Weasel Words: Ethics and Morality

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By Mike Cronin

I was raised and educated to believe that the basis  of moral conduct was dictated to man by God through the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Jesus, and the precepts of the Catholic Church.  I was also given to understand that “ethics” were more about the rules humans applied to themselves. Regardless of what religious or secular tradition you were raised under, chances are the distinction between morality and ethics has not always been made clear.

What if that is on purpose?  What if politicians, philosophers, spiritual leaders and other demagogues have twisted the meaning of these words?

Richard Maybury, author of 22 books and monographs and the Early Warning Report newsletter and website, focuses on economics, law and history. According to him:

“Ethics is from the Greek word ethos, which means the essential nature or character of something. Four legs, a head and a tail are part of the essential nature of a cat. The cat cannot change this.

Morals is from the Latin word mos, meaning mores, customs, habits. These can and do change. Rosie the Riveter in World War II made it okay for women to work outside the home in jobs that formerly went only to men.

Ethics refers to a higher law than any human law. To be ethical is to be in sync with the principles of right and wrong built in to human nature.

Morals are not built in. They are the result of opinion, which can change with the wind.

We are born with limits based on ethics. If we choose to be ethical, life gets better, and if we don’t, life gets worse; it’s automatic.

Morals, again, are just opinions.

Ethics is doing what is right even if every other person on earth is doing what is wrong.

To be moral, on the other hand, is to behave in ways that are popular, customary or in sync with the behavior of the majority. If most others do it, it’s okay.”

What insights can we glean by applying these original meanings to ethics and morals?  For a start, is it ethical for a lawmaker to ban conditions, possessions, or behavior just because some constituents find it immoral (e.g. mixed–race or same-sex marriage, drug use, pornography, prostitution)?

To borrow from an internet meme: Knowledge accepts that a cherry tomato is a red fruit similar in size, shape, and color to a cherry, but one demonstrates wisdom by not putting a cherry tomato on top of an ice-cream sundae.  Similarly, it is one thing to know the meaning of ethics and morality, it is another to apply those meanings wisely.

For example: if knowledge tells us it is unethical for the government to ban pornography merely because some sector of society finds it immoral, is it not also unethical for the government to ban child-pornography for the same reason? Don’t child pornographers have as much right under the First Amendment as adult pornographers?

No. We have to apply wisdom: children, especially young children, are not capable of providing informed consent, so they cannot reasonably permit themselves to be the subject of pornographic materials; ergo such materials are unethical to produce in addition to (or despite) being immoral to possess. The rights of the would-be child pornographer end where the rights of the child begins – he (or she) has no right to employ the child in such a manner, whether the child might have seemed to agree to it or not, because the child is not competent to make such a decision yet.

How can we get this wisdom ourselves?  It helps to simplify, or reduce things to a principle, then apply it.  To my way of thinking, virtually every unethical act reduces, in principle, to some form of theft:

Murder (as opposed to killing in self-defense) is the unethical taking (i.e. theft) of someone else’s life.

Rape, assault, and enslavement are unethically taking a large portion, but perhaps not all, of someone else’s life.

So-called “white collar” crime, fraud, lying, and other unethical forms of misleading conduct are attempts to hide reality from those entitled to it.  They are the theft of the truth.

By the same token, many so-called immoral acts are ethically neutral: e.g. eating meat on Friday, not going to church on the Sabbath, using foul language, wearing provocative clothing, or having homosexual or premarital sex.

So: Is it ethical for a lawmaker to enact, obligate, or promote acts that take property from citizens without due process (e.g. confiscatory income taxation, eminent domain, or civil asset forfeiture)?

The Founders established that the only valid purpose of government is to protect citizens’ rights. Government cannot succeed in that purpose if it is routinely, systematically, and unethically violating the rights of those very citizens!

To paraphrase Maybury: Life continuously gets better in civilizations that make the correct distinction between ethics and morality and enforce ethical conduct; civilization itself fails in places where ethics and morality have been twisted into weasel-words.

2 thoughts on “Weasel Words: Ethics and Morality

  1. Mike, I always enjoy your writing. I find it interesting that the connotations of “morals” and “ethics” have been reversed…i.e. a lawyer is ethical if he mounts a vigorous defense of an immoral crime. It is certainly pervasive in the literature I studied in my courses on military protocols. I wonder where the flip began.

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    • Thank you! I wonder where the reversal, or at least he conflation, began as well, but I am not surprised by it. I suspect it has been going on since grunts became words. Words have meaning; those who succeed in twisting those meanings must feel they are no longer bound by them.

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