In the Virian formulation, morals are “inherited” and tend to refer to sets of ingrained traditions, while ethics are considered and less dependent on any particular cultural or religious perspective (a distinction similar to that seen in the cultural theories of AnthonyGiddens or the existentialism of JeanPaulSartre). Since morals are frequently regarded as a given due to perceived divine injunction, they have a disturbing tendency to be self-validating (a condition that is arguably little more than an abdication of personal responsibility in favour of group norms). Accordingly, these morals are alarmingly arbitrary and alarmingly subject to memetic reproduction even when said morals have long since ceased to be applicable (see OnHomosexuality for one example; sexual behaviour may indiscriminately be described as immoral; for it to be unethical requires a significantly greater degree of precision).

As an example of the difficulty of considering ethics in anything other than a situational context, consider Kantian criteria for ethical behaviour. ImmanuelKant suggests than ethics must be both universal and reversible. The first of these is particularly problematic since certain ethical norms (e.g. the Islamic Jihad or Thuggee cult of death) permit murder, though UmbertoEco has proposed a naturalistic ethics based on integrity of the body. The second is more difficult since it is not always clear as to whether all individuals would agree that they would wish to be treated by the standards that others would wish to be treated by.

As a practical illustration of the morals/ethics distinction, Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) presented his subjects with a series of moral dilemmas, such as whether it is permissible to steal food to feed one's starving family. He then noted the reasoning his subjects used in justifying their particular decisions.

Kohlberg concluded that there are five levels of moral development that people go through.

  1. In the first stage, starting at about age ten, people avoid breaking moral rules to avoid punishment.
  2. In the second stage, people follow moral rules only when it is to their advantage.
  3. In the third stage, starting about age 17, people try to live up to what is expected of them in small social groups, such as families.
  4. In the fourth stage, people fulfill the expectations of larger social groups, such as obeying laws that keep society together.
  5. In the fifth and sixth stages, starting at about age 24, people are guided by both absolute and relative moral principles; they follow these for altruistic reasons, though, and not because of what they might gain individually (the final two stages are differentiated in that the fifth is based on adherence to democractic processes and rule of law, the sixth allows for the possibility of civil disobedience in the interests of changing laws).

According to Kohlberg, few people ever reach this level. It is especially noteworthy that he effectively confirms that an “innate” sense of morality does not exist, that it is, in so far as it exists at all, cultured into people rather than bred into them.

His studies also point to the greatest weakness in morals, namely the fact that many people today imagine that they are "given to them" by their gods means that they are not trained to consider ethical questions on their individual merits.

A further proviso, suggested by JakeSapiens is that ethics are inevitable in the sense that it derives from our capacity for Empathy, with that being derived in turn from our genetic/biological package. This does not mean however that any particular rule of morality or ethics is itself inherent in this package, only that we will have ethical and moral rules as opposed to none.

See also: httpKohlberg

Last edited on Sunday, August 31, 2003 9:22:43 am.