Tuesday, January 16, 2024

The non-distinction of ethics and morals

 I am about to teach a chapter on Ethics in Public Speaking in my public speaking class. The chapter is fine for what I want it to do (mostly cover research and citational practices for public speaking), but there is brief aside where the chapter distinguishes between ethics and morality, and it drives me nuts. Often when I complain about this to others, I get some version of this seems like special pleading from a philosopher. Which, sure, point well taken. But I want to spend a little time here explaining why I think this distinction is not incoherent, but actively harmful. 

Ethics, as you know, comes from the Greek ethos, meaning custom, character, habit, habitat. It's what you do in the place you live. Cicero, seeking to translate ethos, coins moralis, taken from the Latin mos. So, when I used to teaching a lot of moral philosophy and ethics courses, if students asked me the difference between ethics and morality, I would say for the purpose of my course, ethics comes from the Greek, and morality from the Latin. Now, thinkers have created distinctions between morality and ethics for a long time, and if clearly explained, I in principle do not object to those distinctions. But something happens in a lot of professional ethics that seek a distinction. Here, let's look at a pretty typical distinction from NASBA Center for the Public Trust (which is what google highlights for me if I search "ethics vs. morality"). 

Both ethics and morals refer to “right” and “wrong” behaviors and conduct. While they are sometimes used interchangeably, these words are different: ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, such as a code of conduct in the workplace. Morals refer to an individual’s principles regarding right and wrong.

From the standpoint of wanting to quickly teach professional "ethics," I can understand the appeal of this distinction. Students come with a variety of beliefs about right and wrong, and you want them to shelf them. You don't want to get into fundamental questions that invite discussions of religion, culture, etc. So, you call all of these things morals, basically gesture to a kind of relativism about them. But you also need your students to adhere to certain rules, behaviors, and norms. You call these ethics, and say they don't have anything to do with your morality. Now you can say that it doesn't matter about what you morally feel is important about what is right and wrong, a lawyer has an ethical duty not the pierce confidentiality. It doesn't matter if you ethically disagree with the lifestyle or health decisions of your patient, a nurse has an ethical duty to provide the best treatment possible. We could go on, but you get the drift. This makes the life of the professional "ethics" instructor easier. Especially if they understand their job as teaching you how to not get sued, or bother HR. Essentially, the solution of the public and private sphere has been imported into the realm of ethics and moral philosophy. 

But there are serious problems with this stance. The first is that it essentially affirms some sort of principle of moral relativism. While I am a moral pluralist (as I am a pluralist in most things), it is not a moral relativism. Indeed, most of the thinkers that create the schools of ethics and morality are not relativists. But this might not even be the worse. The real problem is the way this version of professional ethics dodges the real issues of ethical reasoning. You have private morals, and you have public ethical standards. By asking the students, or really future and current practitioners, to simply follow pre-given rules, behaviors, and norms, we are asking them not to think, not to reason, not struggle. The part about ethics that is compelling is how it addresses us existentially. Life demands of us to make decisions that are fundamentally undecidable, and yet we must still make decisions. Ethics and morality are not, therefore, principally concerned with "the good," but asking questions about what sort of being do you need to be to care about the good, to do the good, to even understand the good. To engage with ethical reasoning is resist turning ourselves into some sort of calculator (this is even true of the calculative ethical systems such as utilitarianism). It requires us to think and act, as Arendt might say, without bannisters. One cannot simply memorize a bunch of rules and norms and be ethical. To be ethical often requires of us to know exactly what rules and norms need to be challenged or broken. The idea of a private morals and a public ethics brings us into an Orwellian reversal of language, in which people are told to be ethical is to follow this or that code of conduct, to make sure you follow the law, etc. And this is against the very reality of the ethical, which demands us to be able to think when rules, laws, and norms breakdown. Actual professional ethics are essential and important. Ethical philosophy confronts us with profound questions of what it means to be, think, and act. And so often we fail to be ethical by going along with what we have been told, by following our received standards.