Very often, when I discuss weighty topics online as one does, I find that a large part of any disagreement stems from unspoken assumptions about nuances of definition in the terms being bandied about. Spoken or written language is a terribly imprecise medium of communication, its sole redeeming quality being that it’s better than any medium generally open to us, and that imprecision is only exacerbated when two or more people are using the same word with different assumed definitions, and only belatedly realize (if at all) that there were two or more conflicting definitions in play.
So consider this the beginning of an occasional series of post detailing what I mean when I use a word. Not only will it allow me to identify and delineate some of my own assumptions, it will allow me to link back or cut-and-paste when discussions/disagreements involving these concepts occur. (I suppose you could consider my post about “bullying” a prequel to this series, one which will likely be rewritten into the series in the future.)
While morality and ethics overlap considerably in practice, I use the words to denote two distinctive methods of determining the right and good:
Ethics is an objective judgment relying on equity and justice. It’s almost mathematical. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is an ethical statement; so is “all men are created equal.” One does not need to have any sort of religious, spiritual or metaphysical grounding to understand ethics; one does not even need to be ethical one’s self to understand ethics, as being ethical gives one no special insight into ethics.
Morality is based on an indwelling sense of “good” and “evil.” It is usually informed by religious or metaphysical standards. It often mirrors ethics, but has its basis in a subjective conviction rather than an objective calculus. This doesn’t mean that morality is necessarily any less “real,” however you want to define that; but it means that one’s belief on a certain moral standard is dependent on that person’s acceptance of the ground on which such morality is based, not on the demonstrable reasonableness of the moral standard itself.
What’s funny, in the sense of being not funny at all, is that plenty of people are making moral judgments when they insist that they are making supportable ethical judgments. Pick any divisive hot-button topic, like gay marriage or capital punishment, and while there are people who can make strictly ethical cases for each side, a goodly number — perhaps the majority — have picked their position by an indwelling sense of right and wrong, and then use ethical constructions for justification. (Usually, the less religious side in these or other arguments imply that, while their opponents rely on unsupportable standards of morality for their argument, they themselves are informed strictly by ethics; that just means that one side is usually more in denial than the other.)
[Picture is unrelated.]