I present to you the following question for reflection: how would you define the essential difference between ethics and morals?
At first, the problem may seem straight forward. Many conventional interpretations often view ethics merely as a form of meta-morality, with the word ‘ethics’ being used interchangeably with ‘morals’ in order to point toward a morality writ large. (1) In some respects this interpretation is warranted. Indeed, the original Greek word for ethics (êthos) itself relates to the nature of moral character, and any faithful definition of ethics will give considerable impetus to its moral flavour. However, whilst such a definition is helpful as an initial starting place, it fails to treat both the scope of ethics and its particularity as a stand-alone subject. In fact, the subject of ethics as a self-contained branch of study is well attested to in the academic literature and represents one of the most dynamic and important areas of philosophical reflection within our own time.
My concern here, however, is to try and grasp the fundamental core of ethics. To put it another way: what are the unique elements of ethics that make it distinct in nature from morality? Leaving aside a time-consuming discussion of the various categories of ethical theory and practice, (2) it seems to me that what separates that which is purely ‘ethical’ from the punitive character of morality relates to the scope and grandiosity of the ethical vision. Morality, it is true, does make certain claims which can be said to be universal in nature. Most of us, for example, would acquiesce to the idea that murder is wrong. However, morality is also largely fluid and subject to the whims of cultural, political and societal shifts. It should not surprise us that at different points throughout history the moral customs and expectations within cultures have been in a state of flux and constant refinement. Ethics, by way of contrast, is about something far deeper than morality.
I would like to suggest that it is the job of ethics to both hold existing morality to account (in order to prevent it from becoming arbitrary and restrictive), as well as to offer us a general framework for developing moral actions and values that reflect that which is of ultimate ‘good.’ This task is of course highly complex and evolving, as testified to by the centuries of debate surrounding the nature of ethics and morality. I am certainly not informed enough to venture into this debate in any great detail, although I do believe that the best ethical approaches are ones based on something which have a transcendent quality and are deeply reflective the whole person, as opposed to a morality which can so easily compartmentalise actions and values into separate spheres.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a German theologian and philosopher who discussed these aspects of ethics at length. Concerned that historical treatments of ethics and morality had not done enough to unite and connect moral action with an underlying purpose or system, Schleiermacher’s ethical philosophy can be said to be an attempt to offer a vision of an all-encompassing ethical framework that is universal in nature. In a series of lecture notes compiled under the title Lectures on Philosophical Ethics, Schleiermacher develops his concept of an ethical reality that transcends the blandness of arbitrary morality and is instead based on a unity of desire and praxis. (3) This unity is derived from the centrality of feeling as a fundamental and shared element of human existence. Schleiermacher seeks to unite the disparate forces of human thought and action, and he finds their similarity in the realm of feeling and emotion. Both thought and action are derived from a set of feelings and emotional responses, and if these emotional drives can be aligned so that they are not competing with each other but are instead oriented toward the same goal then an internal unity of person is possible. On this point Schleiermacher writes that ‘absolute knowledge (the highest goal of ethics) is the expression of no opposition whatsoever, but only of absolute being, which is identical with it.’ (4) Here we can begin to grasp Schleiermacher’s commitment to a unity of spirit and body which forms the basic premise of all ethics. He continues to extrapolate this theme in a series of theses that gradually build to a sermon-like crescendo: ‘ethics must contain a form for all life’s occurrences which is able to express its highest character.’ (5) In other words, ethics represent the totality of life experiences, and there should be no segment of existence immune to ethical reflection and action.
Of course, there are glaring issues with Schleiermacher’s elevation of emotion and feeling as the grounding elements of ethics. Emotions are themselves liable to cognitive distortion, and the use of feelings as a framework for ethics needs to safeguard against its misuse. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that Schleiermacher was strongly reacting against various aspects of the enlightenment period that extolled the virtue of abstract theory and cold reason detached from feeling. In response, Schleiermacher sought to infuse ethics with an emotional content that represented our deepest humanity. (6) The most important point from the position of a uniquely Christian ethic, however, is the fact that Schleiermacher acknowledged throughout his life that the human soul is dependent on God for its fulfilment. For Schleiermacher, true ethics are possible only when we have received a second birth in Christ. (7) It is this second birth (the popular term is ‘born again’) which gives rise to a dramatic ethical reorientation of our lives. This core change allows us to develop a morality which is not centred on the fragmented duality between spirit and flesh, but on the unity of the individual with Christ and all of creation. When this occurs, ethics and morals are experienced less as a series of rules, prohibitions or other compulsive actions that may conflict with our desires but are instead an extension of the inner freedom we find through receiving God’s grace. Conceived in the liberty offered to us through Christ, ethics is then experienced as a unity within ourselves and others.
(1) See, for example, the definition of ethics in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Eds. John Deig & Robert Audi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
(2) Major strands of ethical theory include virtue, meta and applied ethics.
(3) See: Friedrich Schleiermacher. Lectures on Philosophical Ethics. Ed. Robert B. Louden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
(4) ibid, 5.
(5) ibid, 4.
(6) KGA I.I, 450
(7)Friedrich Schleiermacher. The Necessity of the New Birth: Selected Sermons of Schleiermacher. Trans. Mary Wilson (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1890), 89.