Morals vs. Ethics

Many people use Morals and Ethics interchangeably and for good reason; if you look up the definition of morals it will reference ethics in a somewhat circular definition, same goes if you look up ethics. I will make an important distinction. Ethics represents innate knowledge of right/wrong distinctions. Ethics transcends culture, religion, and time.

Morals are culturally and religiously based distinctions of right/wrong. The sphere of morality does overlap the sphere of ethics which makes distinctions between the two difficult. Morality claims knowledge of ethics but it does so through culturally based assertions, namely through religion. It is for this reason, morality has a religious connotation. Both terms denote a knowledge of right and wrong actions but the foundations of that knowledge are divergent.

Jonathan Haidt has come up with a definition of Morality that is quite useful. He used secular means (the scientific method) to arrive at what he considered a sound foundation for Morality (which he denotes as synonymous with Ethics). He has reduced Morality to be comprised of five basic components.

1 Harm/Care

2 Fairness/Reciprocity

3 In-group/loyalty

4 Authority/respect

5 Purity/Sanctity


This foundation of morality stretches across cultures throughout history and even is found in the animal kingdom to some extent. This definition of morality is useful in explaining why the term morality has a religious connotation. It is also useful in helping to distinguish the term ethics from morality. The first two items (1) Harm/Care and (2) Fairness/Reciprocity are subjects within an ethical sphere. The last three elements (3) In-group/loyalty (4) Authority/Respect and (5) Purity/Sanctity while being fundamental elements of morality are not fundamental elements of ethics. is a website devoted to providing a greater understanding of ethics. This website is organized like the book it is based on. If you would prefer a physical copy, you can purchase Why and Because – The Art and Science of Moral and Ethical Understanding.

40 thoughts on Morals vs. Ethics

  1. To be honst,lotta philosophers and professors have failed to lay down a obvious line between the moral vs ethics.For many decades,various schools of thoughts produce conflicting standpoints and ideas towards the moral vs ethics.The controversial discussions beween philosophers have been turning fierce and intense.No people can really cut a line between the moral vs ethics and realise the subtlety between them.

    • I agree that definitions for morally and ethics have been historically blurry at best. seeks to bring some clarity to these two terms. The Morals vs Ethics post above provides a clear definition of Morality based on Jonathan Haidt’s five basic tenets of morality. Likewise, a clear definition of Ethics is provided above, as well as noted in the post What is Ethics?

      It is important to properly define the words we use. If left undefined or ambiguous, others can fill in their own definition for the words we use, perverting our intended meaning. I am uncertain what you mean with regards to “cutting a line between the moral vs ethics and realizing the subtlety between them.” Most people use morality and ethics as equivalent terms; they do not parse them, they equate them. The problem with thinking of them as the same is they are not. There is over lap, but the two terms describe different spheres of influence and are knowable via different means.

      Ethics is innately knowable and requires introspection for greater understanding. Morality is mostly culturally based and thus inherently relative. To the extent responses of disgust are innate, which leads to ideas of purity/sanctity; and submission to authority and in-group associates are innate, these later concepts are not required to make ethical decisions, and may times the culturally molded ideas of these latter three items cause people to act in very unethical ways.

      • I agree 100% that morals are based in cultures and religions. I would also say that ethics transcend culture, religion, and time as well as being based on introspection. I would even go so far as to say that ethics can only really be understood empirically where as morals come from stories.

        Am I correct that you wrote the initial article? I find it very well written and clear. Regarding your response to ‘Morals vs Ethics’ I agree that more words need to be understood specifically. It is too often that someone replies during many a conversation with ‘yeah they’re basically the same thing’ or ‘yeah, it’s just semantics’. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek but I generally respond to that with ‘don’t be anti-semantic’.

        Seriously though I find being as specific as possible to be helpful in so many ways especially with describing actions. Today it seems all vernacular actions have been reduced to two verbs: do and use. Without context this laziness leads to nothing but confusion. It could even be said that the general-ness of language leads to general thinking i.e. racism, sexism, etc. but I digress.

        My only suggestion to your response would be that instead of defining words, I would try to describe them. I find this distinction to be the difference between opinions and ideas respectively.

        Thank you for your clear article.

  2. Very interesting information, and a bit frustrating from a psychologist’s perspective. It is hard for me to accept definitions that suggest either ethics or morals existing outside of the realm of behaviors and intentions. So, it would seem to me that “Harm/Care” dichotomy is best put as “Selfish/Selfless” or “Selfish/Generous”, with an individual as the center point. “Harm/Care” can be rendered by objects, such as a stone falling or food being present. There’s no sacrifice, or anything moral/ethical being done by a falling stone or a plate of pasta, because these objects have no intent or living behavior. Furthermore, if one was to tolerate “Selfish/Generous” as an ethical ‘component’, it forces careful consideration of level of sacrifice, level of intent, and outcome (reward/punishment). Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but I feel strongly that the selfishness spectrum (or dimension) does a fantastic job of meaningfully and practically distinguishing ethical from unethical behavior. The other major component is conscientiousness, or the extent to which a person deliberately directs behavior based on a sense of obligation or duty.

    • Jason, So from a psychologist’s perspective would you say you that your difficulty of excepting the distinctions made here is due to your emotional attachment to an emotional frame of “the individual” that you feel is absolute? Please read the posts on Personal Framing Ethical Lens:
      You can parse Ethics in many ways but typically Ethics requires more than one entity to exist, and the “other” typically has to have the ability to “feel” pain at a minimum, and have a concept of fair treatment to fully understand ethics. People clearly meet this criteria. Animals clearly meet the pain requirement, and concepts of fairness have been demonstrated in primates and possibly other social animals.

      We do not hold inanimate objects ethically or morally responsible for causing harm to people because they can have no intention or will to do so. We do not hold most animals ethically or morally responsible for causing harm to people… although that is not always true (dogs who bits people typically get the death penalty). Even when people do harm or treat someone unfairly, the courts and public opinion weigh the intent of the person inflicting the harm in order to determine the severity of the punishment (balanced reciprocity is an ethical condition).

      Creating a distinction between Ethics and Morals is more of a philosophical problem than a psychological one. I believe the definitions provided are clear. That said, understanding ethics requires knowledge of psychology. “To know thyself” is very difficult. We do not see ourselves clearly. It is difficult to hold a metaphorical mirror up to ourselves which can help us see our true selves. That said, using some very basic questions, like the golden rule helps. Selfish people hate to be cheated. So the more selfish, the more they should despise there own behavior when viewed externally. The key is to get people to “see” their behavior for how others see it; how they would see it if they were viewing it detached from themselves. That is a psychological problem to solve.

      The harm/care dichotomy is relatively easy to evaluate. The fairness/reciprocity dichotomy is quite a bit different. Fairness is like Quality… hard to define but usually easy to detect. Equality and Fairness are not the same. The large debate in US politics between Equality (more of a Democratic concern) and Fairness (more of a Republican concern) is a real world example of two groups with different ways of framing the same issue colliding on HOW to best solve common issues.

      Jonathan Haidt’s study on Liberal vs Conservative views on morality provides context to this debate. Just to be clear, there are Liberal Republicans and Conservative Democrats… so there is a range of views within both parties. I propose the hypothesis in “The Problem with Morality – Conservatives VS. Liberals” that Liberals likely have a better understanding of ethics. Conservatives likely have a shallower understanding of ethics; instead their understanding of ethics is more along the lines of “obey your authority figures”. If you look at the world through this set of “frames” or lenses and view the debates looking at it form an ethical persecutive, things get a bit more clear.

      Morality is black and white. So a flat tax rate seems the fairest to conservatives. Mathematically, a flat tax rate is the fairest. Ethics exists in the gray. So a progressive tax scale that taxes the wealthy more and the poor less seems fairest to liberals. A progressive tax rate takes into consideration that to survive in a capitalist economy a person or group requires a certain base level of wealth just to exist. And beyond a certain level of wealth, wealth accumulated by one person or group has the potential to harm the greater good. Achieving a balance is tricky. Ethically minded Liberal thinkers (both Democrat and Republican) struggle to determine where these lines exist, which are circumstantial and change in realtime. Conservatives avoid the effort of trying to achieve balance by placing all circumstances into two bins, good/evil or right/wrong. If you eliminate the gray through highly polarized view of the world, sorting out the gray is easy, you eliminate it by design.

      This is why ultra-concervative people tend to design a hell on earth; their fear of the slippery slope makes then build defensed against any change or progress. It is also way ultra-liberal people pave the way to hell on earth through unintended consequences; by trying to things more equal they often create many unintended consequences. The big error Liberals are prone to make is equating Fairness with Equality. We should aim to treat everyone fairly, i.e. everyone should play by the same rules, and we should enforce them. That said, we are not born equal, we do not contribute equally, we do not cause harm equally, so there will never be a perfect utopian world of equal people. Actually, given the stated reality, a world were everyone is equal would be a type of hell. It would punish people who contribute and reward those that don’t. Conservatives see the balancing act that Liberals engage in as Communist. Liberals see the authoritarian rules Conservatives favor as Fascist. Neither is correct but both are correct when brought to the extremes.

      A progressive tax scale is fair because it recognizes the inherent unfairness of the struggles of those on the bottom and the ease of those at the top. We cannot say that the ultra-rich are rich because they try harder and contribute more to society than the ultra-poor because we do not start out at a zero point. We are not born equal, given the same opportunities, the same capital to start life, etc. Chances are if we were, many of the rich would be rich, and many of the poor would be poor. That said, the majority of people would surprise you. Progressive ideas try to find that elusive balance of creating fairness among unequal groups and individuals, yet treating all groups fairly. Both political parties get it wrong more often than not; both groups gauge Fairness improperly. A group of moderates has the best chance of achieving balance. Two extremes will just swing the pendulum back and forth, creating huge wakes of uncertainty and damage along the way; or creating a dangerous stalemate.

      A proper understanding of ethics would solve a lot of problems. You can be ethically minded and fiscally responsible; actually fiscal responsibility would be ethically sound. You can be ethically minded and not equate fairness and equality; actually ethical understanding helps to avoid that problem. I would encourage everyone to try to understand Ethics better.

      • “Mr. Ethics, June 16, 2012”

        You’re quite far off on your understanding of conservatism, so perhaps I could help she’d some light.

        Conservatives answer to two institutions: Church and State.

        Church for things like love, compassion, faith, and generocity. State for social causes such as protection and fairness. A distinction between conservatives and liberals is the belief that all are inherently born equal, and absent opression and harm by others, remain that way…and certainly finish that way in death.

        Much of the conflict between the two groups are associated with the “things” protected and distributed by the state…to make life fair and equitable.

        For liberals, the institution is singular: The State. Perhaps this is why they have a greater push for state mandated social endeavors. It’s too prescriptive…Sort of a “You must do good and here’s how it must be done.” This, rather than leaving it up to the individual to make her/his own path to exploit her/his own unique gifts for the betterment of society and the glory of God.

        It’s important to understand the context of a person when considering morality and ethics. I suppose you could argue that conservatives associate morality with the church and ethics with the decisions they make and their approach to the laws of the state. Morality as you describe as the foundation for ethical rule and behavior. Conservative would argue that love, compassion, faith, and hope are inherent in their morality, therefore, inherent in their ethical decisions.

        It’s interesting…we often talk about the separation of church and state, but the constitution does not state nor suggest that there is no church. It recognizes both the church as an institution and the population as guided by their theological values. The liberal says there is no church, which is quite different.

        • Adam,

          For the most part, I use conservative and liberal in this context in a non-political sense; although there are certainly parallels. Using capital letters to denote a political Conservative or political Liberal, I think we could both agree there are people who are personally conservative but Liberal politically, and visa versa.

          Your argument is a bit too high level. Let’s explore some more fundamental ideas.

          You mentioned that Conservatives answer to two institutions: Church and State. Why? What give the Church or the State authority over your actions and/or thoughts? Are all churches or religious institutions created equal? How about all forms of government? If you get your ideas of ethical right or wrong from these two institutions of social authority, how could you tell if your institutions were doing the right thing? How could you tell if you were part of the ethically right institution?

          There has to be something more fundamental than these social institutions. There is and this book attempts to get the reader comfortable deriving ethical truths. You self identify as a conservative and I have no reason to doubt you. By stating moral authority is derived from Church and State, you sort of proved my point about conservative understanding of morality.

          Love (respect), compassion (empathy), faith (belief without facts), generosity (altruism), are all part of the human condition… and to some extend most mammals exhibit these traits. These attributes exist irrespective of a social institution to regulate or promote these emotions. The State is the best means of peaceful protection yet invented; and fairness (justice) goes hand-in-hand with protection. Citizens give the State authority over them, and this can be easily abused.

          Conservatives and Liberals may differ on the means of getting to a certain end, but when one is starting out with harm/care and fairness/reciprocity at the top of their list, and the other ranks authority/respect, in-group/loyalty, and purity/sanctity above fairness/reciprocity… that’s were the friction point starts and things get derailed.

          I don’t think Liberals or Conservatives think everyone is equal (see “Respect in a World of Inequality”) rather we should all be equal under the law. I think Liberals do tend to think the government should be used to keep a level paying field and promote social justice. Conservatives tend to see governments efforts to do so as a form of oppression on personal freedom. To an extent, both perspectives are correct and were you stand on the proper use of government intervention to correct social injustices would likely result on were you sit. Ethically speaking, where is the greatest harm, where is the greatest injustice? Is an individual or group of individuals causing the greatest harm? Or are the governments actions to limit harm creating more harm.

          Looking at political issues through a baseline ethical framework helps Liberals and Conservatives to find common ground. Looking at Personal Freedom or Governmental Authority with a level of absolute sanctity for either is a problem. Understanding the distinctions between morality and ethics is the first step to deescalating our political polarization. Much of the friction comes from people talking past each other. This cross talk is partly due to people using the same words to mean different things. Not having a common foundation in ethical understanding is the biggest issue however.

  3. Lawrence Sheraton states: “Ethics is innately knowable and requires introspection for greater understanding. Morality is mostly culturally based and thus inherently relative”.
    Interesting but kind of like the chicken and the egg. The knowedge and introspection that helps us understand ethics had to come from somewhere.

    Nothing I have ever seen in ethics is “new”. It is all an adaptation of existing moral principles. And as for morals being inherently relative, they too can be reasoned and understood better through thought, knowledge and introspection.

    Ethics seems to me to be societies adaptation of what we feel are the “best” of moral principles that we agree should apply to our needs at a particular time. As we change we adpat our ethics.

    • To say something is innate, means we are born with the knowledge. We do not need to learn what pain is, we are born knowing that. We also know when we are being treated unfairly without being taught. So parents, culture, religion are not required to know the basics of ethics, its innate – pre-wired. I will place the starting point at birth. A chicken and egg debate would only enter the mix if we try to determine if a fetus could know ethics and at what point in its development.

      I agree with your statement, nothing is “new” in ethics for the most part. Aristotle noted with respect to justice that, “Justice is giving someone what they deserve.” He died in 322 B.C. and his pithy comment is quite accurate. That said, the distinction made between Ethics and Morality made on this website is new; and it should help to advance our knowledge of ethics and elevate the debates around ethical matters. Many times you have to unlearn information before you can gain greater understanding of a topic. To quote Mark Twain, “The problem is not what you don’t know; it’s what you think you know that just isn’t so.” My discontent with those who claim moral authority who preach and act in unethical ways, is a great source of drive for my work.

      Most people assume that they get their source of ethical knowledge and understanding through their sources of moral authority – parents, religion, the state, etc. While these sources of moral authority may help them to achieve a greater level of ethical understanding than they may otherwise derive from themselves; this is not always the case. Take the case of an abused kid. Can he or she know for certain that the abuse is unethical. Certainly. He or she can use introspection and determine it for themselves.

      Take the example of Jesus subduing an angry mob ready to stone a women to death for adultery, “Let thee without sin cast the first stone”. Jesus appeals to ethics while the mob appeals to their moral authority. The moral authority of the time (the Old Testament) prescribed “stoning to death” as valid punishment for the moral crime of adultery. So yes, morality and ethics are different. They are knowable via different means.

      Ethics does not change, it transcends time and place. Societies understanding of ethics and its means to ethically enforce ethical principles is limited. Societies as well as individuals are all on a different arc of ethical understanding. Their structures of governance, laws created to enforce ethical matters, and means of enforcing them fall on a spectrum.

  4. When you write “Ethics is innately knowable and requires introspection for greater understanding.”, I agree. I also believe you have introduced “God” or “a higher power” into the discussion.

    When I read that ethics is innately knowable, the question that comes to mind is – but what is the source of this knowledge? Did this knowledge simply materialize out of nothing? And at what moment in the history of the world did this materialization occur?

    Did this innate knowledge of ethics exist 4.5 billion years ago when scientists believe the earth was formed? I do not think so?

    Did this innate knowledge of ethics exist when one of our ancestors from the species Homo habillis was born 2 million years ago? These creatures were both ape-like and human-like in appearance. Although the brain size of Homo habillis was less than 50% the brain size of modern humans, these creatures did use tools in hunting and gathering food.

    The innate knowledge of ethics must have arisen after the formation of the planet earth. I think it probably arose at some point in time during the evolution of the genus Homo. Lets agree that a human born 10,000 years ago was born with the knowledge of ethics.

    How is this assertion different from the Christian doctrine which holds that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth? Don’t each of these beliefs require the individual to make a leap of faith, to let go of reason and believe in a miracle? It appears to me that the ultimate source of ethics is a belief in a higher power.

    • David,

      Thank you for contributing to the conversation. Innate knowledge simply implies you are born with it; it comes prewired. Why this is the case, or when it came about is likely not knowable. Evolutionary scientists have some good theories on how this may have evolved; there is of course the religious explanation. I do not think you need to introduce God into the mix.

      Acknowledging human’s innate knowledge of ethics should be something religious people and people who do not belief in the existence of God can agree on. The source of our innate knowledge is not the important issue. The fact that we have innate knowledge of ethics is scientifically verifiable and a requirement for free will (which religions’ insist we have; and which allows us to be rewarded or punished for our behavior).

      The source of our innate knowledge is our innate ability to feel pain (sensory responses), to feel emotional pain (innate emotional state), and to place ourselves emotionally in another’s shoes (empathy for another’s pain – physical/emotional). You could lump unfair treatment into emotional pain, reducing the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity pillars into just one harm/care. So the biological facts of the human condition provide us with an innate knowledge of ethics. Biology is our source of this innate magic.

      As noted, many animals likely possess this same knowledge to some extent. They likely differ in a large degree in their abilities to empathize with another’s feelings, although many animals clearly do show signs of empathy. Where humans differ greatly is with their ability to understand ethics. While your family dog understands he shouldn’t attack the kids in the family regardless of their torturous acts toward the dog, his/her understanding likely does not extend much further.

      Individual and cultural understandings of ethics differ widely from individual to individual; and from culture to culture… just as it did in the past. It is clear from the earliest human recordings that ethics was on the minds of these people. The moral laws that existed in antiquity and which exist today are societies way of dealing with educating and controlling members of society. You can look at moral laws as formalized memes that reflect the moral understanding of those in power within that society.

      The application of ethics is conditional. One’s understanding of ethics is influenced by the culture and realities of their day, and their ability for introspection. Aristotle had a pretty good view of ethics for his day despite the fact that he lived during the regine of Alexander the Great; in fact, Aristotle was young Alexander’s tutor. Alexander the Great was not a model of ethical behavior by any means; yet that didn’t preclude those who tried from determining ethical truths (which transcend time and culture).

      As cultures have become more complex and trade has increased it has caused different cultures to interact more resulting in our collective ethical understanding improving (on balance). The long arc of history has tended to bend towards increased understanding of ethics, although the march has not been steady in one direction and our ability to keep moving forward is not guaranteed.

      The city of Alexandria had as its mission the lofty goal of “Omni-competence”, the ability to know and understand everything. It was burned to the ground by a group of ignorant and fearful Christians, responding to the power grab of a bishop at the time. The piety of the Christian faith and the human desires for power of its leadership lead to a 1,000-years of regression of science and ethical social liberalism (a large over-generalization I admit).

      Knowledge and understanding are the light; fear and ignorance is the darkness. From my personal experience and reading of history I prefer to put my faith in science and reason; they have provided more light than any other source in human history.

      Look at the greatest sources of injustice and harm in the world. Is the source caused by memes that promote ignorance and fear or those that promote knowledge and understanding? Which ones are those requiring faith? Which ones are those requiring introspecting, reason, exploration? I think the answers to these questions are obvious. It’s the reason I like to keep faith out of the discussion. You don’t need faith for ethical understanding.

  5. Mr. Ethics,

    Your reply helps crystalize a question I have thought a lot about. Why is the ethical code taught by Socrates (or any philosopher) more legitimate (better) than the purported ethical code of dictators throughout history, which I characterize as “Might makes Right”?

    You write that “The source of our innate knowledge is our innate ability to feel pain (sensory responses), to feel emotional pain (innate emotional state), and to place ourselves emotionally in another’s shoes (empathy for another’s pain – physical/emotional).”

    How one individual “feels” physical and/or emotional pain varies from one individual to another. How one individual “feels” empathy for the physical/emotional pain of another varies from one individual to another. Due to these differences in feelings, two individuals can develop very different concepts of ethical conduct, especially given the reality of cultural biases.

    American history is full of examples of highly intelligent and educated individuals advocating views that justified genocide of native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans. Those views at that time were consistent with how most new Americans of European descent “felt” physical/emotional pain and how they felt “empathy”.

    I believe the same can be said of the views of Hitler and Mao, views that led to the murder of millions. Notwithstanding these murders, millions of countrymen of Hitler and Mao shared their views and supported the policies derived from these views. In other words, these countrymen shared similar “innate feelings”.

    If innate feelings are the source of an ethical code, I can envision such a code leading to a benevolent dictatorship, or to the tyranny of the majority. I know good, decent individuals whose “innate” feelings about pain and empathy enabled them to believe that killing millions of Vietnamese was “justifiable”. Hitler, Stalin and Mao also acted in accordance with their “innate” feelings. Thus, I do not trust “innate” feelings.

    I find that human beings have no limit in their ability to rationalize their conduct as “good”, irrespective of the negative consequences that may result from such conduct. For these reasons I believe the source of ethics is important. I agree with Thomas Jefferson when he wrote

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    Like Jefferson, I believe in universal truths that are self-evident (innate), truths that endow all human beings with certain unalienable Rights. This leads me to believe that the ultimate source of ethics is a belief in a higher power.

    Are we arriving at the same destination via a different path?

    • David,

      Excellent comments. Let me rephrase to make it more general.

      Who’s opinion on ethics is correct? Answering this question was essentially the goal of this book, so I will point to the section in the book that address key issues.

      If we all perceive sensory things and emotional things differently; who among us is to be trusted as the arbiter of ethical truth? Understanding the correct ethical path is relatively easy, simply use the golden rule. Whether applied to issues of harm/care or fairness/reciprocity it will steer you in the right direction. The first part of the book is relatively short and provides a proof of this axiom. The section on understanding ethics addresses how an individual or group can derive ethical truths.

      The second section of the book, “Diving into the Gray” addresses how and why so much variation exists regarding knowledge and understanding of the right path. There are baseline requirements for understanding ethics. The section on when things go wrong tries to address two common forms of malice. The section on personal framing addresses how we all see the world through skewed eyes. With ethical understanding we can hopefully see the world more clearly and help others to do the same. Diving down the rabbit hole addresses your concerns straight on… at least I think so.

      The driving analogy for ethics is used to illustrate through analogy the reality of a distribution of knowledge and understanding exists; which is a varied as the number of individuals. “We the people” get it right most of the time. You can train people to get better but they have to care enough about improvement to do so. Some care deeply, others are deeply apathetic. In general the system works but it could always be improved. People and cultures vary in their development; the rules of the road vary a bit too. Good driving practices are timeless and transcend culture.

      The discussion on cultural memes provides a window in how leaders can get good people to do bad things. Adding authority to the mix, you can pretty easily get good people to do bad things; as the Milligram’s experiments and the Banality of Evil prove.

      I compared ethics to love because both exist in the mind, so they are hard to prove. Individuals and cultures acknowledge both love and ethics. Love can turn to hate and ethical knowledge and understanding can evaporate from individuals’ and societies’ collective grasp. Ethics is constant, ethical climates can ebb and flow.

      In sexy ethics, I discuss the how many of the seemingly relativistic moral codes as they apply to ethics often have core unchanging ethical principles that they are derived from. I also acknowledge here and in other sections that cultures are typically the arbiters of justice; they define what is right and wrong, and the people implicitly agree by their obedience to the rules. People make up cultures and both have a tendency to be wrong a good deal of the time; so their is always room for improvement. Again, this is where ethical knowledge and understanding is useful.

      So hopefully that addresses the gray…

      On the God issue, that is partly more complex and partly simple.

      To address the complex bit I will refer to a good book on the subject, “Atheism, the case against God” by George Smith. I highly doubt anyone of faith will read it because to do so would be against the first commandment. The power of the meme of God for self-sensorship truly amazes me.

      I was raised in the Catholic faith but was liberal enough to question it and my search for knowledge and understanding led me to seek a better understanding of the people and world around me. By questioning and thinking about God I came to understand the meme. God is a powerful idea, but it is simply that.

      This book is in part thanks to religion, to an unethical corporate culture, and to the power of an inquisitive mind. This was the second book I wrote, the first one was on corporate ethics; which has not been published yet. To discuss corporate ethics, I had to first define ethics.

      If you are concerned about questioning your faith, if the thought of that creates an inner fear, then I will let you in on a little secret; there is nothing to fear. I have been to that mountain top, there is no boogie man; just your own fear. Let go of the fear and start asking questions… the world will light up.

      The simple answer to the God problem as it relates to ethics is two fold.

      Ethical knowledge has to be innate because otherwise we would lack free will. So unless you want to go down the philosophical road of Determinism, I suggest we all concede that ethical knowledge is innate (whether biological or God-given if you prefer). The philosophical argument against philosophical Skepticism is provided in how we know ethics. It continues in the Epistemology of Ethics.

      The issue with God (or religion) being the source of ethical knowledge, i.e. written down in holy books of supreme truth, is that all of the holy books are divergent on a number of ethical matters (one of only many problem I may add). So if you base your foundation of ethics in your religion and someone else bases it in their religion, then the only way to resolve the matter is through aggression/submission (defering resolution) or conversion/death (a more permanent resolution); such is the process of holocausts – the issue you raised.

      Hitler, Stalin, and all of the other crazies leaders made themselves gods. The state can use power memes of nationalism and authority to control people in the same way religion controls people with their memes. When people are scared to speak up or silenced and obedience to authority is made a supreme virtue, then very bad things can happen. When people are encouraged to think freely and ask questions – which is what I promote, disagreements will occur but dialogue will also occur. This is a dialogue which I find useful; it’s why I do this.

      If you concede that ethical knowledge and understanding is possible with all people – with the caveat that the other’s EQ & IQ are of sufficient quality AND that their cultural lens it not too skewed, then resolution of an ethical dispute should be possible. If not, you are back to aggression/submission or conversion/death, i.e. Might is right.

      We can not avoid or ignore our flaws by wishing them away. We are kinetic creatures, with reason and passions, good and evil tendencies, and everything in-between. As symbolized in Polarity, we can only take flight with knowledge and understanding. Fear and ignorance will hold us down.

      You may see religion as a source for light; and it may be for you and millions of others. If religion is a source for light for you it is likely because you want it to be, and you auto-filter out all of the bad stuff associated with it. I don’t pretend to understand how some people can filter the bad away and just accept the good while maintaining an active faith. The contradictions, mythology, and blind faith is simply too much for me. I cannot simply accept a dictate on faith. I see such manipulation to be an inherent evil. If you can get people to believe half the stuff in religious text, you can likely get them to believe anything; which is very scary. The truly faithful are Fundamentalist, a fact most religious moderates reject.

      I see religion as a source of darkness, encouraging ignorance by answering questions with no answer; which retards curiosity in many (to my amazement, not all). If the key ingredient is faith, “belief with no rational reason”, I don’t see how that can ever lead to enlightenment. If your answer for the unknown is God, then you stop asking questions because you have an answer. If you don’t understand what God is; and he is by definition unknowable; then you really have no answer – and no foundation for your set of beliefs.

      I would keep God out of a search for ethical knowledge and understanding. At best it provides a dead end, at worst it leads to Fundamentalism.

      I know from experience that there are many good religious people in this world; my guess is they would be good even without faith in God. There are great reasons for being good, simply obey the Golden Rule. Religion may even be the best form of social control the world has ever invented, but that does not mean it is perfect or that it should stay static. I think religions could adapt to provide spiritual guidance for those who feel they need it while giving up its strangle hold on social issues. Religions to some extent do and should provide ethical guidance of being good that does not involve mythology. Religions may have provided us the best means of social cohesion in the past, but with cultures coming together at a faster and faster rate, and the ease of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of many, the less magical thinking the better.

      All that said, the ideas presented here in this book ARE compatible with religion; I am personally not compatible with religion however. You can be religious and derive ethical truth from innate knowledge; which is what this book tries to prove and provide guidance on.

  6. Mr. Sheraton,

    Thank you for such a thoughtful reply. I have thought about ethical issues for 40 years. I wrestle with ethical questions every day in my work. Your book and your comments have added to my knowledge base and understanding.

  7. Readers of this blog may be interested in the 2013 Obedience to Authority conference:

    The goal of the conference is to bring together international scholars and researchers to evaluate the value and meaning of Stanley Milgram’s research 50 years after it was first published.

    August 6th – 8th, 2013

  8. I think you are shorting the innate (hardwired in our brains, not learned) aspects of authority/respect in in-group/loyalty, for the purposes of discounting conservative priorities of ethics (I’ll leave purity alone). As anyone who has every functioned in any group, they only work when someone “leads.” (Monty Python’s Holy Grail has a humorous bit about a collective that tries not to have a leader).

    This is true of all human societies, everywhere. The origin of authority and respect will change, but it will always be an important part of *group* ethics for any society.

    Similarly, in-group/loyalty is innate. One can point to the strong bond between mother and child at birth (her child, not someone else’s), as evidence of this notion of people I care more about than others being very innate. Once again, this is group ethics. “In-group” based societies where, e.g., siblings are favored over strangers when food is scarce, are found everywhere, including in non-human social animals.

    The basis for these two dimensions is just as innate as for the first two. In fact, I would say authority and in-group are likely more innate, since, e.g., wolf packs show them but are pretty bad at harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.

    • You make some good arguments but let me see if I can counter them to your satisfaction.

      I’ll work backwards. Your reference to wolf packs is interesting, as they are social animals. As such, they learn about authority and in-group concepts through their cultural conditioning… it still has to be learned and wolves do have “culture” in the sense of learned norms.

      I think Haidt was right on his moral matrix. I think our brains and that of many animals are pre-wired to accept all of the five memes of morality. That said, only harm/care and fairness/reciprocity are innately knowable.

      You don’t need to learn pain, it is a functional quality of all animals. Unfair treatment is a type of emotional harm and therefore it requires some emotional development to surface… so delayed innateness if you will. In other words, as soon as you have the emotional sense of fairness, you react to it. Concepts of fairness do not require language, they are developed early and independently without cultural conditioning.

      In societies where the social forces of authority and in-group conspire to reduce freedoms for minorities from birth, many individuals may internalize these negative memes which has the effect of dampening their understanding of fairness. The more liberally focused individuals who are not afraid to question authority and cultural convention will be able to derive a more appropriate “ought” based on their innate knowledge of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.

      Authority/Respect, In-group/Loyalty, and Purity/Sanctity memes typically define the “is” of a culture. Introspection on Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity is what defines the “ought” of a culture; it is the basis of ethics. By definition, conservative impulses favor the “is”, and liberal impulses favor the “ought”. When I use conservative and liberal in this sense I do so in reference to one’s ability to question their cultures and their own world view. You have to be able to liberate yourself from your world view, step out side of your rules and ask yourself tough questions in an ethical context.

      I am not using conservative or liberal in a political context here. If your trusted institutions are well founded on ethical principles than a conservative approach to change may be prudent. Of course you would need to take a liberal view every now and again to test the first premise. In fact, if your institutions were founded on ethical principles; and continued to operate on ethical principles then it would be easy to defend said ideals to any challenger. The ethically valid position is one that can always be defended.

      Digging a bit deeper, Authority/Respect, In-group/Loyalty, and Purity/Sanctity are memes that are reducible. They can and should be evaluated in ethical terms. Who deserves authority/respect and why? If you look at this in terms of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity these answers become clear. Likewise with In-group/Loyalty. Many people choose to be loyal to groups they identify with which can be outside of their family or other innately identifiable group afflictions. Think of almost every gay person you know, any mixed race couple, any mixed religious married couple. These people came to the conclusion that their innate groups… those from birth, place, or affiliation where wrong (if they opposed them), their “is” was not the ideal “ought”. They defied their cultural conditioning by using ethical understanding; even if they would not phrase it this way. Our understanding of ethics is so innate, it is an elusive obvious, and therefore hard to articulate.

      The powerful memes of morality are so powerful that they can warp individuals’ innate understanding of ethics. I do not discount the power of these readily adoptable memes, quite the opposite. I realize their power which makes understanding the difference between ethics and morality critical to dissecting the problems caused by cultural conditioning of unethical memes codified by bad culture. All culture needs to be continuously pruned; we need to keep the good and reject the bad. Ethical understanding is the only way to accomplish this.

      • One quick clarification. Concepts of Authority/Respect, In-group/Loyalty, and Purity/Sanctity are not bad. They are not good. They are tools that cultures use to get people to behave in a manor that is desired.

        • Does a mother wolf care for her young because of care/harm or fairness/reciprocity? No, it cares for its young because of in-group/loyalty, which is hard-wired.

          Sure, humans can learn from society all kinds of more complex definitions of who is in or out of my group, but the foundational group, the family, is as hardwired as care/harm, and more so than fairness/reciprocity.

          I would argue that fairness/reciprocity is derivative of in-group/loyalty – wolves are not “fair” to other wolves that are not part of their pack/family.

          If you have every seen a mother’s interaction with her baby, it is clear their is large parts of it was is hard-wired, not learned. From anguish at the baby’s cry, to a need to hold it close, these are not learned cultural behaviors – they are driven by hormones and hardwiring.

          The point is, if you want to claim ethics is a priori, not learned from culture, similar to pain, you have to recognize the in-group/loyalty starts as the family bond, with is innate. It is as core to ethics as harm/care.

          I will just point out authority also starts from the same root: a child’s obedience to her parents.

          • To answer your first point, I would say no, a mother does not care for her child because of fairness. Just because something is innate, does not mean it is relevant in every sphere of influence of behavior. That said, I disagree with your statement that a mother’s care comes from in-group/loyalty. If in-group/loyalty was pre-wired from a biological/genetic standpoint – where you could only feel loyalty or group affiliation with kin, then adoption and foster parents would not exist, or organizations like Big Brother Big Sister, or any other cohesive social institution for that matter. Clearly humans have an innate desire to be in a group and to defend their groups. That said, which groups they choose to be affiliated with is not pre-determined by biology.

            I think we both agree harm/care is innate. Click on this link to see a video on fairness/reciprocity observed in monkeys. I don’t think these monkeys attended a liberal arts college to understand fair and unfair treatment, that knowledge is innate.

            On the mother and child point, I think we agree with regards to hormones and bonding, etc.

            The in-group/loyalty family bond is strong, but it is so because it is the culture you are born into; it is nurture more that nature. Again, think about adopted kids and parents, step siblings, childhood best friends. On the flip side, think about the parents and kids that never see eye to eye and/or who disown each other.

            Finally a distinction. The in-group/loyalty impulse is innate to the human condition, as is the authority/respect and the purity/sanctity impulse. As noted previously however, the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity conditions are innately knowable; the other three are not innately knowable, even if we have an innate impulse to seek them out.

            One knows-how to perceive and feel harm/care and fairness/reciprocity without being instructed about it. You can derived the correct ethical path where these two items are concerned even if your parents, religion, state, or culture at large instructs you on contradictory ideas from birth. If this knowledge was not innate, how could you explain any rebellion, any cultural change for the better (changed caused by people in that culture working against the impulse of in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and/or purity/sanctity), any just child disagreement with their parents (regardless of age), etc.

            Ethics is the lens that we evaluate what is just. What is just authority? Which groups should you be part of? What items should we revere with sanctity? These three items are reducible, then can be viewed from an ethical perspective. Our culture usually informs us of answers to these questions but each one can be evaluated in ethical terms. Harm/care and fairness/reciprocity do not require a cultural context. An outside observer can tell if someone is being treated unfairly or is being harmed. You would have to understand another’s culture to determine if the person in that culture would accept said unfair or harmful treatment.

            Culture is a powerful force. The memes of authority/respect, in-group/loyalty, and purity/sanctity are very strong and can warp an individual’s ethical understanding. As noted in this blog, our moral (cultural) frameworks are a great cause for confusion over ethical matters. Understanding the difference is key to finding the ethically valid path.

  9. Pingback Ethics vs Morals | Tarn McConville Reflective Journal
  10. Perhaps my simple definition is inaccurate. Ethics are a means to an end. Morals are the end itself.

    • I suppose ethics is a mean to an end, but the end is not morality it is [ethical] justice. What is just; how do we know what is right or wrong? You need ethical knowledge and understanding to derive it.

    • Haidt has revised his distinctions for the ‘five pillars’ of morality over time. He recently added a 6th relating to liberty.

      This site references his earlier distinctions.

  11. the real problem is that people fail to understand that ethics and morality when used interchangeably could mean the same .but they are not the same per se .Ethics is the science of morals .that means ethics studies morality .the moment we look at what somebody has done wether it is good or bad ,at that moment what it will be called is ethics .ie ethics is the judgement we pass on human conduct .that science that studies morality is called ethics .morality does not study ethics .so ethics is about code of conduct because .the time we study morality , it means we are trying to pass a judgement saying what is wrong or right there by saying ……you should have done this or you should not have done that .it means there is a code of conduct that is expected of you. mind you it is not all code of conduct that is moral. for instance , an institutions may have a code of conduct that has nothing to do with morals eg every 7pm there should be light out .this is a code of conduct but it does not have any thing to do with morality. so when people use it interchangeably they should know why .ethical rules or moral rules what is the difference both are code of conduct that is expected of somebody. so there is a very faint line or will I say they have family resemblance in a way .Any objection? on the other hand, morality has to do with right and wrong .but ethics looks in to the right and wrong and pass a judgement .please I want an objection.for instance .a child has been sent
    home from school because she fails to put off the at the expected. but ethics Will now look into the mater to see if it is really morally bad

    • Keep reading this website.

      You seem to be equating ethics and morality as essentially being the same thing; with a circular definition that makes the distinction between the use of the word, not the definition. You see morality as being a noun; a thing. You see ethics as being a verb; the act of evaluating the thing that it is. This is historically how it’s been used and this site looks to undue that incorrect association.

      A definition of a word can’t use the word itself to define it. A definition of a word does not change it’s meaning significantly if it is used as a noun, verb, adjective, etc. The root of the word should always mean the same thing.

      Ethics is innate, it transcends time and place, and it deals with matters of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.

      Morality is culturally based notions of harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, authority/respect, in-group/loyalty, and purity/sanctity.

  12. There is professional ethics, but no professional moral. Ethics is the moral code one has in a profession that serves a greater good. Moral is different. For example reciprocity can be a moral basis in life, but you may not want doctors or politicians to use this as their professional ethics.

    • Ethics and morality are different; whether you are relating them to matters of personal exchange or business.

      “Business ethics” has been defined by the business community as mostly compliance with existing business codes of conduct or laws. Actual business ethics can be derived, just like regular ethics but it requires a few more questions specific to business. The principle rules for business ethics are:
      1) Is this good for the customer? In others words, are you providing the customer with some value for the goods or services they are being charged for? Is the charge fair or not? Is the product helpful or harmful?
      2) Is this good for the company? In other words, will this help the company to grow & develop? Will this help the company’s reputation? Will this exchange provide profit in the near or long term?
      3) Is this action legal?
      4) Is this action ethical? There are actions which are legal and still unethical (unfortunately current laws do not have to be ethical).

      Businesses are not people, so deriving the correct ethical decision for a business requires a few more questions to be asked. That said, the process is pretty much the same. Ask good questions and use introspection to derive the right answer.

      This method will allow anyone to derive the correct ethical business decision in any circumstance.

      “Professional Morals” is not a phrase in common usage but if we apply the term in the same manner with how morality is defined on this site, I would concede professional morals do in fact exist. Morality is culturally defined notions of right and wrong actions; specifically with regards to authority/respect, in-group/loyalty, and purity/sanctity.

      Businesses often create “moral environments” through cultivation of company culture, instituted through internal marketing, via incentives, metrics, or punishments for certain behaviors, actions, etc. These moral environments can be positive or negative. Ethical Understanding is required to judge whether a given incentive, metric, or punishment is just and/or ethical.

  13. Pingback What “ethics” means to me, and its importance in education | coffee and a revolution
  14. Thanks for a more clear view of ethic and moral definition… In retrospect of events.. Just exactly what is the definition of the fear of white,heterosexual,moral people? Help!!

  15. Why is it that so many people have a hard time defining ethics and morals? I find the task quite trivial…Morality is based on a natural sense of right and wrong, which must extend universally across language, culture, and time. Violations of common law come into mind, murder, destruction of property, intrusion, rape, etc.

    Ethics are subjective to culture, language, and time. Where one culture is repulsed at the idea of stoning a criminal to death, one culture champions and demands it.

    Morality stemming from religion is absolutely true. However, even religious ‘morality’ is still lumping universal principles in with conditional principles. A Christian would say that lying is a moral issue. An atheist would say it’s an ethical issue. Who is right? Well we already know that severity of lies can have several different grades of impact. By that standard alone, we know it’s ethical.

    My attempt is to make an absolute distinction between ethics and morality that applies to religious and non-religious alike. The blur in distinction does not come from subject-matter, but instead from language. People simply use the wrong word to describe the wrong thing. So how can you educate someone on the difference between ethics and morality that is clear and comprehensive?

    The trick is universality. Morality is universal. Ethics are not. I heard a great way of explaining this from Stefan Molyneux (look him up on youtube). If something is moral, it must apply to even someone who is in a coma. Theft, murder, rape, etc. are impossible for the comatose patient. The person’s morality is in tact. If we say that saving someone’s life is moral, well now our patient’s virtue is in question because he cannot possibly save a life. Therefore, saving someone’s life must be ethical.

    I’d be happy to hear anyone’s thoughts/arguments/critiques on this.

    • It appears you favor using the term morality to indicate universal right/wrong distinctions and ethics to refer to conventional right/wrong distinctions (ethical relativism). Doing so in the context of this space would confuse things because I’ve taken the position that morality is culturally defined and ethics is universal and transcends time and culture. I can set aside the semantics of what we call “universally knowable concepts of right/wrong” for a moment and focus on the how component.

      If you agree that morality stems from religion, then by definition, that would make morality relative to culture, and therefore not universal. I agree that universally knowable concepts of right/wrong are lumped into morality (harm/care & fairness/reciprocity) are included in the sphere of influence of morality. So when discussing ethical or moral principles, people could rightly be referring to these two items that are in both spheres of influence (and universal).

      The definition I provide for ethics in this book applies universally, so religious and non-religious alike. Outside of the semantic argument of what to call universally knowable concepts of right/wrong is the procedure of how to you determine ethical/moral right/wrong truths?

      Your comma example is not helping me but I don’t think its required. Simply asking yourself, “how would I like it if that were done to me?” is typically all that is required to determine if something is ethically/morally sound. We derive ethical truth the same way we know everything, by asking good questions, testing the results, and verifying it with others being able to get the same results.

  16. I’d like to suggest another way of looking at the morals and ethics distinction.

    Think of morals as deriving from the instincts that allow a young social mammal to survive long enough to become a full member of the group; and think of ethics as deriving from the instincts that make it possible for peers to work together efficiently.

    “Stick with the family!”… “Mind your mother!”… “That’s disgusting!”… Internalizing these notions helps to keep a child safe before he or she is old enough to understand the reasons behind them and to make rational decisions.

    “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!”… “Turn-about is fair play!”… These principles make it possible to work and play together without using all our energy and attention watching our backs.

    The ideas of “right” and “wrong,” I think, are just what happens when you confront these evolved instincts with the big, self-reflective, obsessively rationalizing human brain.

    We make too much out of morals and ethics; they’re just the behavior patterns we have to have to be successful social mammals, compounded and complicated by the strange, wonderful and often dysfunctional legacies of culture.

    • I follow your evolutionary/biological framing of ethics and morality and it’s likely not too far off. You lost me at, “We make too much out of morals and ethics…”

      Moral concepts and ethical foundations are critically important when you, someone you care about, or anyone for who you have empathy for is being treated unethically. Ethical relativity is a convenient “solution” to moral differences when the two cultures are not in contact with each other. Nihilism is a cute philosophical skeptical retreat, but both are woefully inadequate when you need to appeal to another’s sense of morality and ethical understanding. When YOU are on the receiving end of unethical treatment, you want the world to be clear on what is and is not ethically valid treatment.

      Ethical understanding is a critically important, necessary foundation for societal cohesion.

  17. It’s all man made ideology that is applicable only when mankind chooses to apply either. The definition is circular because the ideology is circular. We decide what is moral and what’s ethical based on our own definition and standards. Maybe the worlds philosophers should try working on more materialistic problems instead of these endless, and in the end, pointless arguments.

    • You can only remain physically fit if you eat well and exercise. That fact that being fit is a choice doesn’t mean it’s pointless to try to be fit, or inform others how to be more fit. Mental fitness is very similar.

      Philosophy by definition seeks to expand knowledge and understanding, so philosophy is effectively scientific exploration of the limits of thought. Ethics is the application of said exploration, its available to all, and you don’t need to be a professor to be proficient in it.

      Ideology is dogma around a concept; in other words unquestioning fidelity to the purity of some laid in stone statement of truth or principle. Many moral codes fit your description so I get where you are coming from. That said ethical knowledge is not culturally based, it’s innate, “I feel, therefore I know ethics.” Ethical understanding is also not culturally based, although culture certainly can, and does, influence how people come to understand ethical matters. Cultural institutions often are the means we enforce ethical principles, so when they get things wrong, it’s a problem for sure.

      We decide what is ethical based on our ability to properly derive ethical truths, but much like math, mathematical truths can be derived in any language because the principles math is based on are universal and fundamental. Ethical truths are much the same, universal and fundamental.

      Individuals need to choose to be ethical in order for civil society to function properly. Governments need to pass ethical laws and enforce them ethically for the government to maintain moral authority. Ethical understanding, like all knowledge has to be cultivated, taught, reinforced, and maintained.

      Math existed before humans figured it out. Same with ethics. Human understanding of both has increased overtime but individual understanding on math and ethics varies widely. Some societies value math and science education more than others, same with ethics. Ethical understanding is critically important, and so in math and science in the modern world.

      Your reduction of ethical understanding as pointless is both nihilistic and wrong. Ethical understanding is critically important. Having a common foundation in ethical principles that transcends cultures is important when cultures are merge.

  18. This article begins with the following defined distinctions: “Ethics represents innate knowledge of right/wrong distinctions. Ethics transcends culture, religion, and time. Morals are culturally and religiously based distinctions of right/wrong.”

    However this is the opposite of how many online sources would define the two terms, for example begins the discussion thusly: “Many people think of morality as something that’s personal and normative, whereas ethics is the standards of “good and bad” distinguished by a certain community or social setting.”

    In fact: a simple google search results in more hits that seem to favor the secondary concept. However, many dictionary sources generally list the terms as synonymous.

    I have to say that when I was considering the terms in an effort to try to discuss them with my children, I favored the first line of thinking as proposed by the author at the top of this webpage. Now I am not so sure. However, I do not think the question is without merit, as I think that ideas of “rightness” and “wrongness” are generally held by the individual as universal, when they are obviously highly idiosyncratic. In fact, I think that in cultural relations these distinctions are of paramount importance. Subsequently, I found the disparity present among popular and arguably reputable sources both noteworthy and alarming.

    As far as the comment that math and “ethical truths” are similar in their universality, history does not support this idea. Algebra and even modern numerical notation have been accepted by both the East and West since they were developed by Islamic thinkers over a thousand years ago. The definition of what is right and wrong is being violently disputed around the globe to this very day.

    • Lance,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      Let me clarify my position a bit. In a sense, the use of any given word or phrase to define an idea is arbitrary, so I could have chosen to term my distinctions of the innate-knowledge of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity as “morality” and chose “ethics” as the culturally relative term. The semantics don’t matter, what matters is the concepts. That said, it does help to clarify what you mean by a word and hopefully, I’ve left little ambiguity as to what I mean by ethics and morality.

      I chose to define morality as being culturally learned right and wrong because morality has a religious connotation. Religion is so intertwined with most cultures that when referencing one it’s in part referencing the other. Jonathan Haidt’s definition of morality while not religious is culturally rooted. His five (now six) moral pillars use the term morality, and three of these items are purely cultural. In a sense, all five are cultural, but the less idiosyncratic ones are the two that transcend culture and time and define core ethical concerns.

      It should be noted that while concepts of authority/respect, in-group/loyalty, and purity/sanctity are almost purely cultural with regards to how each structure manifests itself in a society, they are somewhat innate in the sense that we come prewired to accept and understand these memes and they are universally observed among all human civilizations and in the animal kingdom among social animals. That said, the two pillars of ethics I make special note of—harm/care and fairness/reciprocity—are more fundamental and provide the foundation for what “ought to be” considered relevant when weighing a moral matter (any items that consist of Haidt’s five or six moral pillars). Note, social animials have culture—learned ideas taught and passed down over generations.

      Ethics does have a scientific bent to it. It’s typically referenced in terms of applications of moral thinking. Wikipedia breaks ethics down into three categories, meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.

      This blog and my companion book, Why and Because—The art and science of moral and ethical understanding attempts to solve the meta-ethics problem, it goes into some depth regarding the nature of normative ethics and while it purposely does not prescribe the answers for what people ought to do, it does provides a means of deriving what people ought to do based on innate knowledge of ethics (know-how) “I feel, therefore I know ethics,” combined with proper reasoning (know-why), “How would I like it if someone did that to me?” So this book covers all three distinctions; which makes sense because I’m attempting to take this topic to its core components.

      It’s important to provide clarity between morality and ethics to avoid confusion between conventional right/wrong distinctions and ethical right/wrong distinctions. The confusion on this topic is in large part, historical and structural. Those in postions of cultural power hold moral authority (parents, school and state administrators, religious leaders, etc.)—they exert their will—based on mental models of what they think is ethically valid—through the positions of power allotted to them. Most of human progress, as it relates to the moral arc of history bending towards justice, is a result of ethical epiphanies brought to us by individual leaders who crack some core ethical truth and shine it onto the world. How did they do it, and why were people receptive to the message at that moment in time? They all did it by properly defining some elusive obvious aspect of ethical truth.

      The interesting thing about an elusive obvious is, it’s hard to define, but if you can properly describe it, everyone who was previously oblivious to it will say, “obviously” when you describe it. Previous to someone cracking the code, there are no words to describe it, so in a sense it’s hidden/elusive.

      Examples in history: Slavery is bad. Torture is wrong. All races are created equal. Women should have equal rights to men. For many thousands of years, it was considered the natural order of things to subjugate certain groups and this was not challenged. We are not past this mode of thinking completely but to the extent that we have made progress it’s because individuals have made compelling, ethically sound arguments that previous treatment of subjugated peoples was unethical. They did not appeal to culture because the normative culture of the day allowed for said subjugation. They derived ethical truth via introspection. Using their own innate abilities to feel physical and emotional pain, they extended that feeling to others and reasoned that it was harmful and unfair to others to subjugate them. Enough people thought about it empathetically and concluded, “you’re right, I will change my mind on that topic,” and follow through by changing their behavior.

      The application of morality may seem idiosyncratic because it is. The application of ethics is not. I think the analogy noted in the Sexy Ethics blog parses out this differnce. I welcome more of your comments and critques.

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