an ethical person.

I’ll hop on the ethical-personal moral-interpersonal bandwagon. That’s how they were used in my philosophy class in college.

I concur with this understanding - morals often pertain to the personal things that individuals do, and religions try to restrain them from. (with immorality being the personal violation of morals)

Ethics often pertain to our habitual or societal ways of handling people or their interactions fairly and humanely (for example, the fairtrade goods movement is promoting ethical stances - albeit perhaps motivated by morals).

The two are quite intertwined and overlapping though.

Ethics has more to do with law than morals has to do with law.