Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Morality and Ethics

These are hard questions. 

Long ago, in a physics class, the professor got tired of answering homework questions.  Students would raise their hands and ask, "How do you do Number 6?"  .... "I couldn't get the answer in the back of the book for Number 7?"...  "What equation do you use for Number 3?" ...  Finally, he stopped.  He said that any of us would go out in the backyard and shoot hoops for 45 minutes, not make even one basket, and still claim to have had a good time.  "How long did you spend working the problem?" he asked.  "What methods - how many methods - did you try?"  So it is with morality and ethics.

In English, we use the words "morality" and "ethics" as synonyms.  In fact, they may mean very different things.  On my website, Washtenaw Justice, I propose that morality and ethics are different (link here). 

Morality defines objective requirements based on the real nature of the actor. Morality starts with you.  Morality is your path to survival.  Every choice - even for the girders on a bridge -  ultimately comes down to one question: right or wrong?

 Ethics is group behavior.  Different societies have different ethical rules, and often they cannot be proved to be morally superior to any other.  In some societies, the "bride price" is offered by the family of the groom.  In others, the bride's family offers a dowery.  In some "bride price" societies, morganatic rules allow the bride to keep her payment even if she quits the marriage.  In our society, we get presents on our birthdays.  In the world of J. R. R. Tolkein, hobbits give presents to others on their own birthdays.  There is no way to prove that one mode or manner is better than the other. 

If you were alone on an island you could make up your own ethics, but you would still need morality as a code of values against which to judge the choices that will keep you alive.

John Rawls (1921 – 2002) was the leading American philosopher of "social justice."  His key challenge was this: Design your ideal society.  Decide what institutions exist and how they are structured.  Decide who gets ahead and how.  ... No, you do not know in advance what your place in this world of yours will be.
Rawls is best known for A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press Harvard University, 1971.
Discussion by Dr. Jan Edward Garrett of Western Kentucky University here.
Discussion from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy here.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was the leading American philosopher of "ego-centric ethics."  Her non-fiction works include The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, and The Romantic Manifesto.  She also wrote several novels, three of which were made into movies.
As you will see below, almost every professional society has some code of ethics.  They often say the same things, sometimes in different words.  It is easy to make up general rules for everyone else to follow.  It can be harder to know how to apply those general principles to daily problems.  But the answers exist.  They are knowable.  But it takes more than a minute to figure it out. 

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