What is Ethics?

Ethics is bigger than morality, and understanding the difference is central to living well.

I talk about ethics a lot around these parts, but realized I don’t have a go-to post explaining what I mean by the term. This is particularly important, because I use “ethics” as distinct from “morality,” while most of us treat them as synonyms. Defining terms matters when we’re thinking philosophically, so let’s correct that omission.

What is ethics? Most simply, it’s the set of principles (values, perspectives, beliefs, rules, character traits, etc.) that help us to live well. And “well” here doesn’t just mean, say, “pleasurably.” We can hedonistically enjoy ourselves while being unethical, or we can find pleasure in activities that are actually harmful, to ourselves or others. No, to live well means to be happy, to flourish, and to do so in a way that is admirable and blameless.

Morality, on the other hand, is about how we ought to act towards others. This makes morality part of ethics. Namely, the part that tells you how you should interact with other people. Or, typically, what the guidelines are for how not to interact with other people. Don’t hit them. Don’t steal from them. Don’t violate their rights or cause them unjustified harm.

This makes morality is other-regarding and action-focused. Ethics–which, again, is the broader concept within which morality is a part–is both other and self-regarding, and focuses not just on action, but also values, beliefs, and perspective.

It is thus possible to be moral, in the sense of behaving properly towards others, while being unethical, in the sense of still holding to values, beliefs, and perspectives that are harmful to one’s self (even if you aren’t aware of that), and lead to a world that is harmful towards others as well.

It is not possible to be ethical while being immoral. Ethics is the big picture of the kind of person you are, and so to say “I’m ethical, but also immoral” is incoherent. It would be like saying, “I’m good at playing baseball, but also I don’t know how to catch a ball.”

Moral theories–i.e., theories that give us clear rules for how to assess what action is right or wrong in a given circumstance–are never complete or perfectly guiding, either descriptively or normatively sense, in that we can always think of edge cases that break them. This is what Trolly Problems are all about. They’re descriptively imperfect in that no single set of rules or principles captures the whole of how we think about and judge moral questions, but will instead inevitably contain ambiguities. And they’re normatively imperfect in that no single set of rules or principles can give us actionable and correct guidance in every possible situation, because the world is more complex than the set of rules, and so there will inevitably be situations where we have to rely on judgement outside of the rote application of those rules.

This is part of why we need ethics. The values, perspectives, and beliefs that being ethical entails cultivating are what help us in those edge cases, where moral rules are unclear. If we focus on being ethical, we can be relatively confident that, in morally challenging situations, we will behave well. Or, at least, will behave more admirably than the person who hadn’t bothered to cultivate those traits of character, or who has internalized unethical values, perspectives, and beliefs. 

Ethics is the whole ballgame. It’s how we live well, and how we do so in a way that is compatible with, and supportive of, everyone else doing the same.

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