Saturday, February 17, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, February 17, 2018 - The Happy Difference Between Morals and Ethics

What is the difference between morals and ethics? A look in the dictionary provides no meaningful distinction. Various entries for the word ‘ethics’ often utilize the word ‘morals’ in their own definitions. Philosophers describe each in nuanced, often poetic ways.
Since the definitions themselves are moving targets, I’ll offer my own based on their word origins. Morals are human. Ethics are humane.
Cultures tend to define what is “moral” for their own purposes. Sometimes these purposes are truly beneficial, sometimes they are primitive, or restrictive beyond prudence. It might be helpful to think of the term moral by contrasting it with what we consider to be immoral. Literally, the word immoral means non-conforming to standards. Early uses of the word referenced the importance of manners far more than the value of goodness.
The word ethics, however, has a different provenance. Ethics derives from the Greek word ethos. It’s a conceptual term regarding our character. Centuries later, its Middle English descendant, ethik, took on a new duty-oriented meaning as the study of morals.
From these we see that a “moral story” is an ethical observation of a character’s character. It is an exercise in attention. It says, “Look here. Pay attention to what the character does when faced with an ethical dilemma. Observe and learn and remember.”
It puts into perspective that morals are always subjective. They are an attempt by an individual or a society to reverse-engineer a route to ethical enlightenment. They are human constructs, mostly well-intended. Yet they are vulnerable to abuse. Be mindful.
I find that morals are fascinating sociological curiosities. Every culture and subculture has its morals. Every street gang has an honor code. Every orthodox religion has a dress code. Each reveals what they consider to be not only what’s most important to them, but also in what they place their faith.
Every moral rule has a source and an intended purpose. Looking at them objectively is the best way to extract their intrinsic meaning, their universal value. Modesty often plays a part in the development of morals. Is modesty bad? No. But each culture defines what it considers to be modest for itself according to the direction of their society’s intended focus. Look up, not down.
Religions are especially regulatory in this regard. Their interpretation of scripture often leads to the development of moral laws with sexuality firmly in mind.
Religion knows that we are biological and human. It seeks to nudge us to look past our fleshy humanity through the religious action of covering up our physical bodies and their demanding physical desires. Modest clothing is an action of intent to focus on something higher.
I am not in judgement of anyone for their clothing choices. Merely pointing out that some cultures use clothing as a tool for achieving higher thought. Some accomplish the same through nudity.
Judgement is both discouraged and of course widely practiced by religion. But there is value here as well. Notice what you judge and wonder why. Notice the same about others. Be compassionate and open minded as you observe. There is gold here to be found.
Morals teach us to nourish rather than feed. Ethics teach us to do our best to nourish others. Knowing this can help us develop our own individual morality guidelines. Where do we feed our lusts rather than nourish our souls? What “moral code,” essentially, must you place on yourself to walk past the Twinkie aisle in the grocery store without indulging?
Ethical standards do not vary. They are uniform to all humanity, all life. Our morals are culturally-specific tools intended to reveal the universal ethical standard within us. Equality is ethical. Health is ethical. Empowerment is ethical. Respect is ethical. The happy truth is that it’s simpler than we give it credit for. Be good. Be fair. Be curious. Be well. Namasté.

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