ethics vs morality

I keep hearing people making a distinction between ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it too?

Andrew has recently observed how much edgier ‘ethics’ seems relative to ‘morality’:

It’s not very cool these days to say you’re interested in “morality”. You can say you’re interested in “ethics”, yes. That’s because “ethics” has a kind of cutting-edge, out-there-in-the-complex-modern-world feel to it, as if you’re engaging in highly specialised and hair-splitting decisions that the advance of technology has thrown up at us, like “if some rogue scientist has cloned a goat crossed with a seagull, is it ok to harvest its bone-marrow to use in weapons technology?” That kind of thing.

The relative sexiness of ethics was on display on Triple J towards the end of their recent ‘Sex Week’.

A group of guests were chatting about why people seem to find it so hard to talk about sex — especially with their partners. One suggested that the problem was that our thinking and talking about sex was too bound up with morality, which he said meant “questions about right and wrong” (questions he hinted were not only guilt-producing but also impossible to arbitrate or settle)

He went on to suggest that we need to disentangle ourselves from this and start operating out of an ‘ethics’ framework instead, which he said had more to do with “respecting each other and reducing harm”.

Now, this says more about the sexiness of ethics than the ethics of sex. Scratch the surface of both ‘respect’ and ‘harm’ and you’re suddenly back in the much-maligned realm of morality — and its irreconcilable absolutes. For once you start fleshing out what it looks like to respect someone, you’re drawing upon your moral vision. And once you start talking about how to calculate (and mitigate) harm, you’re doing moral calculus.

But we’ve got to get past scoring cheap debating points — one way or the other (e.g., “Morality’s dated and repressive, get with the times and do ethics instead” or “Your ethics is shot through with morality – ner, ner!”). Because what’s going on even further below the surface is where things could get really interesting.

I’m wondering if the flight from potentially intractable moral debate towards an ethics that is at once thinner (more minimal and readily accessible) and deeper (because it supposedly transcends the awkward particulars of morality) testifies to our longing for a universally valid and ready-to-hand perspective on how to live. Our longing, in other words, for God to speak an authoritative word of judgement and grace.


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