Author Topic: Ethics and morality  (Read 648 times)

MsBlack

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Ethics and morality
« on: June 28, 2008, 09:03:10 pm »
Burning Zeppelin once challenged my principle of secular universal ethics. This was before I became as interested in philosophy and analysing my positions as I am now; I’d previously tried (and it was poor form, I now know) to ignore the fundamental discomfort I had with universal ethics: justifying their ‘building blocks’. The following are some of my current thoughts on ethics and morals; it comfortably reconciles human preference for having ethics with my discomfort with universal (absolute) ones. So, without further ado...Zeppy, this one's for you!

~

Morals. Ethics. These are things that the vast majority of apparently capable humans don't think about very much at all, considering their fundamental importance to our lives. The technical differences between morals and ethics are subtle and--as I have decided from my attempts to find them--apparently esoteric or non-existent, and surely contentious. However, if I convey what I mean by the word 'morals' and what I mean by the word 'ethics' and attempt to explain the differences between these terms, I can perhaps provide a greater awareness of their nature and diminish ambiguity in my writings thereon.

To me, morals refer to the principles asserting what actions a group considers generally acceptable. Morals are typically obeyed by a society with the spoken or unspoken threats of conscious or unconscious reproach, punishment and alienation as possible results of disobeying these principles. Note that I write, 'generally acceptable', as opposed to 'should or should not be done' because some who hold moral principles would, when, pressed, admit that they don't think some breaches of a moral are necessarily always wrong, just that they would generally 'frown upon' them.

Ethics, on the other hand, are individual principles that dictate what a person considers right and what a person considers wrong. The ethics may or may not reflect the morals of a group or groups they belong to. Ethics generally derive from a few or even a single fundamental, often instinctual principle. An example would be that harming a 'sapient being' is wrong. From this very general, fundamental principle, one may come to a rather obscure ethical position such as that pinching a person twenty metres underground the surface of a point in the Amazon rainforest is wrong because it constitutes harm of a sapient being.

So, we have our definitions (well...'my’ definitions), but these are still ambiguous. The ambiguity I have in mind regards the meaning of ‘right’ and the meaning of ‘wrong’. As right and wrong are mutually exhaustive and exclusive states, the definition of one can be trivially given in terms of the other: right can be, 'not wrong' while wrong can be, 'not right'.

Having thought about this, it seems convenient to define right as 'not wrong' and wrong as 'Violating one or more fundamental and thus assumed principles of what actions are tolerable', with 'fundamental' effectively meaning an arbitrary, irreducible, ‘just because’ assumption (fundamental phenomena come to mind as a good comparison; they are the building blocks of all matter, cannot be broken down and apparently ‘just are’).

Now, we really do have (hopefully) unambiguous definitions. But, in forming these definitions, we've exposed what I originally intended to convey in writing this: ethics, filters through which we view our actions and limit our lives and which are, to many people, unquestionable truths are completely arbitrary and based on assumptions.

The causes of ethics are ultimately selfish pre-occupations. Why don't we murder unprovoked? There are some more obviously selfish and self-preserving reasons. For example, because otherwise a precedent for unprovoked murder may be set, and our survival would be in considerable danger. Perhaps because otherwise we may end up punished.

But a perhaps less obviously selfish reason is that harming a sapient being without provocation is wrong. But why is it wrong? The most effective and yet still insufficient justification for this position is appealing to emotion, such as, 'Because if we permit unprovoked murder, we must permit harming sapient beings, which would mean someone could come along and assault or kill you for no reason'. But overlooking the probably emotional response, we realise that that's all it is: an emotional response, not a formally logical one.

In fact, it's impossible to use formal logic to prove universal ethics (ethics inherent to at least the Universe that dictate what actions are right and what actions are wrong), so why should we hold any ethics? How can we be ensure that an enlightened society that acknowledges the absence of universal ethics wouldn't degenerate into chaos, wanton slaughter and extreme capriciousness?

Collaboration. Collaboration towards common goals. Common goals such as happiness while coexisting with others in a stable environment necessitate setting aside such tendencies as those above. In practice, stable society necessitates some method of dealing with those who jeopardise common goals and the rules set up to support them to ensure the best possible environment for pursuing these goals. By assuring that those who do so will be dealt with accordingly, a deterrent is present to keep people in line. We can see that universal ethics are not necessary for a stable, prosperous society. Common goals and the means to protect the pursuit thereof are two of the necessary things for a stable, prosperous society.

While it seems ‘universal ethics’ are mere wishful thinking, collaboration can ensure adherence to ethics that promote happiness as best possible. In a theoretical, ideal society, morals and ethics as defined here may become indistinguishable--though that’s not to say that personal tendencies and behaviours necessarily become consistent across all inhabitants of such a society. We can’t derive ‘universal ethics’, but we can fashion as good as.
« Last Edit: June 28, 2008, 09:05:13 pm by MsBlack »

Lord J Esq

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Re: Ethics and morality
« Reply #1 on: June 29, 2008, 08:33:17 pm »
I have insisted upon the distinction between ethics and morals for many years now. However, rather than bore the gallery with all of that, I would simply point out the etymologies of the two words.

Ethics derives from the Greek word for “character.”
Morals derives from the Latin word for “custom.”

That’s really what it’s all about: In my philosophy, morality is a system of conventions that lay out the permissibility or desirability of whatever behaviors in a given context, while ethics is a system of guiding principles that reflect one’s own identity.

I reject morality entirely, the very premise of it, because I see it so much unthinking conformity, idiotic at best, disingenuous at worst, and with disastrous consequences in history. Instead of pursuing moral behavior I supplant morality’s useful function of social integration by adhering, generally, to a policy of courtesy and deference in strange places. This diffuses the chances of misunderstanding or maladaptive conduct on my part. As the “strangeness” diminishes, I am able to better splice in my ethics and behave without fetter.

Burning Zeppelin

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Re: Ethics and morality
« Reply #2 on: July 01, 2008, 05:07:15 am »
I haven't read your entire post yet MsBlack (I will soon), but just so you know, I have changed my views on ethics almost completely. (me being an atheist now)

There are some differences you can make out between ethics and morality, but for the most part, it's practically the same. They might come from different Greek works, but then again, Greek origins aren't a great place to start when looking at definitions of English works. Classical Greek, for one, hasn't been translated very well into English, especially words that are used in philosophy. Secondly...it's just where the word was derived from, not the meaning :)

EDIT: I'm going to be writing responses as I read your post. First of all, I don't think you can say morals is what groups find acceptable. That is either etiquette, OR, if you believe in a cultural relativist morality system, then morality AND ethics. However, if you are not a cultural relativist, then morality is not what a group finds acceptable, but something else (God, reason etc.) So yeah, your definition of morality sounds more like customs or etiquette.

EDIT2: Should we distinguish the difference between 'good and evil' and 'right and wrong'?

EDIT3: Right now I'd call myself a psychological egoist or, more recently, a utilitarian/hedonist, so I believe that all our morality is based on happiness/self-interest (I wouldn't call it selfishness). However, this might not be called moral at all, in which case call me a nihilist! But anyway, if you want to look somewhere else other than passion and emotion, how about reason e.g. Kantian. That uses formal logic, and it proves universal ethics to a point. I don't agree with it at all though, since it has it that it is morally wrong to lie in order to save your friend from murder.
« Last Edit: July 01, 2008, 05:20:10 am by Burning Zeppelin »

Hadriel

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Re: Ethics and morality
« Reply #3 on: July 03, 2008, 05:59:40 am »
"Morality" is a social contract in the same vein as the unspoken accord between the government and the governed.  As it is not codified physical law, it must conform to the demands of the situation while remaining grounded in utilitarianism.  There's really little more that can be said about it without becoming pedantic or invoking thought experiments; morality is a construct which exists to perpetuate society, no more, no less.

Burning Zeppelin

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Re: Ethics and morality
« Reply #4 on: July 03, 2008, 10:31:34 am »
Could be, but I don't see it as anything like law. Law is enforceable, and needs an institution to back it up. I believe people have some basic moral feelings, but reason it out differently. Most pro-lifers and pro-choicers believe it is wrong to kill human lives, but pro-lifers believe fetuses are human beings, while pro-choicers don't.

MsBlack

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Re: Ethics and morality
« Reply #5 on: July 03, 2008, 05:38:28 pm »
EDIT2: Should we distinguish the difference between 'good and evil' and 'right and wrong'?

Yes.

Right now I'd call myself a psychological egoist or, more recently, a utilitarian/hedonist, so I believe that all our morality is based on happiness/self-interest (I wouldn't call it selfishness).

So how would you define selfishness? Achieving happiness or fulfilling self-interest at the expense of the happiness or self-interest of others?

But anyway, if you want to look somewhere else other than passion and emotion, how about reason e.g. Kantian. That uses formal logic, and it proves universal ethics to a point. I don't agree with it at all though, since it has it that it is morally wrong to lie in order to save your friend from murder.

One can't derive universal ethics from formal logic. Universal ethics are assumed concepts, not physical phenomena; the term is in fact an oxymoron. One can, however, show that certain behaviours are very much conducive to (the) successful pursuit of joint interest (of a very large majority) and that certain behaviours are very much not conducive to (the) successful pursuit of joint interest (of a very large majority). It seems that insistence upon 'universal ethics' was (part of) Kant's reasoning supporting their theism; a pity, considering all the pro-theistic codswallop they canned.
« Last Edit: July 03, 2008, 05:40:51 pm by MsBlack »

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Re: Ethics and morality
« Reply #6 on: July 03, 2008, 06:47:41 pm »
Morality isn't something I've cared for much in my life, it's only standards that have been written and warped by society. Ethics, on the other hand, is something that one creates on his or her own, and something they should abide by no matter what the situation. Or at least that's my opinion...

Burning Zeppelin

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Re: Ethics and morality
« Reply #7 on: July 04, 2008, 05:21:33 am »
Again, I reassure you that the differences between ethics and morality is not so large. In fact, if there are any differences, it is actually the opposite of what you said. Morality is personal values, while ethics is how they are manifested in the real world. For example, you might find homosexuality immoral, but your ethical code tells you not to tell off homosexuals.

Lakonthegreat

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Re: Ethics and morality
« Reply #8 on: July 04, 2008, 06:34:40 am »
In my experience, I find that on this subject of morality and ethics, the best place to look is in the Word of God.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus' disciples ask him what the greatest commandment is. He replies with two commandments. The first is to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul. The second is to love your neighbor as yourself.

I take those commandments and live them vicariously, but the second one is what I want to concentrate on. The apostle Paul, through all of his writings, quotes this commandment repeatedly. I believe that it's the guiding principle in morals and ethics to love everyone as much as you would like to be loved. Now, there again is the definition of "neighbor."

I am a Christian. However, I am not above telling someone that they are a useless waste of my air. The other person/group's state of mind and being can indicate whether they are to be treated as "neighbor" or as a waste of breath. This doesn't mean that they can't change, or you can't see something about them that might change your opinion.

What I'm basically trying to say is that there's no clear sense of right or wrong in this world outside of your intrinsic ability to discern between "Good" and "Evil." Your morals and ethics have to be derived from, and applied to, interpersonal relationships with other people/groups, yet they also must fall as your heart dictates. There is no simple solution, just experience and growth in your own idea and belief structure about morality.

Burning Zeppelin

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Re: Ethics and morality
« Reply #9 on: July 05, 2008, 05:17:11 am »
I was about to viciously jump on your post until I realized it didn't really have anything to do with Christianity :)

Lakonthegreat

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Re: Ethics and morality
« Reply #10 on: July 05, 2008, 05:29:06 am »
I was about to viciously jump on your post until I realized it didn't really have anything to do with Christianity :)

I'm just good like that. I'm not here to throw another religion in someone's face, just offer a standpoint grounded in my belief system.

Burning Zeppelin

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Re: Ethics and morality
« Reply #11 on: July 05, 2008, 08:02:05 am »
Either way, religion is a bad place to start looking for ethics, not only because it has so many skewed ones, but because it has no relationship to morality.