Ethics, Morals, and (Strange) Law


I thought I’d start out with a little overview of what propels people’s sense of right and wrong, and our associated behaviour.  I did some poking around trying to find a clear division between morals and ethics, and found that the waters, as expected, seem to be a bit murky.  Who knows, they might still be by the end of this blog entry.  

But one blogger/philosopher, Elijah Weber (no relation), seems to have summed it up quite nicely:

“Ethics is a framework, a systemic and reasoned basis for making statements about morality.  Morals are simply what we believe to be right and wrong.  There appears to be a clear distinction here that ethics are more sophisticated than morals.  Morally, one can support almost anything, while ethically we require reason and justification for what we believe……Morals, quite simply, are beliefs about right and wrong conduct.  They are often based on sociological conditions and learned behavior, but not always.  They do not require reason, consistency, or thorough analysis in their initial shaping or practical application.  One can make a statement about morals without making a statement about ethics.  If something is immoral, it may or may not be appropriate to call it unethical.  I can believe that lying is wrong because my grandmother told me it was, and that is what I believe.  No further justification is required.  Ethics, on the other hand, is a reason based, cumulative system of moral decision making.  It is built upon one or a few basic principles and requires that we be thorough, honest, and comprehensive in making statements about right and wrong.  Ethics is about building the kind of world we want to live in, and developing a consistent process by which to achieve this.  Ethics is an advanced expression of morality….”

If we apply this to everyday scenarios, we can say that as small children perhaps we cheated at a game of Chutes-N-Ladders.  Mom or Dad might admonish us by saying something like, No, no, that’s cheating, that’s not nice. So we might get the moral message that cheating is unacceptable, because our parents said so, but we haven’t figured out why cheating isn’t nice, or even necessarily why nice should be our ideal.  Fast forward a few years. We’re on the playground when a classmate cries out, Hey, he cheated! That’s not fair!  By this time we can identify what cheating is and we don’t like it. We recognize fairness as an ideal we want to uphold–at least for this particular game in our young lives. We’ve grown a little bit of a code of ethics.  

A third player joins morals and ethics in governing our behaviour–the almighty law.  Let’s face it, most of us are afraid of being punished for transgressions & don’t want to break the law.  The fear of getting caught might stop a high school student from cheating on her history exam.  She may have been taught all her life that cheating is wrong, but her desire to pass the test may be at the moment greater than her sense of right & wrong.  The fear of getting caught and punished for cheating is what stops her.  Quite possibly, she may also have been taught the reasons why cheating is wrong; perhaps if she had an ethical basis behind her views on cheating, she might be less inclined to cheat, however tempting, even if there were no chance of getting caught. 

I like to think that I’m a decent, law-abiding citizen, don’t you?  Most people aren’t out to rob their local quickie-mart or assault innocent old ladies.  But chances are no matter how straight-laced you think you are, you’re probably guilty of committing a crime.  Here are just a few laws still on the books:

“If you’re planning a short stint in Hartford, Connecticut, you might want to keep your dog’s obedience training under wraps. It’s against the law to educate dogs in that city.”

“The sunshine state also prohibits unmarried women from parachuting on Sundays.”

“And in Memphis, Tennessee, women can’t drive a car unless there is a man with a red flag in front of the car warning the other people on the road.”


Now there are some who might have a moral objection to breaking the law regardless of how ridiculous it seems.  It’s the law, and the right thing to do is to obey the law.  To each his own.  Personally, as an unmarried woman if I can get away with parachuting on Sunday, I’m all for it.  If I could identify a logical reason why I shouldn’t parachute on Sunday but my married girlfriends can, I might reconsider.  And if this bizarre law were enforced, I would choose not to parachute on Sunday, simply because I don’t want to be fined or otherwise punished. 

I love to ask people if lying is wrong. (Is lying wrong? What’s your knee-kerk response?)  Most people’s visceral response is Yes, lying is wrong!, accompanied by an incredulous look that I even dared ask.  This reply is based on their morals, but I don’t see it as a black-or-white issue. 

There are, of course, legal consequences to certain types of lying (false advertising, lying under oath, fraud, misrepresentation of facts on official documents); there are also personal consequences when we lie to the people in our lives.  Lying also encompasses more than telling an untruth–it can be withholding truths, allowing someone to continue to believe what is false, or misleading others without outright telling them a falsehood. Viewed from an ethical standpoint, lying can be considered wrong or right, depending on the circumstances.  Would I lie to someone chasing you with a gun?  In a heartbeat.  Would I lie to get a better tax break?  I haven’t yet, and I don’t plan to. 

We have to ask ourselves some crucial questions when deciding if something is ‘wrong’ or ‘right.’ 

        * What is my mindset and motive?

         *Who is directly involved and how would my behaviour affect them?

         *How would my behaviour affect me personally and would my conscience be able to handle it later? 

          *What’s the wider scope of people who could be affected by the actions being considered?

            *Is it legal, and if not, is it reasonable to break the law for this? Can I or my family afford for me to be punished for this?

           *Is this in line with what I want for my life and what type of person I want to be and be remembered as?

The bottom line is, think.  Go deeper than your initial response to a moral question and figure out what’s behind it.  You may have been brought up your whole life being taught that something is wrong simply because your auntie, or your favorite schoolteacher, or your holy book said that it’s wrong.  Examine that. Figure out for yourself how ‘wrong’ it really is.  It might very well be as you’ve been told all your life, but maybe you’ll find more satisfaction in doing the thinking part for yourself.  Maybe you’ll be less inclined to come to snap judgements. Maybe you’ll learn something new about yourself or the world around you. 

Happy Trails,




Elijah Weber’s Blog:

Top Craziest Laws Still on the Books:


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