Wednesday, December 27, 2006


(This post is a sidebar for an upcoming entry on morality.)

Some incorrectly see ethics and morality as synonymous. ("Ethics", as it concerns us here, are sets of rules, rather than the study of the entire field which includes moral philosophy.) It is the meaning intended when someone labels conduct "ethical" or "unethical". Ethics are rules we intentionally adopt for ourselves.

Our ethics are typically situational, to abuse some terminology, because they offer a guide for conduct in a particular set of uncommon but foreseeable circumstances. Ethics are often necessary because the law or morality don't work for a given situation, either because the legal or moral precept does not extend to the situation, or because two precepts conflict.

Almost all professions, crafts, and fields of endeavor have their own code or codes of ethics.

  • Doctors have to treat people regardless of whether the harm was self-inflicted, or the result of some unfortunate decision made by the patient. The doctor cannot allow himself to become a judge. Neither morality nor the law can tell them how to behave. A code of ethics is required.
  • Lawyers are bound by ethics. Our legal system is adversarial; the presumption is that two equally armed sides in a legal dispute will arrive at justice through debating the issues involved. That system requires that lawyers set aside their disdain for the guilt of their client and proceed as if he were innocent. Lawyers often muck around with the law itself, as each court case potentially can alter the law. The law cannot be made exact enough to cover these instances, so a code of ethics is required.
  • Journalism, politics, computer system administration, and virtually every other field has its own standards of ethical behavior, covering those areas where morality or the law cannot guide. Should a journalist cover a story with the potential to harm as well as to enlighten? Should a computer system administrator examine the contents of some suspicious private files? These questions are best resolved under ethical standards.
It is because ethical rules resolve moral conflicts and work outside of morality that we can see the difference between the two.

Ethics, morality, and law share guiding human behavior as their common subject matter. It is possible for behavior to be unethical but moral and legal; unethical and immoral, but legal; and so on. But in most cases the intersection of the three is characterized by their violation: the unethical will be immoral or illegal. Some people, even otherwise clear-headed philosophers, seem to become thoroughly befuddled when asked to compare and contrast them. It's all pretty simple:

  • Ethics are the rules we adopt for ourselves
  • Morals are the rules we believe apply to everyone
  • Laws are the rules we demand that everyone obey
By adopting a code of ethics, we know a priori that they are not universal. They often overlap with morals, but the distinction of personal adoption is important. For some, ethics replace morality entirely, as in the (hypothetical) case of those who believe they have a sufficiently developed set of rules to ignore societal norms.

Ethics are real things, and have an objective, factual basis: they either are in place or they are not. We are not free to assign or ascribe ethics to others; they must adopt their own. If someone adopts a set of ethics, for example by joining a group which claims a code of ethics, we can hold the joiner accountable for behaving according to the ethical standards so adopted. Unethical conduct can by definition only be practiced by someone who has adopted a set of ethics.

Morality is the subject for another post.

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