Ethics vs Morals

In a previous essay I noted in passing the essential identity of ethics and morals in a universe where moral absolutes make sense. One of my readers took exception to that remark, but declined to defend his objection. Here follows what I might have said to him, if he'd had the courage of conviction. Another critic was too lazy to even look in his dictionary to confirm the definition I cited.

First I look at the meaning of ethics, and review the two terms in popular understanding, so that I can be careful to avoid using the terms in some way that contradicts popular usage. Finally I study the impact moral absolutes has on the distinction.

Dictionary Ethics

Wikipedia captures the error in definition:
Ethics (also known as moral philosophy) is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality« -- that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice, etc.
This essentially matches the definition in the dead-tree dictionary on my desk. From an academic perspective, "ethics" is the name of a course in the philosophy department.

I never hear nor see the word "ethics" used in real life to mean a detached academic study. I only see it used in the alternate definitions given in the other three definitions, the first three on this Princeton web page:

S: (n) ethic, moral principle, value-system, value orientation (the principles of right and wrong that are accepted by an individual or a social group) "the Puritan ethic"; "a person with old-fashioned values"
S: (n) ethic, ethical code (a system of principles governing morality and acceptable conduct)
S: (n) ethical motive, ethics, morals, morality (motivation based on ideas of right and wrong)
S: (n) ethics, moral philosophy (the philosophical study of moral values and rules)
which was unique among the definitions turned up by a Google search. The IEEE, of which I am a member, requires me to agree to their published code of ethics, by which they do not mean some abstract philosophical study, but rather a standard of conduct defining right and wrong.

Popular Opinions

Google is a very good metric for identifying popular opinions, because the Google search engine is expressly designed to display at the top of their results page the most popular web sites on the search topic. People are continually trying to game the engine, to make their web pages sort to the top without paying for a "sponsored link" position, and the Google engineers are continually working to subvert those subversions. So there may be exceptions from time to time, but mostly the first page of Google hits essentially captures the popular opinions. Except for my own site, all the links in this essay come from that first hit page. The websites were reviewed on the date of this first draft, and may have changed since then; any changes should not substantially alter what I have to say.

Wikipedia has separate entries for Ethics and Morality. Both pages separately capture the ambiguity people seem to feel about the overlap between these ideas. Here from the introduction to Morality:

Morality has two principal meanings:
* In its "descriptive" sense, morality refers to... This sense of the term is also addressed by descriptive ethics.
* In its "normative" sense, morality refers... The normative usage of the term "morality" is also addressed by normative ethics.
The main body of the Morality entry begins with a quote from the Ethics page introduction:
Ethics (also known as moral philosophy) is the branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality.
but continues:
The word 'ethics' is "commonly used interchangeably with 'morality' to mean the subject matter of this study...
Wikipedia thus has essentially equated the two words, although they list more variations of sense (each with its own qualifying adjective) for Ethics than the two quoted above for Morality, and these extra senses do not overlap the other term at all.

WiseGeek, in an article attributed to R.Kayne and Niki Foster, tries to be more precise:

The difference between ethics and morals can seem somewhat arbitrary to many, but there is a basic, albeit subtle, difference. Morals define personal character, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied. In other words, ethics point to standards or codes of behavior expected by the group to which the individual belongs.
This is the clearest distinction I was able to find, which probably explains its high Google rank. The authors went on to give two examples, lawyers and employees, where there could be a clash between the two sets of values as thus distinguished. Such oppositions give us the best understanding of contrasts in meaning between similar terms.

Jim Lichtman said something similar in a site promoting his book on professional ethics, but less clearly:

Morals and the expression, "moral values" are generally associated with a personal view of values.
Ethics is concerned with how a moral person should behave.
That suggests that a person's behavior has no meaningful or legitimate connection to what they believe, which is nonsense. It might have no connection with what they say they believe, but if they really believe it, they will act accordingly. Everybody knows that "actions speak louder than words." Jim did homage to that truth later in the same page:
When we live by these values we are demonstrating that we are worthy of trust.
In other words, if you can trust what a person says, their actions will match. Obviously, if they are not trustworthy, then you also can't believe what they say about their values.

Another site was apparently put together by a Canadian lobbyist group in support of their recent intolerant (that is, anti-Christian) laws, but made no obvious distinction between ethics and morality. I mention it only for completeness, and to show the general confusion that reigns in the public mind.

Finally, because my critic seemed to consider himself an atheist, I spent some time trying to make sense of a disorganized collection of pages by Austin Cline filed in the "Atheism" category of He distinguishes ethics from morality rather differently than most:

The terms ethics and morality are often used interchangeably and can mean the same in casual conversation, but morality refers to moral standards or conduct while ethics refers to the formal study of such standards and conduct.
Nearly everybody acknowledges one sense of the word "ethics" as referring to the study of the topic, but Cline alone fails to include in his definition any defined standard of conduct. That may be due to his apparent rejection of such a standard at all:
This sort of value is the source of a great deal of debate in moral philosophy because not all agree that such intrinsic values actually exist.
This line is followed by several paragraphs attempting to justify the non-existence of what he calls "intrinsic values" and what everybody else calls morals or ethics. Most of Cline's mish-mash of ideas seem directed to reasons why atheists might need to think about the topic, and how to defend their views against Christians. I have no idea if my critic got his ideas from this site or elsewhere, because much of what he claimed came without links nor logical support, nor even a clear statement of what he meant. This is consistent with my overall impression of atheist logic, covered elsewhere.

From this brief survey I conclude that even apart from my explicit qualification tied to moral absolutes, the equation of ethics and morals is consistent with popular usage. I did, however, cite the WiseGeek link in my previous essay as supporting the presumed distinction of public versus private values, which distinction I now address in the context of moral absolutes.

Moral Absolutes

Many years ago I realized that a simple thought experiment can prove the existence of moral absolutes, values that everybody can can (and tacitly does) agree are universally binding with respect to behavior. This proof is part of a fairly long essay about why I am a Christian, prominently linked from thy home page. Nobody has ever called it into question, and I need not repeat the details here.

Nevertheless, large numbers of people -- probably, but not necessarily, including all atheists, but certainly including most nominal Christians who live as de facto atheists (Vox Day calls them "low church atheists") -- argue against the possibility of moral absolutes. It seems to me important for a practicing atheist (regardless of their overt confession, Christian or otherwise) to deny the existence of moral absolutes, for at least these reasons (not necessarily in any order, and there may be others):

1. If moral absolutes exist, then I am morally bound to comply with all of them, but I prefer not to comply with the particular moral claim _____.

2. There is no obvious evolutionary explanation for moral absolutes, apart from "just so stories" which lack evidential basis and are thus not intellectually compelling.

If there are no moral absolutes, then all morality is relative, and it becomes necessary to distinguish this relative, private sense of values from whatever public expression of ethical values can be enforced or compelled on threat of dire consequences.

On the other hand, if there are moral absolutes, then any private "moral values" different from (that is, in addition to) those absolutes are nothing more than personal preferences, which Cline rightly gives no moral compulsion at all. This has the uncomfortable consequence that all true morality is exactly identical to the set of moral absolutes, and the need to distinguish private morality disappears, and with it the need for external codes of ethics different from those moral absolutes. This is exactly my point more briefly stated earlier.

Unanswered Questions

We have left unanswered (at least here) the questions of exactly which moral value candidates are in fact absolute, and how do you enforce them? Those are important questions, and the historic failure of Christians and other absolutists to provide compelling answers continues to fuel the denial of the first question, that of existence. But as I pointed out earlier, I am not here today defending the existence question, but only the implication that ethics and morality cease to have distinct meanings, given the premise is assumed or answered in the positive.

Because it is so easy to get to the conclusion from the premise, one is tempted to wonder why anybody should object to my original claim? I suspect that the problem lies in the fact that the denial of the premise is so strongly held by such a large majority of our culture, it becomes virtually impossible for them to imagine any other kind of universe, and therefore to think clearly about what might be true in such a universe.

Whatever his reasons, my critic chose not to defend his criticism.

Tom Pittman
First draft: 2010 Nov 15
Definition links added 2010 Nov 26