Difference Between Morals and Ethics

Rules vs Regulations Morals vs Ethics

Occasionally I have been asked about the difference between morals and ethics. I could never give a clear answer. There really is no precise distinction between morals and ethics. When I served in The Ohio State University department of philosophy, I never was aware of any precise difference. We might talk of hiring someone in moral philosophy while in the same conversation talk of hiring a person working in ethics. In a conversation about interpreting Kant, we would make all sorts of distinctions without any concern about whether we called our dispute about Kantian ethics or Kantian morality. However, we must have felt there was some distinction to be made between morals and ethics. For we would never have talked of hiring someone working in medical morality. The proper term was “medical ethics.”

I propose a distinction between morals and ethics based on another distinction I propose between rules and regulations.

Rules are basic action guiding principles such as “Drive at a safe speed.” Rules apply to a large variety of conditions. Regulations are action guiding principles for how to follow the rule in more specific situations such as “Drive 55mph at night.” In the United States, a distinction between rules and regulations is fairly clear. The constitution and the several legislatures specify the rules. The vast bureaucracy of regulatory agencies write regulations for following these rules.

However, the model of constitutional and legislative rules implemented by regulatory bodies does not quite suffice for making a rules/regulation distinction in morality. For the rules have a human source, viz., those who developed the constitution and the legislative bodies. We cannot specify a source for genuine moral rules .

However, the legislation/regulation distinction can be modified to accommodate morality by having an abstraction such as morality itself be the source of moral rules. On this model humans discovered moral rules; humans did not legislate them. Suppose, for instance, that people hold as a moral rule “Do not have non-consensual sex. “ Why do they old it? “Well, it is just wrong” they say “everybody knows, or should know that.” Unfortunately, there can be all sorts of disagreements about what constitutes consent. There needs to be regulations about what constitutes consent. Figuring out these regulations is sexual ethics.

So, the distinction between morals and ethics is that between fundamental moral rules and regulations for them. The fundamental rules bind everyone under all circumstances and are basic features of reality as are the laws of nature, mathematics and logic. Ethics comprises the human made action guiding regulations for applying these basic action guiding laws. The regulations are relative to cultures. The basic moral rules are not relative.

Those who reject absolute moral rules might find a substitute for morality in evolution. They might speculate that humans have evolved so as to have inhibitions against various types of destructive behavior. The articulation or implicit recognition of these inhibitions are the fundamental moral rules for which different cultures apply these rules under different conditions.