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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Parsing 'morals' and 'ethics'

Sometimes people use the term “morals,” sometimes “ethics,” sometimes both in tandem. I rarely sense that their choice is a considered one. This isn’t surprising; there’s no agreement about how to distinguish them.

Their etymologies provide no help. “Ethos” in Greek and “mores” in Latin meant the same thing. Neither applied to the individual; they meant a group’s behaviors that expressed its collective character, its fundamental values. Both ethics and morals were culturally relative, not universal.

Our usage, though, does imply a dimly grasped distinction. We speak of professional ethics, not professional morals, because some professional ethics don’t apply to those outside the profession. Confidentiality is a case in point. A priest is bound to maintain the seal of the confessional, and our legal system recognizes this ethical obligation. It accords to priests (and a few other professionals, such as attorneys) a privilege of silence at trial. Both legally and morally, the rest of us are bound to say what we know under oath, since a person’s fate may hinge on the emergence of truth.

But many professional ethics, such as forbidding psychiatrists to have sex with their patients, are just subsets of rules that apply to everyone, in this case not exploiting a person’s voluntary vulnerability, so those might be called morals as well. Because at some point — I can’t determine when — we began to use the term morals to refer to rules of individual behavior.

If ethics are specific to groups, how generally applicable are morals? That’s a contested question. If, when one thinks of morals, one thinks of rules like bans on alcohol or same-gender sex, then, yes, morals are relative to cultures. But if one gets to rules more fundamental, such as not betraying a friend’s trust, then the case for the universality of morals is strong. It’s difficult to find a culture that doesn’t prize generosity or condemn theft. As I’ve been distinguishing them, morals have a universality that ethics don’t have because the origin of morals is in the behaviors that experience has taught a group — any group — are crucial for its cohesion. Certain behaviors always strengthen it, others always threaten it.

Because individualism is so fundamental to our cultural ethic, we attend too much to morals and not enough to ethics. The large majority of us work at being good persons, but not enough at being a good people. The goodness of a group’s ethics cannot be the sum of the goodness of its members’ morals. Systems shape individuals much more than individuals shape systems. Take that from someone who grew up a good person in a bad culture — the pre-Civil Rights South. I was honest and dutiful; I was also racist and sexist.

Our attitude toward veterans illustrates the imbalance of our attention to morals and ethics. We honor them for their dutifulness and their courage, but don’t ask them to take any responsibility for the justice of the wars they fought in. Despite claims like those of Ken Burns that the stories of individual soldiers in some ineffable way redeem the Vietnam War, that war is morally irredeemable, and we’ll keep engaging in such wars until all of us reject our ethic of aggression and try to become, not just good persons, but a good people. We’ll know that day has arrived when drivers crossing from California into Oregon are greeted by a sign that reads, “Jackson County. We honor Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.”

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.

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