Ethics and Morality: why I’m perfectly okay with being immoral, thank you.

Poster: Behind Closed Doors: The Truth about Campus Immorality. Image of the sillhouette of a man and woman (I assume) embracing.

One of the conversations I often have with the wonderful Cleo over at My Two Centses involves morality. We’ll be talking about something or other, and she’ll mention that she has difficulty with the morals of whatever-it-is, and I’ll feel a bit mystified because it doesn’t seem like a thing that’ll harm anyone to me. And then we’ll go on to have an entirely lovely conversation about it over a couple of glasses of wine or mugs of tea, depending on the topic and what time of day it is. Good times all around.

But it got me thinking about what morals are, what ethics are, and why we even bother trying to equate the two. At first glance they’re quite similar. But I think that there are major differences between how each of them are constructed and created which could do with a bit of investigation.
I started, as one does, with a Google search for definitions. Here are the first three definitions I get for ‘morality‘:

  • Concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong; right or good conduct.
  • Ethical motive: motivation based on ideas of right and wrong.
  • Morality (from the Latin moralitas “manner, character, proper behavior”) is a system of conduct and ethics that is virtuous. It can also be used in regard to sexual matters and chastity.

And here is what I get for ethics:

  • ethical motive: motivation based on ideas of right and wrong
  • the philosophical study of moral values and rules
  • Ethics (also known as moral philosophy) is a branch of philosophy which seeks to address questions about morality; that is, about concepts such as good and bad, right and wrong, justice, and virtue.

Right, so the first two of each of these definitions are fairly similar. The real differences between the two start to become very apparent with the third.

  • Morality is virtuous. Morality can be used in regard to sexual matters and chastity.
  • Ethics seeks to address questions of concepts such as good and bad, right and wrong.

Morality is a system of conduct, while ethics is a branch of philosophy. A system of conduct tells you what you should do, and is relatively static. A branch of philosophy provides guidelines on how you should think about things, and generally needs to be open to revision to keep the philosophers in bread and butter, if for nothing else.

Given these definitions, I’m not too surprised that accusations of immorality get thrown about, in ways that accusations regarding ethics do not. It’s easy to accuse a person of immorality- all that they have to have done is broken one of the rules, or even to have appeared unchaste. To accuse a person of being unethical is more difficult, as well as being far more open to questioning and discussion. Morality’s focus on matters of chastity also makes it easy to see how a person could behave in a perfectly ethical yet entirely immoral manner.

Which is why I am perfectly fine with accusations of immorality. Immorality doesn’t preclude acting in an entirely ethical fashion. Immorality doesn’t automatically make one’s actions harmful in any way. Immorality is not necessarily the wrong thing to do, and morality does not necessarily describe the right thing to do. Not from an ethical perspective, anyway.

11 thoughts on “Ethics and Morality: why I’m perfectly okay with being immoral, thank you.

  1. In terms of moral philosophy, ethics is usually thought of as concerning rules of behaviour, whereas morality is about rightness and wrongess ‘in themselves’ if you like. So, your moral code might tell you that adultery is wrong, but your ethical code might tell you that it should be permissible under the law (or your moral code might tell you that it’s wrong to over-eat but your ethical code might tell you that it’s impolite to mention this to someone in most contexts).

    There’s no need to be suspicious of morality because we tend to see it a lot when it comes to religion- there are plenty of secular moral systems that would align much more closely with the intuitions of the average liberal like you or I (such as, for example Kantian ethics or utilitarianism).

    • Ooh, hello there! I was hoping you’d reply to this one- always like to have a person who actually knows their stuff weigh in on the posts where I’m more-or-less making things up as I go along.
      I like the distinction that you make between ethics and morality there. I think the distinction that I was making in my post was specifically because ‘morality’ is generally a word used in relation to religious morality specifically, which can sometimes be a bit short on the reasoning why a particular thing is immoral. Is there other terminology that’s generally used for that sort of carry-on, or would ‘religious morality’ be the accepted way to talk about it?

  2. Excellent, excellent piece of writing. Thank you for it. It gives me hope that there are still a few sane people in this country.

  3. I wonder would a dictionary definition of Sexual Morality also include:

    2. A means for imposing control over people used by various church organizations – especially on women (and hence mothers and their children).

  4. I think Brian’s quite right. Morals aren’t exclusively a religious preserve (although maybe the semantics are more important to us lot maybe. ‘Moral’ has a distinct religious ring to it); neither are they just about sex, either! Although to listen to many religious leaders, you think the world revolved around what we did with our bits alright.
    The two seem fairly interconnected to me. Personally, I would say that my morals inform my ethics (I’ve never thought about it deeply though-maybe I’ll come up with a long boring post on it soon).
    Leaving religion completely out of it, take two examples, one sexual and one not. Infidelity and murder. On the whole, *you* would say these are intrinsically wrong, yes? However, they are obviously relative to circumstance, such as falling in love, an unhappy abusive relationship, self defence, etc etc. Is believing that those concepts are *generally* wrong not a moral position, and accepting and dealing with the fact that there are exceptional circumstances to be taken into account an ethical one?

    • A long post on the topic is precisely what I would like to inspire! And I’ve never found your bloggery to be boring.

      But I like this:

      Is believing that those concepts are *generally* wrong not a moral position, and accepting and dealing with the fact that there are exceptional circumstances to be taken into account an ethical one?

      I think that the trouble with morality, as the word is commonly used, is that it specifically doesn’t seem to take into account the exceptions. Infidelity being seen as automatically ‘wrong’ puts people in consensually nonmonogamous relationships into an automatically immoral position. Similarly, the ‘moral’ position seems to favour keeping people alive far past the point where they have any quality of life. It seems to me that a strong focus on systems of morality as opposed to ethical inquiry is precisely what leads to these kind of things, and at the end of the day does as much harm than good.

      On the other hand, in general it is a bad idea to go around cheating on people and killing ’em. And my reasoning for that would be based on what could be considered my own moral principle of the primacy of bodily integrity and therefore informed consent.

      Hrrrm. Tis a complicated one. One foresees many cups of tea, sipped thoughtfully.

  5. Wouldn’t it be possible to detach the immorality of infidelity from ‘sex’ as such by casting it in terms of honesty- most people generally think it’s good to be truthful and honest, and an extension of this is that we ought to be truthful and honest with people who place their trust in us- as is the case in monogamous relationships.

    So the reasons why you shouldn’t cheat are the same reasons why you shouldn’t break promises in general- it just happens that they are especially serious cases because breaking your promise will likely cause a lot of emotional pain for your partner. (making it more serioues than, for example, promising to go to your birthday party but then failing to show up)

  6. considertheteacosy, I like this post; it’s a lot like some conversations I’ve been having lately.

    Brian, for me, the way you describe understanding why one shouldn’t cheat on one’s partner is a personal understanding that has very little in terms of hard-and-fast moral rules and a lot of ethical inquiry about the situations involved and exactly what is going on in each of them. Would that be consistent with your above characterizations of morals and ethics?

  7. That was intresting. So does this mean it is moral to be ethical? I mean is it being pedantic to include as part of a moral code ‘thou shall strive to be ethical in all your dealings’?

    • First- apologies that I took so long to approve this comment. It ended up in my spam folder for some reason, and I hadn’t cleared that out in ages. All sorted now, though!
      But secondly- I see no reason why not! Although I’d wonder what else you’d need as part of that moral code? If you’re already being ethical in all your dealings, then what more is necessary?

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