Commentary: Morals and ethics at battle

Morals and ethics are often used interchangeably and for good reason; if you look up the definition of morals it will reference ethics in a somewhat circular definition. The same goes if you look up ethics. Yet there is a difference.

Ethics represents a natural knowledge of right/wrong distinctions, transcending culture, religion, and time. Morals are culturally and religiously based characteristics of right/wrong. The area of morality does overlap the area of ethics, which makes distinctions between the two difficult. Morality claims knowledge of ethics but it does so through culturally based statements, namely through religion. It is for this reason morality has a religious connotation. Both terms point out the knowledge of right and wrong actions but the foundations of that knowledge differ in origin.

There is a basic, subtle, difference. Morals define personal character, whereas ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied. In other words, ethics point to standards of behavior expected by a group to which an individual belongs. These can be national, social, company, professional, or even family ethics. So while someone’s moral code is usually unchanging, the ethics that he or she practices can be other-dependent.

In society, we are all faced with the butting heads of ethics and morals. Fundamentalists, extremists, and mainstream theists all have competing ideas about morality that impact our lives, if only indirectly through social pressures or legal discrimination. While abortion is legal and thus medically ethical, many people find it personally immoral. In the case of homosexuality, many believe it is morally wrong, yet some of the same people also believe it to be unethical to discriminate in not allowing them the same rights given to heterosexuals. This is an example of ethics and morals at battle. These competing issues are central to the world’s current challenges and international crossroads.

Most of the basic, practical laws that have governed human behavior in various societies over the centuries have shared similarities with the Ten Commandments. These 10 can be boiled down to what Christ referred to as two “great commandments.” Quoting from the book of Deuteronomy, he said: “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.'” This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these” [Mark 12:29-31]. These two can be understood as outlining the main thrust of the Ten Commandments: loving God (the first four) and loving our neighbor (the last six).

Most of the countless evils that have visited mankind through the ages can be traced to the direct violations of God’s law. Instead of creating a “new” morality, should we not rather strive to reemphasize the code of conduct given to human beings by their creator to ensure true happiness and well-being? Has humanity, with all its flawed and failed systems of government and philosophy, ever improved on these fundamental rules of conduct?

We cannot realistically expect national governments to fully apply these principles, until we make them work in our individual lives. Many have found them to be a sure guide to true peace and happiness in this troubled world. In the words of King David, ruler, prophet and psalmist, “Great peace have those who love Your law, and nothing causes them to stumble” [Psalm 119:165].

Lesa A. Moomaw is a resident of Edinburg.