Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Distinction Between Morality and Ethics (Part I)

To begin simply, Ethics is the disciplined reflection of morality. Traditionally, ethics is divided in to two major categories:

1. Metaethics: which is concerned with discovering the nature of moral principles and judgments.

2. Normative Ethics: which is the branch of ethics that is concerned with establishing moral principles.

If someone were to ask questions then, from the perspective of metaethics, then they could inquire: whether the nature of morality is conventional or universal; subjective or objective. Could morals be true or false? Could they be grounded in natural benefits and harms, or not?

Whereas, if someone were practicing the same exercise from the perspective of Normative Ethics, then they would aim  to discover what the fundamental moral principles are; how they are applied to specific situations (also known as applied ethics)- like abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia- and whether there are any absolute moral principles which apply in every case.

So if metaethics is concerned with discovering the nature of morals, and normative ethics is there to establish general rules of moral behavior- then the distributor of morality (the normative ethicist- lawmakers), must have already chosen their metaethical stance to conclude an objective right or wrong; a truth or false. But can lawmakers be fallacious?

Consider now the following cases where particular communities hold ethical or moral beliefs which others do not share. Does the agreement amongst the members of these communities that their beliefs are right make those beliefs correct? What is the basis of your response to these cases?

(a) The Hare Krishna's belief that gender differences are ordained by God and, as a result, girls and boys should not follow the same curriculum at school.

(b) The Eskimo and Laplander belief that frail, elderly people should be left in the snow to die when then can no longer follow the group.

(c) A Rifle Club's belief that shooting animals and birds is sport.

(d) The belief of some tribal groups in Africa and elsewhere that young girls should be circumcised so that they may become adult women and get married.

(e) The belief of groups like the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Al-Qaeda and radical environmentalists that terrorist acts are necessary to achieve their political goals.

(f) The Orthodox Jewish belief in male circumcision.

(g) Amsterdam's leniency towards recreational cannabis usage.

(h) The Catholic Christian belief that using contraceptives during sexual-intercourse is a sin.

(i) The practice of polygamy in Islam.

(j) The Nazi's belief  that the Aryan race is superior.

If you've lasted this long, then now take the time to think about the following cases where individuals feel that certain actions are morally justified. Does the feeling that the action is right, make it right? What is the basis of your response to these cases?

(a) Sara feels that any sexual acts between consenting adults which give the partners pleasure is OK.

(b) Tashfin feels that writing a second part to "this" at his convenience is OK.

(c) Kamil feels that prostitution is OK.

(d) Alina thinks that gossiping about her friends private lives is OK.

(e) Ali feels that stealing small items from large stores is OK. be continued (at my convenience)


  1. Ethics of relative (contextual) and evolutionary nature. Morality is completely subjective whereas ethics is more broad and could have an objective standard manifesting subjectively in different contexts. Take for instance the Buddhist perspective, they model ethics on standards on what an enlightened person of Buddha nature would do and act like. They also lay emphasis on the contextual nature, for example it could be okay to lie to a hunter who looks for a dear as protecting life is more integral and in congruence with the larger truth of balancing the web of life than lying to a hunter. To take this one step forward using the standard as a model can manifest in different ways in different contexts. Using the taoism to state that the way manifests with and through me/you as well. And learning from how this model experientially manifests could lead to amending and evolving the standard as well. The goal is such a system that takes in universality and context into account leading to greater contextual integration. Even more essential is ethics grounded in a metaphysics that leads to creative generation. Spinoza's ethics does have metaphysical grounding and must be taken forward. I too shall build upon this at my convenience.

  2. Well said: history is a battle of morals and time is orchestrating a universal symphony; waltzing to which is the goal of Spinoza's disciples.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.