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Tom Kennedy's Blog

It's only words

 Permanent link   All Posts
I’m a big fan of the blog Lingua Franca on the Chronicle of Higher Education website. The column’s bloggers don’t act as language police, but they do point out some craziness and confusion in language use as in Geoffrey Pullam’s blog today on the passive voice—“Passive Writing at the ‘Daily Planet’” 

Nor do I have much desire to act as a language or concept policeman—greater clarity and understanding would suffice for me, but lately the alleged distinction between “ethics” and ”morality” has led to some frustration, or annoyance, or irritation—ok, I’m not sure exactly what emotional state it has led to, though it must be noticeable enough to motivate writing this, though not bothersome enough for me to do much else (other than to whine to my longsuffering wife). (But, hey, I longsuffer, too, sometimes, don’t I?) 

For me, the “ethics”/”morality” distinction is a distinction without a difference. I prefer “morality”, and “moral” (perhaps this has something to do with the Latin origins of the term), but I use the two terms interchangeably unless I am discussing the philosophical or theological study of morality, in which case I may talk about “ethics”, “moral philosophy,” or “moral theology.” And I assume I’m pretty normal in this respect. But in a recent meeting we were talking about leadership and, especially, “moral and ethical leadership.” (I think people do tend to use the two terms in that order; is there anything more to that than that it just sounds a little better? I’m not sure.) I asked whether the use of the two terms together was just for emphasis, that we were endorsing really good leadership (“It’s both moral and ethical”) as opposed to merely pretty good leadership. “No,” my boss answered. 

And she would appear to be correct—of course!—if we are talking about how people tend to use the two terms or how they think they use the two terms. Go ahead and google “the difference between ethics and morality” and you’ll find in website after website “experts” telling you that there really is a difference between the two terms and that you should use the terms correctly. These experts disagree on what the difference is, exactly, though they are firm that there is a difference that ought to be observed.

Roughly, many seem to use the two terms in this way: Morality refers to personal, private beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad, your own personal, private code of behavior. Ethics refers to some sort of publicly agreed upon standards of behavior. How and when and where this public agreement took place is an intriguing question, as is how one is supposed to know what these standards are. But I suspect that what is really being tracked by this distinction is the influence of professions and professional codes of ethics the last fifty years. Librarians have one, court reporters have one, journalists, k-12 educators, and, even lawyers. Academics—college and university teachers and researchers—don’t (though they may be members of some professional organization that does). 

Despite this abundance of professional codes, a not uncommon view is that the function of codes of ethics in America today, the real work that talk of ethics does in contemporary professional life, is primarily aimed at covering one’s butt, making sure one hasn’t done anything one’s institution—medical, legal, educational—could be sued for. “Is it ethical?” is reduced to, “Can we be sued for that?” and some folks rightly object to enervating ethics in this way, though it may not be clear what the alternative is.

Especially if you don’t like “morality”. I have at least one colleague who seems to feel about morality much as she feels about religion. It’s maybe ok if you keep it private, but it is offensive to bring it up in public. By contrast, it’s ok to talk about ethics in public, because, it would appear—well, there seem to be two possibilities, each problematic. The first possibility is that morality, but not ethics, is tainted by association with religion. Perhaps, the assumption is, that this is just true by definition. But that, of course, is question-begging. Delineate the two domains and then we can look and see whether either is any less “tainted” than the other by association with religion.

And when the lines are drawn, I suspect the line will be drawn between the public arena and the private arena. Morality is private. Ethics is public. But can we really decide which issues are moral and which issues are ethical, employing this public-private criterion? Moral-ethical issues rarely divide themselves up so neatly.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is titled, “Retain Affirmative Action—Because It’s the Morally Right Thing to Do.” Did the author just make a mistake? Did he really mean “ethically right” since affirmative action is clearly a public issue? And should we correct an individual when she talks about her personal work ethic rather than her personal work morality? What if a student thinks that her dining hall should serve more local food, more food produced and shipped no more than 100 miles? Is this a moral opinion or an ethical opinion? How could we tell? Would we have to do some sort of empirical study and if more than 50% share the view, then it is ethical but if fewer students share the view it is moral?

And of course many issues in the domain of moral-ethical goodness or rightness are, arguably, both moral and ethical. Few think that it is ok to say or think racist things as long as you don’t do it publicly. A racist is a racist and isn’t that a problem, whether or not her racism manifests itself publicly? If I really believe that it is wrong for me to torture others doesn’t that entail, all things being equal, that it is wrong for others, including my nation, to torture others?

So, a distinction without a difference. Ethics, morality, one term originating in Greek, the other in Latin, but both referring to the same domain—whatever that domain is. (And that may be the harder and more interesting question.)

It’s only words, or the concepts to which the words refer. But words are all we have once we step outside ourselves.  It’s worth trying to sort out the difference—when there is one—between terms, worthwhile knowing how you use language and trying to use language consistently. Realizing that things can matter, that there is something valuable about paying attention to how we think and speak even if it makes no practical difference, is one of the things that makes a liberal arts education so important, I think.

 

tdk


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