Sunday, May 16, 2004
Here is an interesting new blog by a South Carolinian named Steve. Welcome to the blogosphere, Steve! I put a permanent link on the left side of this blog. Peeve #5 What’s the difference between ethics and morality? You don’t know, do you? Join the crowd. Even philosophers don’t use the terms consistently. I’ve heard “ethics” defined as the philosophical study of morality and “morality” defined as the philosophical study of ethics. Some philosophers, such as Bernard Williams, use the term “morality” to refer to a proper subset of ethics. Morality, they say, has to do with obligation (“ligare” = tie or bind, as in “ligament”), whereas ethics concerns what sort of people we should be as well as how we should conduct ourselves (i.e., character as well as action). Very often I see the expression “ethical and moral,” as in “Cloning has ethical and moral implications” or “Torture is unethical, immoral, and illegal.” I doubt very seriously that the author of these sentences has a clear idea of the distinction. In fact, I suspect the author throws both words in just in case there is a difference between ethics and morality (or between the ethical and the moral). It’s cover-your-ass writing. It's disingenuous. Let me lay down the law. Unless you have a clear distinction in mind between ethics and morality, as Williams does (and in which case you’re obliged to share it with your interlocutor), don’t use both terms in a single expression, for that implies (1) that there is a difference and (2) that you know the difference. Pick a term and use it consistently. Don’t fudge. Don’t weasel. Don’t put on airs.