The difference between ethics and morals can seem somewhat arbitrary to many, but there is a basic, albeit subtle, difference. Morals define personal character, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied. In other words, ethics point to standards or codes of behavior expected by the group to which the individual belongs. This could be national ethics, social ethics, company ethics, professional ethics, or even family ethics. So while a person’s moral code is usually unchanging, the ethics he or she practices can be other-dependent.
When considering the difference between ethics and morals, it may be helpful to consider a criminal defense lawyer. Though the lawyer’s personal moral code likely finds murder immoral and reprehensible, ethics demand the accused client be defended as vigorously as possible, even when the lawyer knows the party is guilty and that a freed defendant would potentially lead to more crime. Legal ethics must override personal morals for the greater good of upholding a justice system in which the accused are given a fair trial and the prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The prosecution and court must also deal with the difference between ethics and morals. In some cases past actions of the accused might resonate with the current charge, but are kept out of evidence so as not to prejudice the jury. In a sense, the prosecutor “lies by omission” in representing the case, never revealing the prejudicial evidence. The same prosecutor, however, would likely find it reprehensible to fail to tell a friend if her date had a potentially dangerous or suspect history.
Another area in which ethics and morals can clash is at the workplace where company ethics can play against personal morality. Corporate greed that blurs its own ethical lines coupled with unreasonable demands on time can lead to having to choose between a stressful, demanding and consuming work ethic, and family obligations seen as moral obligations to spouse and children. Conversely, people lose jobs every day because of poor personal morals, employee theft being a common reason for dismissal.
In society, we are all faced with the butting heads of ethics and morals. Abortion is legal and therefore medically ethical, while many people find it personally immoral. Fundamentalists, extremists, and even mainstream theists all have different ideas about morality that impact each of our lives, even if indirectly through social pressures or legal discrimination.
In the case of homosexuality, many believe it is morally wrong, yet some of the same people also believe it is unethical to discriminate legally against a group of people by disallowing them the same rights afforded heterosexuals. This is a plain example of ethics and morals at battle. Ethics and morals are central issues as the world strives to overcome current challenges and international crossroads. Hopefully, in the coming years, a growing understanding will lead to peaceful and productive solutions.