Ethics and Morality

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Ethics signifies an aspect of human life that can also be called morality. There seem only minor differences in usage between the two terms. We speak more naturally of professional ethics than of professional morals to refer to virtues and codes of behavior of specific professions. This is not, however, because the word moral is restricted to human beings, or rational persons, as such, because we also speak naturally of role morality. A somewhat more substantial difference is that some forms of behavior especially related to sexuality, such as homosexuality, abortion, and premarital intercourse, are condemned (by some) as immoral where unethical would not be used. This usage may require a notion of a natural order (possibly of a religious character) that certain actions violate, even if they do not cause harm in some other way. At the same time, immoral and unethical are often used interchangeably, and both historically and contemporaneously, both can connote wrongness in actions and vice in character.

One influential attempt to get philosophical mileage out of the distinction between morality and ethics is Bernard Williams's Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985). Williams proposed that ethics concerns how one should live (although excluding purely egoistic answers to that question), and morality a systematic but narrower set of concerns that constitute one among many approaches to the ethical. Common usage does not support this linguistic suggestion, but the suggestion of broader and narrower ways of construing the subject with which moral philosophy deals has been influential in its own right.

What Williams refers to as morality is essentially Kant's view of it, although that view shares features with other philosophers, and contemporary Kantians have challenged aspects of Williams's reading of Kant. Prominent distinguishing features of the morality system, according to Williams, are the following:

(1) Obligation is the fundamental moral notion. However, considerations that render an action obligatory, such as its reducing the suffering of others, or involving defending an honorable person against attack, may also, in some circumstances, render an action good but not obligatory (sometimes called supererogatory ). In ethics, by contrast, good actions can be those instantiating virtues, such as courage, justice, or compassion, without further assessment of the action as obligatory or supererogatory.

(2) The source of moral demand lies within the agent's own autonomous self. Yet most moral outlooks recognize some obligations and moral demands as arising, irreducibly, from outside ourselves, for example, from social or institutional roles we occupy, or relationships, such as familial ones, that are not simply voluntarily assumed.

(3) Ethical assessment encompasses only that for which we are fully responsible that is, voluntary actions. Yet, Williams notes, we standardly treat as reflecting on an agent's ethicality responses (such as emotions and feelings) as well as actions, a dimension of the moral life especially emphasized by Aristotle and Iris Murdoch (1970). More generally, we see assessment of character, which is never entirely voluntary, as morally appropriate. Here Williams fails to note, and sometimes implies otherwise, that in the virtue tradition some degree of voluntariness is required for moral assessment. An emotional reaction or disposition over which (or over whose causal antecedents) the agent had absolutely no control whatsoever would not be a fit object of ethical assessment.

A comparable, but not equivalent, view of the difference in question here is that between universal moral requirements and the good life or personal flourishing. Like Williams's distinction between ethics or virtue and the morality system, this distinction is far from sharp.

See also Duty; Virtue Ethics; Williams, Bernard.


Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge, 1970.

Williams, Bernard. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Lawrence Blum (2005)

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