Ethics or morality – Is there a difference?

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – – that’s all.’

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass [1]

Sometimes it is a wonder that humans communicate at all. In the above passage, Lewis Carroll’s Alice (of “Wonderland” fame) argues with Humpty Dumpty over who gets to decide the meaning of words. The verbal battle ends with the epic poem of nonsense words called “Jabberwocky.” [2]

I like to call the terms ethics and morality “Humpty Dumpty” words. They are often used interchangeably by some writers, while others vigorously defend their personal distinctions. The difference is largely in how we “map” the language, either theologically or philosophically. I am not a stickler on this issue, but here is the distinction I make, mostly based on my perception of most common usage:

Ethics is the study of the general principles behind specific moral choices. Ethics has more of a theoretical or general connotation than morality, which relates more to the perceived “goodness” or “badness” of particular human actions. Morality has more of a practical, specific and personal connotation than does ethics, and in common use it is more likely to be about sex in some way.

Let me also suggest that our general usage is more commonly an indication of our level of disgust. I might find the general scumminess of politician’s practices to be “unethical,” but it would likely take a more personal instance of cheating, especially if I am the aggrieved party, for me to use the label “immoral.”

Sexual practices different from our own (or the ones we won’t admit to) often get the “immoral” label. In fact, if I were to ask you to list a half-dozen “immoral” behaviors in your judgment, the majority would probably have some relationship to sexuality. Even when you dig down into the debate on abortion, for instance, you quickly find yourself in the realm of disapproved sexual practices as the underlying context.

Distance and direct contact are also factors in the distinction. Thousands of children can starve to death, but it is tough to get that societal reality to rise to the level of “moral outrage” when the children are far enough away and look sufficiently different from us. That is a harsh and cynical observation, but I will defend it as accurate.

Contrary to popular opinion, overt religious practice does not appear to be well-correlated with public morality. If we were to list the top “moral sins” commonly cited, we would find some of the lowest reported instances in some countries, and even some U.S. states, with relatively-low overt religious participation. The relation of religion to ethics and morality is a complex topic that will be explored in future posts.

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  1. Carroll, Lewis. “Chapter 6 – Humpty Dumpty.” Through the Looking Glass,
  2. “Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”

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