Ethics and morality

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Related or contrasting ideas may be found in the following sections: Absolutism, Consequentialism, Duty, Intuitionism, Needs, Nietzsche, Relativism, Subjectivism, and Values.

The scope of ethical and moral philosophy

Until recently, ethics and morals were considered quite distinct

Sir Anthony Kenny (former president, British Academy) in The Oxford History of Western Philosophy, ed. by Anthony Kenny, 1994, p. 367

“In the heyday of the analytical movement it was popular to believe that there was a sharp distinction between ethics and morals. Morals consisted of first-order questions about how one should behave, questions such as whether lies were ever permissible, or whether it was justified to bomb cities in order to shorten a war. Such questions and their answers belonged to the first-order discipline of morals. It was not quite clear whose job it was to answer such questions, but any Oxford philosopher of the 1950s would have told you that it was certainly not the philosopher’s .The philosopher did something quite different, which was called ethics; that was a second-order study of the concepts which we used in asking and answering the first-order questions, and the philosopher’s relations to the moralist was no closer than that of the garage mechanics to the driver of the car.”
Ethics and morality are distinct, and may not be mutually reinforcing

Jerry A. Coyne (professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago), “Creationism for Liberals,” The New Republic, August 12, 2009, p. 40

“To address the question of moral progress, it helps to divide morality into ‘ethics,’ which the philosopher A.C. Grayling calls ‘thinking and theorizing about what is good and bad, and how people should live,’ and ‘moral presupposition,’ or ‘what, either consciously or unconsciously, governs what people do, or aspire to do, in the conduct of life.’ Ethics involves values and principles codified in law, religion, or philosophy, while morality is the way people actually behave. These are obviously connected: people take their guidance from moral codes, and those codes change in response to people’s feelings. Still, it is possible for ethics to improve while individual behavior changes little. India outlaws discrimination by caste, for example, but in much of the country this has little or no impact on how people treat each other. Even the most cursory survey of human history suggests that while ethics has improved somewhat, morality may have barely budged.”
Morality and ethics are distinctly different

Sherwin B. Nuland (Clinical Professor of Surgery at Yale University; member of the Executive Committee of The Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics), “Dead Wrong,” The New Republic, September 9, 2009, p. 13

“At times, morality can be dismissed as a matter of personal conscience, no matter how widespread its acceptance. Ethics, on the other hand, arises from societal or group commitments to principia of behavior. A formulated code of ethical precepts — whether philosophical, legal, or religious — is a statement of commitment that the group has a right to insist upon from its members, even to the point of punishing breaches.”
The terms ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ can be analyzed similarly

Ethel M. Albert (prof. of philosophy, Northwestern Univ.), Theodore C. Denise, and Sheldon P. Peterfreund (prof. of philosophy, Syracuse Univ.), Great Traditions in Ethics, 3rd edition, 1975, p. 7

“The term ‘moral’ is essentially equivalent to the term ‘ethical.’ Etymologically, these terms are identical, the former being derived from the Latin word ‘mores,’ the latter from the Greek word ‘ethos,’ both words referring to customary behavior. Both terms may be used with two different antonyms. Ordinarily, the opposite of ‘moral’ is taken to be ‘immoral,’ so that we mean by a ‘moral man’ one who is good and does what is right, and by an ‘immoral man’ one who is bad and does what is wrong. However, ‘moral’ may also be used in a wider sense to refer simultaneously to right and wrong. In this case, its antonym is ‘amoral.’ In this usage, men are ‘moral’ in the sense that certain of their actions, e.g., the way parents treat their children, the way we handle our obligations, the ideals by which we live, etc., are subject to judgments of right and wrong. By contrast, the functioning of the digestive system, like the operation of a machine or the flavor of an apple, would be considered amoral, i.e., they are objects to which moral judgments are irrelevant. The same analysis may be made of the term ‘ethical,’ i.e., its antonym may be either ‘unethical’ i.e., it may refer to what is wrong, or it may have as an antonym ‘non-ethical,’ in which case it would apply to objects which are not subject to moral or ethical evaluation.”
Ethics deals with issues of virtue, duty, propriety, and value

G.E. Moore (1873-1958; prof. of philosophy, Cambridge Univ.), Principia Ethica, 1948, p. 1

“Whenever we say, ‘So and so is a good man,’ or ‘That fellow is a villain’; whenever we ask, ‘What ought I to do?’ or ‘Is it wrong for me to do like this?’; whenever we hazard such remarks as ‘Temperance is a virtue and drunkenness a vice’ — it is undoubtedly the business of ethics to discuss such questions and such statements; to argue what is the true answer when we ask what is right to do, and to give reasons for thinking that our statements about the character of persons or the morality of actions are true or false. In the vast majority of cases, where we make statements involving any of the terms ‘virtue,’ ‘vice,’ ‘duty,’ ‘right,’ ‘ought,’ ‘good,’ [or] ‘bad’ we are making ethical judgments; and if we wish to discuss their truth, we shall be discussing a point of Ethics.”
Ethics deals with doing the right thing in all aspects of our lives

Mortimer J. Adler (director, Institute for Philosophical Research; member, board of editors, Encyclopedia Britannica), The Common Sense of Politics, 1971, p. 10

“The word ‘ethics’ in everyday discourse usually connotes the consideration of what is good and bad, or right and wrong, for the individual in the conduct of his lief.”
Moral philosophy goes farther than merely ethics

Mortimer J. Adler (director, Institute for Philosophical Research; member, board of editors, Encyclopedia Britannica), The Common Sense of Politics, 1971, p. 12

“The word ‘ethics’ is sometimes used as if it were identical in meaning with ‘moral philosophy.’ But, clearly, ethics does not exhaust moral philosophy when the latter is understood as covering questions about the good society as well as questions about the good life.”
Ethical rules must be justified by something more than tradition and authority

John Macquarrie (prof. of philosophy, Oxford Univ.), Three Issues in Ethics, 1970, p. 26

“But what is perhaps the most compelling reason for seeking a new morality is the simple and universally acknowledged fact that today’s world does not blindly accept rules that rest on authority and tradition. This does not necessarily imply the rejection of the content of the tradition, but it is the demand for explanation and elucidation and even for intelligent participation in the formulation and revising of rules and standards. The challenge to authority in ethics is only part of a much wider phenomenon, seen also in the challenge to the universities, the family, political institutions, and so on. In every case, there is discontent with an authority externally imposed.”
Morality should be divided into active and passive

John Hartung (social science and medical writer; assoc. prof. of anesthesiology, State Univ. of New York), “Love Thy Neighbor: The Evolution of In-Group Morality,” Skeptic, vol. 3, no. 4, 1995, p. 90

“Moral behavior can be active or passive. If you refrain from stealing when you could get away with it, you have been passively moral. When you help someone at a cost to yourself, you have been actively moral.”
There are two traditions of analyzing ethical questions

Joseph Butler (1692-1752; English philosopher and Bishop of Durham), in Great Traditions in Ethics, 3rd edition, edited by E.M. Albert, T.C. Denise, and S.P. Peterfreund, 1975, p. 185-186

“There are two ways in which the subject of morals may be treated. One begins from inquiring into the abstract relations of things; the other from a matter of fact, namely, what the particular nature of man is, its several parts, their economy or constitution; from whence it proceeds to determine what course of life it is, which is correspondent to this whole nature. In the former method the conclusion is expressed thus, that vice is contrary to the nature and reason of things: in the latter, that it is a violation or breaking in upon our own nature. Thus they both lead us to the same thing, our obligations to the practice of virtue; and thus they exceedingly strengthen and enforce each other.”

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