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.