The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Ethics 101: The Difference Between Ethics and Morals

EthicsThe best short definition I’ve heard, courtesy of my friend Stirling, is that morals are how you treat people you know. Ethics are how you treat people you don’t know.

Your morality is what makes you a good wife or husband, dad or mother. A good daughter or son. A good friend. Even a good employee or boss to the people you know personally in the company.

Your ethics are what makes you a good politician. It is what makes you a statesman. It is also what makes you a good, humane CEO of any large company (and yes, you can make money and pay your employees well as Costco proves.)

When you’re a politicians or a CEO, most of what you do will affect people you don’t know, people you can’t know, people who are just statistics to you. You have no personal connection to them, and you never will. This is at the heart of Stalin’s comment that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.” Change the welfare rules, people will live or die, suffer or prosper. Change the tax structure, healthcare mandates, trade laws, transit spending–virtually everything you do means someone will win, and someone will lose. Sometimes fatally.

Ethics is more important than morality in creating a functioning society. This comes back to what I was discussing earlier, that it is worse to kill or harm more people than to kill or harm fewer people.

Morality dictates that you take care of your family, friends and even acquaintances first. It is at the heart of the common admonition to “put  your family first.” Whenever I hear a politician say “I put my family first,” I think “Then you shouldn’t be in public office.”

We call the family the building block of society, but this is nonsense except in the broadest sense. The structure of the family is entirely socially based, generally on how we make our living. A hundred years ago in the US and Canada, the extended family was the norm, today the nuclear family is, with single parent families coming on strong. In China, this transition, from extended to nuclear family, took place in living memory, many adults still in their prime can remember extended families, and were raised in them. The wealthy often have their children raised by servants (I was for my first five years), tribal societies often put all male children into the same tent or tents at puberty, and so on. A hundred and fifty years ago, children were taught at home, by the extended family, and not by professional teachers. They spent much more time with family until they were apprenticed out, if they were. To be sure, children must be born and raised for society to continue, men and women must come together to get that done, but there are many ways to do it, and God did not come down and mandate the nuclear family.

This may seem like an aside from the main point, but it is not. Family is not fundamental, it is not first.  Society is first, and family is shaped by the needs and ideology of the society.

For a large society–a society where you can’t know everyone–to work, ethics must come before morality, or ethics and morality must have a great deal of overlap. By acting morally, you must be able to act ethically.

Our current ethical system requires politicians to act unethically, to do great harm to people they don’t know, while protecting those they do. This can hardly be denied, and was on display in the 2007/8 financial collapse and the bailout after. The millions of homeowners and employees politicians and central bankers did not know were not helped, and the people the politicians and central bankers and treasury officials did know, were bailed out.  Austerity, likewise, has hurt people politicians don’t know, while enriching the corporate officers and rich they do know.

The structure of our economy is designed to impoverish people we don’t know. For developed nations’ citizens, this means people in undeveloped nations. For the rich, this means cutting the wages of the middle class. For the middle class, it means screwing over the poor (yes, the middle class does the day to day enforcement, don’t pretend otherwise.) We are obsessed with “lowering costs” and making loans, and both of those are meant to extract maximum value from people while giving them as little as they can in return.

We likewise ignore the future, refusing to build or repair infrastructure, to invest properly in basic science, and refusing to deal with global warming. These decisions will overwhelmingly affect people we don’t know: Any individual infrastructure collapse won’t hit us, odds are, and global warming will kill most of its victims in the future. The rich and powerful, in particular, believe that they will avoid the consequences of these things. They think it will affect people other than them.

To put the needs of the few before the needs of the many, in public life, is to be a monster. But even in private life, if we all act selfishly, as our reigning ideology indicates we should, we destroy ourselves. If we all put only ourselves and those we love first, and damn the cost to everyone else, our societies cannot and will not be prosperous, safe, or kind.

The war of all against all is just as nasty when it is waged by small kin groups as when it is waged by individuals.

(Reprinted from 2013: this is the most popular article, by traffic, I ever wrote.)

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  1. You are on a roll. The thing I find upsetting is that it’s apparently necessary for you to publicly state what should be axiomatic.

    Thank you.


  2. someofparts

    Channeling Cat Mackinnon today?

  3. KZK

    From Bopnews:

    “Morality is not the basis of the governance of the state. Machiaveli noted that. Those who attempt to govern the state for moral ends, find themselves committing immoral acts and rarely achieve moral ends. The basis of government is the monopoly of organized violence and the supremacy of force. This is inherently immoral or amoral at the best.

    The virtues of the state are the virtues of ethics and not of morality. We seek to have an ethical state and not a moral one. This is supremely difficult for most men to grasp, for morality is sentimental and parochial and ethics is dispassionate and relative.

    People always ask that the state should be moral. But then the question arises, whose morality? And it turns out that there are many different moralities and they all end up squabbling over whose shall dominate. And then madmen and scoundrels promise each side that theirs shall triumph in order to gain power and distribute favor and use the state for their own gain.

    The definition of the ethical state is that it should treat all equally unfairly, high or low, rich or poor, regardless of color or gender, living or dead. Because it is impossible to make everyone happy all the time, but it is possible to treat everyone unfairly all the time.

    That is the function of the state, which is to create unhappiness, and it succeeds when it gives everyone an equal measure. Morality therefore is far removed from any such discussion.”

  4. Carol Newquist

    Who gets to determine what these so-called “needs” are, or are they self-evident? You say build or repair infrastructure, but it can be convincingly argued, and has been, that the infrastructure to which you refer has enabled humanity to conjure its own collapse and potential extinction by virtue of transforming the earth’s vast resources into a putrefied and toxic swamp from which it can’t extricate itself. One would think if we were an intelligent species, as we believe we are, we would choose to perpetuate our species, and if that means forgoing current creature comforts disguised as needs then that’s what we should do. Apparently we’re not all that intelligent, though, nor very ethical or moral when it comes right down to it. Mankind has been laying the groundwork for its own self-imposed genocide for quite some time now with the advent of industrial civilization providing a significant amplifying effect in this conscious and unconscious endeavor. How on earth, or in the universe for that matter, can such actions when taken cumulatively and in their entirety, be considered ethical let alone moral? They can’t. Considering that, what makes anyone believe, or have any hope, that we, as a species, will start now?

  5. Enjoying these posts and threads. A necessary airing.

  6. Bruce Wilder

    It seems to me that you want to talk about institutions, as the social mechanisms that enable cooperation among strangers in society.

    And, the large point is that we are disinvesting from our institutions, with elites drawing off income from dismantling society’s institutions. It is analogous to, and parallel to, running down the public infrastructure, but with the important difference, that while our heritage of infrastructure may be obsolete or have an inappropriate energy basis, our heritage of institutions is what allows a fair and democratic and educated society to function. We might replace incandescent light bulbs with LEDs and go on, but replacing democratic institutions and an egalitarian rule of law with plutocracy and a surveillance state is changing the character of society.

    Neo-feudalism, like the original, will be ugly.

  7. Bruce Wilder

    When I wrote “institutions” in my comment, above, I imagined institutions, “large” and “small”: the international state system that keeps warfare to a dull roar; money and finance; the regulatory systems that keep bars from serving colored rubbing alcohol in place of single-malt scotch, or ensure that food doesn’t poison you. Really basic institutions, like property law and contracts, have been under sustained neoliberal assault. My mind tends to lean in the direction of sweeping abstraction, but I think these abstraction make sense of a lot of concrete detail.

    I really appreciate Ian’s righteous willingness to scream truth at stupid, but also appreciate how frustrating, when so many are dedicated to not responding, not acknowledging reality. Pretending feels better to lots of people than reality, and for good reason: we can “hope” for catastrophe to interrupt the process of controlled breakdown ahead of schedule. That’s pretty bleak, and it is rooted in the same psychology that drives denial, itself. People want to proceed by small increments, with each step a small, well-rewarded bit of progress. Big hope is OK, but small hope is required. And, the right thing in our collective circumstances would require a big dollop of pain upfront. “Collapse now and avoid the rush,” as the Archdruid puts it. I don’t think people are capable of choosing catastrophe as a remedy; they can respond well once catastrophe has entered their lives as deus-ex-machina resolving paralyzing conflicts, but to choose catastrophe, to pull down a structure, which is still standing, even though you know, technically, that it is compromised and beyond repair, is really hard to embrace. That some of the nuttiest right-wing figures are among those calling for catastrophe as a policy, only reinforces the sense that catastrophe is not something we need to embrace. Better Obama’s form of patching things incrementally, nudging our way to becoming a boiled lobster.

  8. subgenius

    off-topic (and from a lurker, natch)..

    RE: Stirling / Stroke on last Ethics post comments

    Chinese medicine can do amazing things (with the right practitioner)

    You might want to find a copy of a documentary called “9000 needles”, about the stroke of a professional athlete, the failing of US healthcare, and the 9000 needles (give or take) used to bring him substantially back….

  9. subgenius

    Plus, as I am commenting…

    Thank you for the writing. This really is one of VERY few locales I can get a good well-reasoned read in the modern age. Of course, you can do as you please, but as you have strengths it’s probably wise to make use of them…

  10. Ian Welsh

    Thanks subgenius. When the time comes I’ll try and make sure TCM is included.

  11. Everythings Jake

    How do we pierce through the phenomenal success of propaganda conditioning, particularly in the U.S.? Seems to me that when Huxley is right, there’s little hope; if and when Orwell is more right, the hurdles are high, but there’s greater hope that people would see through it all, and maybe the huge decline into mass poverty and the very worst excesses of a neo-Gilded age is what’s necessary to get there. Much to be greatly disappointed about with humanity, especially given the wondrous things it might be capable of.

  12. Carol Newquist

    Maybe we can apply this morality versus ethics lesson to this case. Anyone want to take a stab? Thanks to Lisa for sending the link to me via email. I thought you had disappeared, Lisa, since I hadn’t received an email in several weeks. I’m glad you didn’t. I know we disagree on occasion but I respect your tenacity and fire and share many, if not most of you sentiments. We diverge ever so subtly on the nuance.

    As long as the Police Department are paid and incentivized to go after the easiest victims, give people citations, treat homeless people like animals, and go after people who commit victimless (crimes), it seems the police everywhere will be less then willing to do real work and catch actual criminals. As long as the citizens are fearful, submissive, and complicit, the outrageous and hypocritical practices of police will probably continue.

    The Roseville Police, with the principal of local ‘Adelante High School’, periodically hold classes for parents and teenagers who are given citations, that they are required to go to. In these classes, they incite fear and attempt to pound complicity into the kids and parents, from the perspective that they have no rights that aren’t granted to them, and that it benefits he community for the police to be involved heavily in the kids lives. The police warn that they can confiscate electronics, phones, laptops without a permit, keep them for as long as they wish, and retrieve any data they want to prosecute the kids.

    They say they can go into the houses of kids on probation at any time of night, and search through all of their belongings. This completely unconstitutional, fascist police state mentality, that the police can invade privacy at any degree they wish to enforce the law, fills this presentation given by police in cooperation with the principal of the local indoctrinating school.

    The principal finished the presentation by reminding parents that they have no choice but to keep their kids from being truant, that they must force them at any cost to go to school, and if they don’t, they can be put in jail. So knowing what the Roseville Police are doing, I’d assume there are more United States police departments out there who are giving presentations to instill fear in parents and kids, keeping the public indoctrinating school system held together by fascist stitches of force in the fabric of elitist controlled society.

    Now that the elitists and politicians are destroying our constitutional right to privacy among many other rights, we citizens must stand up for our rights and wake the police up to what they are doing, and let it be known that we will not stand for it. These police think that it is their job to force a moral code upon us, and they must know that it is not appreciated, they are not doing the right thing, and that they are following the agenda of psychopaths in government.

    The psychopaths who make the laws that these self righteous police enforce, kill children with drone strikes in the Middle East, and commit mass atrocities and war crimes. We must reach out to police as politely as necessary, and urge them to question laws, not follow unconstitutional orders, and to think for themselves.

    Or, another good application would be the issue of contraception and abortion as it relates to the recent healthcare legislation and the Catholic Church’s response to it. Who’s ethical and/or moral in that debate? I want to see mfi get tangled in his jockstrap over this, being he’s a conservative roman catholic and all. Should the catholic church be dismantled slowly and pragmatically over a span of a half a century, or should it be collapsed all at once? How many raped children are worth that pragmatic, incremental collapse? It’s easy to decide when you’re not the one being raped, isn’t it?

  13. Your “Difference Between Ethics and Morals” article reflects the priority of our species over that of individuals. Individuals are but a thin film spread over the greatness of being human. We are mistaken to think that we act from our own greatness. It is the greatness of being human to which we owe our abilities.
    “In the Interest of the Seventh Generation”

  14. Jordan

    Have you written anything on how religion impacts ethics and morality? I’d be curious to read it if you have.

  15. Ian Welsh

    Not that I can remember. Religion can serve as a resting place for morality and ethics, in the sense that ethics must be irrationally held.

    But religion is a big topic, there’s no understanding the moral and ethical systems of most societies thoughout history w/o discussing their religion/myths.

    The question, in Marxian terms, is if it’s just superstructure determined by the underlying objective realities (not just means of production, but the power dynamics of a particular way of living, and technological toolkit.) Or do ideas have their own force irrespective of the “objective’ circumstances?

  16. I find the actual distinction being drawn interesting and useful, I like the argument. But I don’t really like the nomenclature. For me it’s always seemed that “morals” meant standards of conduct derived from authority and conformity, often although not necessarily religious. Thou shalt not do X because we have to define outgroups, because God said so, that kind of thing. This is the realm of things like opposition to homosexuality; nobody who is against gays can define why what they’re doing is wrong in any sense that involves principle. They’re just the Other, authority defines them as bad, and being against them can be good for social cohesion.

    Whereas ethics always seemed to be more the realm of standards of conduct based on ideas and principles–the Golden Rule, utilitarianism, justice theory, basic concepts of fair play or empathy. Religions can talk about ethics but by definition they can be made sense of outside the religion’s context.

    As you might guess from that definition, I approve of ethics but not so much of morals.

    As to favouring those close to you, I don’t think that’s a matter necessarily of either ethics or morals, and I’m not convinced the behaviour of normal families and of crony-favouring politicians is the same. I don’t help my family because I think it’s right, or for advantage either–I help my family because I love them. Similarly, I help my friends because I’m fond of them. But at that, the latter doesn’t come up often. My friends are fairly self-sufficient people who don’t want help. We all know we’d help if needed, but the substance of our friendship does not revolve around mutual backscratching.
    Now it may be that politicians to some extent do help out buddies because they are fond of them. But lots of them don’t even seem to like each other very much, and they are notorious for personal betrayals where the advantages to that are greater, in a way you don’t see so much in family relationships. There is more personal and political advantage there than love. Wealthy and powerful people, by acting in concert and giving each other advantages at a personal level, can actually bend the overall playing field in a way a normal group of middle class friends cannot. Collusion can give any individual one of them a good deal more wealth and power than that person could have on his or her own, and can do so in a fairly direct, immediate and obvious way. The bonds of family, the love for people you know well, are not necessary to explain this behaviour. The dangers of parochialism are real, but I think avarice is a better explanation for the sins of elite groups.

    (It is possible for middle class or poor individuals to gain personal advantage by banding together–but it takes a lot more of them and requires rather longer term thinking, long term thinking they have less luxury to indulge in any case. It’s not something that groups of personal friends can pull off unless they turn to bank robbing or something)

  17. I rather liked that definition of ethics and morality and ethics at first reading, even though it sounded a little bit “too good to be true.” The more I pondered it, though, the more it held up, and I came to like it very much indeed.

    Your discussion regarding the definition, Ian, is well said and resonates with a major breakdown in our governance that has been a burr under my saddle for a long time and which no one ever talks about. That is that our legislators keep thrashing around in a misguided efforts to arrive at moral legislation, such as abortion and gay marriage, and have abandoned completely any effort at ethical governance, as is revealed by their oft-repeated statement that, “My responsibility is to serve the best interest of my state/district.”

    Actually, we should have no laws regarding the moral issue of abortion, either permitting or banning it, and the ethical responsibility of a federal legislator is to represent the principles of his state/district in serving the best interest of the nation as a whole.

    The voters, of course, contribute to the ethical failure by reelecting incumbents because they want to “maintain seniority in Congress.” What that actually means is that they want to assure that their representation has sufficient “pull” in Congress to secure the maximum amount of pork for their state, and they vote for legislators based on the amount of pork which the representative is able to bring home.

    During the Civil War it was said that “a nation divided against itself cannot stand.” That was at a time when this nation was divided into two halves. We are now divided into fifty greedy, self serving states, each trying to suck the maximum resources from the federal coffers for its own benefit and each willing to throw the nation under the bus in order to gain a “leg up” over its 49 competitors.

    Whenever I bring up this concept in discussion, especially in liberal discussion, I am roundly slapped down and told that the true and proper role of a federal legislator is precisely to serve the best interest of his state/district. “If they don’t serve my interests,” I am asked, “who will?”

    The rise of the Tea Party was actually a triumph of principle over greed, because for the first time the voters were in significant measure willing to elect legislators based on the principles they espoused rather than on what they could do for the district’s parochial interest. Whether those principles represented valid governance is beside the point, the Tea Party was not based on “I’m going to bring federal money into your area.”

    Yes, there was an element of self interest in voting Tea Party, in wanting lower taxes and smaller government, but it was not parochial self interest. They were electing these legislators based on promises of national legislative effort.

  18. Formerly T-Bear

    Recalling, out of a serendipitous education from a class in sociology, several definitions which have stood in good stead over the intervening years that may assist here.

    Morals are standards of behavior founded in beliefs (including religion) e.g. something is either good (righteous) or evil.

    Ethics are standards of behavior founded upon learned conduct (IIRC) e.g. something is either right or wrong (legal or illegal).

    Mores are standards of behavior founded in social customs (and traditions) e.g. something is either good (acceptable) or bad.

    It has been years since these definitions have been remarked so they may have rusticated somewhat, they still serve through their principles a discerning ability between those closely related and often misapplied terms. Maybe this will further the discussion in finding from sociology some basic commonly used terms.

  19. Joe S

    Excellent post and great comments, this is a lot of food for thought.

    Not sure I fully agree with the explanations of morals vs ethics as immediate relationships vs. extended society obligations. Through this lens, wouldn’t the citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World or especially Orwell’s 1984 be extremely ethical citizens (while being morally bankrupt?) I’m thinking of the children who snitch on their parents for not being patriotic enough. It would seem ethics would need to extend a bit beyond that definition; after that point though, I don’t see how religion can’t be brought in. If human society as a whole is corrupt, what else can we reach to other than God (or some higher power?)

  20. excellent work, sadly I don’t get paid until summer.

    I am on Chinese medicine.

  21. As someone who identifies with the Christian left, I wholeheartedly agree. This over-obsession with kin relations is destructive to society. When right-wing politicians make it a staple of their ideology, it is a mark of paganism.

    If you look at the research, you’ll find that children are most strongly influences by their peer group and not by their parents. Parents are not quite as important as we imagine (although obviously still very important). In a world where the conditions change rapidly across generations, it make sense for children to orient themselves to their peers and not to their parents. Parents have woefully out-of-date advice for their offspring.

  22. Jeff Wegerson

    Off topic:
    Thanks Sterling for the Chinese Medicine reply. It has been an education watching you reconnect.

  23. J Bookly

    I usually “get” your posts, but in this case I can’t see a connection between mismanagement of the economy, neglect of the infrastructure, etc., and giving too high a priority to family and friends. Were you maybe taking the “rah rah family” noises made by public figures seriously in spite of the sorry statistics on family well-being?

    To me, it isn’t people we know vs. people we don’t know; it’s money vs. everything else, including people.

  24. Hugh

    Excellent. I agree. As I have said before, we are each of us two people, one social, one private. Our social life takes precedence over our private life because our society gives us the space and resources to have a private life. Ethics is about how we act in society, and morality, how we act in our private lives. For me, religion is part of private life.

    I like the initial quote about people we know and don’t know, also the take on the politician’s spiel about putting family first.

  25. Steve Ogle

    You and I are one (god). The separation is the illusion. A pretty awesome one at that.

  26. Willy

    Maybe observing the difference between another’s moral and ethical behaviors is a reliable way to determine their degree of sociopathy (see Trump)? Constantly rewarding allies but punishing enemies may make sense in power games, but it’s also a pretty selfish behavior.

    With more-normals I’ve always used a variation on that theme to try and determine what a third party might think of me. Do their friends and family treat me with the same respect that they do? If there’s ‘weirdness’ with the others, something’s usually up. Of course one must consider all the variables…

  27. Steeleweed

    Behavior has significance only in the way people – individuals or groups – relate to other people – individuals or groups. A second aspect is that morality/ethics imply feedback – reciprocity, response, reaction. The morality or ethics of the hermit are meaningless

    Confining the term ‘moral’ to small groups (family/friends) and ethics to larger groups reflects Robin Dunbar’s observations on primate behavior.

    Dunbar’s Number is a measurement of the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships”. Originally estimated 100-200 and commonly quoted as 150, an upper limit around 300 is probably more accurate.

    Too small a group is vulnerable to disaster – Joe breaks his leg and cannot hunt & farm so the family starves. Groups of ‘Dunbar-Number size’ tend to prosper because they are large enough to have the flexibility and resources to survive “small disasters” – Joe breaks his leg so the community supports him & his family. Such groups are small enough that cooperative, supportive behavior is seen as self-beneficial.

    Interaction between individuals/groups with whom one does not”maintain stable relationships”, i.e.; ‘The Other”. is another matter and the resulting interactions might be designated the realm of ethics, but I’m not sure the distinction is particularly productive. One may think of politics as a way to install the principles of the successful, prosperous ‘Dunbar group’ to the larger group; to ensure cooperation and support. In this case, something must substitute for the ‘stable relationship’ glue which binds the smaller groups. Traditionally, the substitute has been religion or nationalism but each is a two-edged sword, liable to misuse and with possible nasty side-effects.

  28. Webstri

    I’ve been thinking recently that there are two types of people populating our planet today. Those who in Aldo Leopold’s conception possess a “land/nature ethic,” and those that don’t.

    Thus, until said ethic is engrained in the majority, it’s all still morals. Human morality. And as long as our human centered morality is only able to comprehend our needs, apart from the natural world, our future will remain dire.

  29. Tom

    If the Brazilian People think turning to the Military will solve the problem, they will be sorely disappointed. They need to vote and throw the useless bastards out in October.

  30. I call hogwash on the notion that a moral framework requires religion. I can assure you as one utterly without religion the moral and ethical standards I subscribe to are far more stringent than the christian dogs’, and there’s no “forgiveness”. No do-overs, no mulligans. If I fuck up, it’s on me.

  31. Willy

    Today’s conservative evangelicals have moral standards which so ‘flexible’, relative to Jesus teachings, that I’d say they’re going full old testy retard. Or worse. These days, the primary way they replenish the pews is by cannibalizing older legacy neighborhood churches. I know preachers who gnash teeth over this.

    I’d trust humanists and old school Baptists far more than I would any evangelical who behave as if God and Mammon are really great buddies.

  32. Hugh

    The evangelical right are τάφοι κεκονιαμένοι, whited sepulchres.

  33. Tom W Harris

    They’re also RNC hacks.

  34. Tom W Harris

    AFAIK, morals is about authority while ethics is about fair play.

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