Ethics and Morality

by Michael C. Kelly, MA


The language of philosophy and the language of day-to-day living can be hard to reconcile. For example, in philosophy we may talk about ethics, but in our day-to-day lives we may talk about ourselves or others as having this or that kind of morals. We may say Person A is guided by a sound ethical principle. We may say Person B is “a kind, gentle and moral person.” Person C, on the other hand, may be regarded as “an ignorant and disgustingly immoral cad.” (1) Now, here’s the kicker in all this. We can interchange the words like ethics and morals and still walk away with the same perception of each of these people.



Person A

is guided by sound ethical principles

is guided by sound moral principles

Person B

is a kind, gentle and ethical person

is a kind, gentle and moral person

Person C

is an ignorant and disgustingly unethical cad!

is an ignorant and disgustingly immoral cad!

Does the interchange of ethics and morals in these statements change our perceptions of each person?

So, is there a distinction to be made between ethics and morals? If so, how do we make the distinction? How are they connected? And what difference does it make? (2) For practical purposes here’s how we might look at it

A moral agent is a person with the capacity of act in relation to what is right and what is wrong.

1. Presence - starting at the beginning

All of us have a presence on this planet. Actually there are four aspects to our presence. The first is called existence. We’ll call this “being there.” Philosophers love to tackle this subject in metaphysics, usually with highly abstract and often controversial language. Our second presence is called attendance which for our purposes means being there in relation to others. This could also be referred to as cooperative presence and speaks to how we get along with each other. A third aspect of our presence is called our aura. Now this might sound a little new age, but what I’m referring to here is the level of confidence, self-assuredness, personality and charisma we exude or demonstrate when among others. Finally and tentatively - because this comes from a mystical plain - there is our spirit presence. We can call it our specter, phantom or ghost selves. It takes a belief system to recognize this last kind of presence. I’ve heard people actually ascribing these spirit presences with certain characteristics - auras of their own, so-to-speak. Think of the fictional ghost Jacob Marley, the wise and unyielding teacher, as he appears before Ebenezer Scrooge to insist on a life lesson about kindness. Or think of the obedient Mrs. Townshend, the 1936 ghost of Norfolk, England. Was she real? Was she still obedient to her husband by staying in their mansion - even if she had to haunt it?

As we can see, these aspects of presence often come packed with descriptive characteristics that allow us to identify certain attributes. We’ll call these attributes character.

2. Character - the total package

Dictionary definitions of character have several meanings but here we’ll refer to it as the stuff that gives our presence integrity, fortitude, resolve and moral strength. This stuff is energized by our intentions and driven by our values. Let’s look at a couple of examples. First, some of us, from time to time, may operate with getting and taking values ... as is described in the following scenario involving Addison and Logan:

Addison: Say Logan, I know there are only ten minutes left in the shift, but can you give me a hand moving this table?

Logan: Sure, but what’s in it for me? You’re going to owe me big time if I help.

Does this scene make Addison a moral person or Logan an immoral person? Of course not. It might seem opportunistic on Logan’s part but there’s a matter of right and wrong to consider.

3. Morals - the choices of right and wrong

Distinguishing right from wrong, especially in my relationship with others, is in the domain of morals. Kwame Anthony Appiah defines it simply as “the constraints that govern how we should and should not treat other people.” (3) It helps us act as responsible moral agents (4) and make sound moral choices. In this sense we can use morality to make choices concerning how we “live a good life free from stress” (5) or how we attend to our obligations toward others. For example, we might say we have a moral obligation to educate our children or to provide life sustaining medical care. Armed with this sense of obligation we choose to send our children to good schools and care for our sick elderly mother. By doing these things we can say we are moral agents living to a strong moral standard. (6) 

Morals constitute a set of conduct standards which we use to make judgments. Some might say a person in good moral standing is a person with a strong moral code who uses their code to make sound moral choices. 

Where do these moral standards come from? Morality is derived from a complex of influences. We will focus on only three - the main three.

The first influence is experience. Many of our moral standards are learned through the moral moments in our lives - moments that helped shape what we feel is right and wrong. For example, let’s assume our Logan is waiting to attend a Heart concert. Logan loves the band and knows many others do too. Logan stands in a long line up for hours anxious about the prospects at getting a seat. Just as the line starts to move someone, smelling of a mixture of sweat and stale cigarette smoke, frustrates Logan by crashing the line. Just before Logan gets to the theatre door, admittance is suddenly stopped. The line crasher is allowed in, Logan is not. Imagine what our Logan might be saying. Would it be expressions of contempt and disgust for smelly line crashers, or would Logan simply let it go and trek off to do something else?  

Depending on Logan’s moral strength, which might include a desire not to ever frustrate others, to live guilt free and to be respectful of line-up conventions, a choice might be made - crashing a line is a wrong behaviour to engage in. On the other hand,  Logan’s moral strength might be guided differently and so choose that “if smelly line-crashers can get away with it, so can I.”

The second influence is religion. Various religious organizations interpret the scripts of their faith to establish moral conventions - many of them common to other faiths, others not so much. (7) These conventions form the basis for their moral agents’ choices.

The third influence on our morality is ethics.

4. Ethics - the quality of moral choices

Ethics also informs our morality. It is not concerned simply with moral choices but with the quality of moral choices. (8) It asks us what arguments and meanings emerge from our moral choices, and to defer to Aristotle, how these arguments contribute to “a life well lived.” For this reason ethics require sound critical thinking skills. To illustrate, let’s go back to Logan’s line crasher.

Should Logan confront the line crasher? This is a pretty simple question that exposes all sorts of possibilities. Yes, the line crasher needs to know their behaviour is not morally acceptable - but at what cost. What if the line crasher gets violent? Is it right to engage in a discussion that could become violent? The other option is to say no. Confrontations, Logan might argue, are not worth the effort. Perhaps Logan could say it is best to avoid situations like this, but at what cost? Wouldn’t Logan simply be enabling this line crasher? In the end should Logan be a pro-line crasher or a anti-line crasher?

Let’s take this type of questioning to a much larger plain by looking at a few questions:

  1. Should abortion be allowed? What are the arguments of the pro life and the pro choice camps? 
  2. Should I support euthanasia? What are the arguments of the various parties here?
  3. Should I support environmental initiatives? When it comes to environmental issues am I an idealistic re-greener bent on returning the planet to its original state or a pragmatic de-greener looking to sustain what we have already? (Notice how I loaded this question with labels like re-greener and de-greener, or with terms like idealistic and pragmatic. What do these words mean in the context of environmentalism?)
  4. Should I eat meat? 

Language - connecting to reality

Language, according to Bruce Gregory, “commits us to what is real.” (9) From a language perspective, the job of connecting and committing ethical arguments to a workable moral reality falls into three categories - the languages used in descriptive ethics, normative ethics and meta ethics. 

When we argue descriptively we simply state the facts about what we think is right without making any moral claim. The claims may be right or wrong, but they are, in the eyes of the moral agent, right. Compare the following statements:


Statement A:

The line at the Heart concert is populated by men and women. (This is a descriptive argument, easily verifiable as being right, and making no moral claim.)

Statement B:

The line at the Heart concert is populated by responsible music lovers and ignorant line crashers. (This is not a descriptive argument because it contains three  moral claims - that the people in the line are music lovers, that they are responsible and that the line also consists of line crashers who happen to be ignorant.)

When we argue normatively we are concerned with values. Normative ethics involve classifications of right and wrong and describe how we ‘ought’ to act from a moral perspective. For example, look at these statements.

  • Lying is wrong.
  • Cheating on exams is wrong.
  • Holding a door for a frail little lady and gentlemen is the right thing to do.

Notice how the statements describe how we ‘ought’ to act! Since lying is wrong, we ought not to lie. Since cheating on exams is wrong, we ought not to cheat. Since helping frail people by holding doors is the right thing to do, we ought to hold the door for these people.

It is important to note that we need descriptive and normative ethics, but one does not necessarily prove the other. Just because something ‘is’ does not mean that it ‘ought.’ For example, just because “the line at the Heart concert is populated by women and men” (descriptive ethical statement) does not necessarily mean that lines at Heart concerts ought to be populated by men and women. Perhaps the concert is for women only in a location that forbids men from being there!

Meta-ethics, the third category, addresses the meaning behind moral language. It asks questions like:

What is the meaning of language in a moral statement?

What can be said about the truth of a moral statement?

What is the nature of goodness and what is the nature of the bad?

These are lofty question to be sure but they help us understand the deeper meanings behind moral statements. It can also bog us down in obsessive abstraction to the point where it does not help us in our practical lives. Meta-ethics, some would say, is best left to the hallowed halls of academic and intellectual circles.

We can see that the languages of these three categories - descriptive (facts), normative (values) and meta-ethics (meaning). The next question asks how these languages are applied. What mental models are used to conceptualize ethical positions?

Theory - the mental models

From the theoretical perspective there are many schools of ethical thought. For the purposes of exploring the breadth of these schools we’ll simply focus on the definitions of three schools - or what has come to be known as the big three. (10) These are virtue ethics, consequential ethics and duty ethics. 

Virtue ethics are generally associated with the Greek philosopher Aristotle and refers to the character of the moral agent. According to Aristotle a virtuous moral agent will be guided by a golden mean - the moderate and prudent position between two extremes. For example, the moderate and prudent position between the extremes of cowardliness and rashness is courage. In the end the virtuous person asks, “How to I apply the golden mean to ensure that I flourish in this life?” 

Consequential ethics (11) judges the moral validity of a moral agent based solely on the consequences of their action. Consequentialists look to satisfy a simple rule: “What would be the outcome if everyone were allowed to take a particular action?” For them an action would be right under two conditions:

The action is right in proportion as it tends to promote happiness, wrong as it tends to promote the inverse of happiness. Under this condition reason comes into play.

The action is right if the creates the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Under this condition impartiality comes into play. 

Duty ethics refers to ethical positions reflecting consistency of actions. This theory is generally associated with the 18th century philosopher Emmanuel Kant and his categorical imperative - which is a universalizing guide to our actions. To be a right action, three imperative conditions must be met. The moral agent must:

  • act only on the principle that in the moment of the action they can will it to become a universal law (universalizing formulation). For example, suppose someone asks me my age and in a vain moment I utter a number ten years younger than I actually am. Is this right? According to duty-based ethics, it is not right to lie about my age - no matter what. Why? Well, would I want everyone lying about their age? Would I want someone lying to me about their age? The bottom line here is that this first formulation provides us with a logical consistency across all moral agents.
  • act in a manner where they treat people as ends, not means (the mean-end formulation). When a moral agent treats another person as a means, they are essentially using them for their own gain. Treating another as an ends gives them proper regard as a human being.
  • act in a manner as though they were the law maker in the Kingdom of Ends (autonomy formulation). Here we want to be consistent in our own actions.

5. Conclusion

The big three schools of ethics are complex and each has its pros and cons. Strong critical thinking skills are required to address then in relation to moral actions. It would require volumes to explore them in greater detail, but the point is made. Ethics, unlike morals, are concerned with the principles underlying moral actions. They speak to the meanings underlying our moral actions.



1. Notice the contempt and disgust that accompanies our description of the immoral person. For an initial study of contempt and disgust see Paul Ekman. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings To Improve Communications and Emotional Life. New York: A Holt Paperback, 2003. pp. 172-189. 

2. What difference does it make? “Terminology stipulations of this sort, “ according to Kawme Anthony Appiah, “are useful only if they allow us to track distinctions that matter.” See Kawme Anthony Appiah. Experiments in Ethics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008. p. 37.

3. ibid., p. 37.

4. A moral agent is a person with the capacity of act in relation to what is right and what is wrong. 

5. See “The Ethics Song” by Michael Kelly.

6. Some argue that our moral responsibilities toward others is constantly under siege, especially in corporate cultures where people’s responsibilities are said to be vested in the survival of organizations and not the well being of individuals. Emmanuel Levinas’s moral philosophy, for example, “calls for a business ethics that is conceived not as a corporate commitment but as an individual practice of responsibility by the agents of management towards the Other [i.e. a human person] and the continual striving for justice in the presence of the Third [i.e. corporations].” See David Bevan and Herve Corvellec. “The Impossibility of corporate ethics: for a Levinasian approach to managerial ethics” in Business Ethics: A European Review. Volume 16, No. 3. July 2001. p. 208.

7. This is an enormously controversial issue best avoided in this article. Suffice it so say that religion and philosophy often draw on each other to inform our morals.

8. It is usually seen as a subset of philosophy and used generally to study moral judgments - especially the basis for those judgements.

9. Bruce Gregory. Inventing Reality: The Language of Physics. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc, 1988.

10. We could add many other schools, like feminist ethics, cosmopolitan ethics, legal ethics, medical ethics, etc. The “big three” will serve us well since they are generally regarded as the root schools. Any introductory course in ehtics will likely cover these three schools.

11. This school is generally associated with 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and the 19th  century philosopher John Stuart Mill.

February 14, 2011

© 2011  Michael C Kelly