September 18, 2011
Ethics v. Morality
The terms “ethics” and “morality” have been topics of great debate for many centuries. Both terms are becoming ever more commonplace in casual conversation, and both are used interchangeably without much hesitation. Many scholars, however, would argue that the two terms have distinct differences – that they do not mean the same thing – and that they should be used more prudently. Authors William H. Shaw (San Jose State University) and William K. Frankena (University of Michigan) both wrote short essays on this topic, and interestingly, they take two different approaches on this subject matter that end up crossing paths during some of their analysis. To Shaw, morality is the standards of right and wrong or good or bad, while ethics is the study of morality. He harbors the belief that the culture and society that surround the individual determine one’s morality and that the self-reflection of one’s own life can also alter their moral viewpoints. Frankena too separates morality from ethics. He believes that ethics is all about reasoning, while morality is the actual process by which one decides what they “ought” to do. He doesn’t believe that morality comes from only one place; rather the answer to every moral dilemma is reached through the minimum conception of morality. This is an entire process of self-reflection and internalization where one will puts personal feelings aside and considers the law, religion, and the principals of their upbringing. By the end of his essay, it is clear that Frankena believes that impartial reasoning is behind morality.
Shaw begins his essay with a story dealing with a difficult moral dilemma. A police detective believes that two men brought into the station are guilty of raping and murdering the town nun; unfortunately, there isn’t enough evidence yet to prove the men’s guilt. The townspeople are livid and demand justice, and the detective knows that the men will be “served” by the public if released to the streets. In order to expedite the process, the detective tells the murderers that they must leave the station and go back out into public (into the wrath of the mob). Scared for their lives, the two men confess in order to escape a brutal death. This story is an emotional example of a situation where an individual has to delve into their moral standards in order to determine right from wrong. Evidentially, the detective relied on guttural feelings based on experience in order to make his decision. Moral standards differ from nonmoral standards, “because they concern behavior that is of serious consequence of human welfare that can profoundly injure or benefit people” (Shaw 2005). These standards are supposed to take priority over, “other standards, including self-interest” (Shaw 2005). In other words, although experience and emotion should be used to decide morality, the individual should not be selfish in their decision. The other component of morality that Shaw explores is the reasoning sector. He claims that there will always be questions of etiquette, law, professional codes, and religion, but ultimately it is the quality of the arguments and reasoning (decided by that individual) that determines whether an action is morally right or wrong.
The examples that Shaw provides for the separation of morality from etiquette, religion, and law are compelling. People will judge others for having good or bad manners, for acting “right” or “wrong,” but this simply means “socially appropriate or socially inappropriate. Such words express judgments about manners, not ethics” (Shaw 2005). The same can be said in regards to religion and law, only these distinctions are usually less clear and of a more serious nature. Slavery is one such example. In the Civil War era there was a stark difference in viewpoints of slavery between the North and South. Many Northerners outwardly expressed that they believed it was immoral to own another human being as