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Morality and Ethics

This is a minor revision of an article I posted on August 22, 2000 in the Usenet news group in an attempt to draw a working distinction between morality and ethics, in order to use those terms in an ongoing political discussion.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a single authoritative source (or, come to think of it, a not-so-authoritative one, either) that supports any consistent distinction between the words “morality” and “ethics.” I say “unfortunately” because, in my opinion, the difference is quite significant, and the failure to recognize it results in a great deal of confusion.

Accordingly, it must be considered that the following may represent a “private language” of my own invention. I think it has general applicability; but I have no hard evidence to support its use outside of my own mind.


Morality and immorality refer to the [purported] “rightness” or “wrongness” of an action (which, in some systems, need not be overt — i.e., thoughts or desires can be immoral).

Some systems (i.e., absolute moralities) view acts as intrinsically right or wrong, implicitly equating act, actor and action — if an act is “wrong,” a person is “wrong” to do it. Other systems see acts themselves as neutral, with the morality of an action inherent in the motivation, intent, etc. of the actor. Commonly, these two are freely mixed, with some acts deemed right or wrong in and of themselves, while the individual and situation are seen as relevant in other cases.

Right and wrong are atomic concepts — there is really no way to give definitions (in the strict sense) for them. However, moral systems typically equate them to another predicate (specifically, asserting that they have necessarily equivalent “extension”): for example, wrong and immorality may be equated with sin, this in turn being defined as “disobedience to the will of God.” Religious systems almost always include a concept of morality, though a moral system need not be grounded in religion — all that is necessary is the belief that “right” and “wrong” are in some sense “real” characteristics of human actions.

Amorality, or rejection of the principle of moral systems, refers to the inverse belief: that “right” and “wrong” are human perceptions, contingent as much on the observer as on the action — i.e., that they are “in the eye of the beholder,” and do not pertain intrinsically to anything at all.

The words “moral” and “immoral” are most often used to indicate a continuing pattern of behavior, or the presumed characteristics of an individual inclined to or capable of such behavior. When referring to specific actions we more often say, “That’s wrong” or “It was the right thing to do.”


Ethics refers to the conformity of actions with the expectations of mutual respect and trust that enable coherent social function; it represents Homo sapiens’ extension of the instinctive behaviors each species of social animal has necessarily evolved in order to survive in groups. An unethical behavior betrays a trust upon which ordinary social interactions are predicated.

It is reasonable to conclude that any social unit must have some means of maintaining ethical behavior amongst its members: not because “people are inherently unethical” — it’s quite the reverse — but because, in living and evolving systems, any characteristic for which no homeostatic mechanism exists must diffuse. Over generations, people would cease to be instinctively ethical in a society which did not “enforce” ethics: and that grouping would then cease to function as a society at all.

It should be clear that the ethical nature of an action is relative to the particular social unit in question, and to the recognized role of the actor within that unit. What is perfectly ethical behavior at the office may be unethical at home, and vice versa; what is ethical for the student may be unethical for the teacher.

The words “ethical” and “unethical” are also used to indicate a recognized boundary beyond which it is difficult to determine whether ordinary trust has been compromised. This use is common in various professional contexts, where it is considered inappropriate to enter into situations in which the propriety of the professional party cannot be independently verified, regardless of whether any abuse of trust has actually occurred.

Some personal observations, thoughts and hypotheses

Both morality and ethics have roots in animal instinct: ethics in the mechanisms that allow peers to function cohesively, and morality in the responses that enable authorities (parents, pack leaders, etc.) to elicit obedience in situations where direct coercion — and, in the case of humans, rational explanation as well — is impractical.

Ethical systems most often encapsulate concepts of the responsibilities of peers toward one another and the duties of the “one-up” towards the “one-down” members in a relationship of unequals. Moral systems most often encapsulate concepts of the responsibilities of subjects to [purported] authorities. Ethics is motivated by the instinct to maintain a functional relationship with those who might see you as a threat; morality is motivated by the instinct to maintain a functional relationship with what can threaten you.

The core of an ethical system can be derived from a combination of observation and “rational self-interest”; nonetheless, the instinctual component (which is fundamentally non-rational) is necessary to motivate consistently ethical behavior. By contrast, virtually no part of a typical moral system can be derived from any outside source, with the possible exception of the dogma of an associated religion. Moral systems are ordinarily quite self-contained, and the sentiments which comprise them are seen either as self-justifying, or as mandated by a higher power.

Belief systems may vary quite a bit in what they consider “wrong” or “immoral.” By contrast, ethical systems do not vary so greatly (in any one social context, that is). This is not unexpected, since plausible ethical systems must bear a reasonable relationship to the actual practice of human interaction in a society; while the only objective, observable criteria which limit a moral system are that it must, at least, motivate obedience where rational self-interest is insufficient to obtain a degree of compliance needed for survival (of the individual or of the society).

Internalized moral values tend to be more compelling than internalized ethical values. Moral values typically engender a stronger (and somewhat more mysterious) emotional response. The response to behavior considered unethical is usually directly related to its objective consequences; the response to actions viewed as immoral often bears little if any relationship to anything outside the moral system itself.

Moral systems usually consider unethical behavior to be wrong; and it is in the “ethical” sphere that different moral systems show the greatest accord. Moral systems usually regard disobedience to any “legitimate” authority, including civil authorities, as wrong.

Ethical systems usually regard breaking the law (except in special circumstances) as unethical; but, while perhaps not common, it is not inconsistent to hold that it is ethical to disregard laws so long as doing so does not compromise the function of society or betray anyone’s trust. (It is also not inconsistent to hold an opposite view: that breaking the law always betrays implicit trust.)

Governments virtually always claim moral authority for their laws, not merely ethical force (though the latter would be far easier to justify).

It would appear (to me) that a generally internalized morality (not just legislated morality, but morality of any kind) among free, competent adults should not be necessary for coherent society... but I’m unaware of any society that has, in fact, functioned without it.

— Randy (