The struggle to articulate right and wrong is common to all of us. What is the right thing to do? Why? Do I feel compelled to do the right thing, or something else? There’s a reason that this moral and ethical struggle features so prominently across the best science fiction. These questions are inherent in our struggle to understand our own motivations for action. Two terms I often hear used interchangeably are ethics and morals. I can’t count the number of times I have been discussing the concepts of right or wrong and someone has switched in midstream from talking about how the ethical thing to do is X and anything else is immoral.
Understanding the difference between morals and ethics is a critical skill to have, and there are some really great explorations into science fiction that showcase the difference here. Whether we’re talking Q from Star Trek, or good old Sheev, the justification of an action being a right or wrong is what makes a story resonate deeply within all of us.
When I first started trying to articulate why I believed something was right, and then to the next level of why a certain action was the right action, I found it pretty hard to explain. Even now, when people disagree on the right thing to do, they often talk right by each other. One person may be discussing the ethics of a situation, while the other person is trying to explain their moral belief as absolute truth. After a lot of research and thinking, I finally figured out a good way to describe these two concepts.
When discussing ethical implications, we are almost always concerned with action. Did somebody’s actions align with the ethical framework that we expected of them? The character Q from Star trek continually judges the crew of the Enterprise based on their actions. By putting Captain Picard in many different difficult situations (anyone remember the first time they heard of the Borg?) and then judging him based on what he does, Q is attempting to judge the ethics of Captain Picard. And what do you think of the ethics of Q’s actions?
There are two major schools of ethics, deontic and aretaic ethics, but ultimately both of these frameworks are used to inform a series of rules. Thus we see ethics most often expressed as an ethical code. Doctors will do no harm. Officers in the United States military will take an oath to support and defend. So when judging whether or not somebody acted ethically, we need merely look back at the ethical framework that should have governed their actions and discern whether or not they acted in accordance with that.
A more tricky concept is that of morality. Morals are incredibly personal. I recently wrote about the three different types of truths; objective truth, subject of truth, and personal truth. Morality falls deeply and firmly into the personal truth category.
People base their concept of their action as moral or immoral on their own internal beliefs of right and wrong. For an example of this in reality, one need only turn to the modern political landscape in the United States. Beliefs drive people to judge others actions as moral or immoral, and that drives them to either condemn those actions or support them. However ethics and morals are not necessarily cause and effect.
Let’s look at an example. Most people understand the concept of property; a person can own a thing. A child can own a bicycle, an adult can own a car or a house. The authority will look at is a shared understanding that people have a right to whatever the object they own is. The deed to the land, the bill of sale showing transfer of ownership, all of these are our general legal definitions of ownership. But what if someone believed that the only way to own something was if you could defend it from other people. this person may not recognize somebody else’s ownership of their vehicle if that person couldn’t keep them from stealing it. Now wouldn’t this person act both unethically and immorally? Not necessarily. What if that person was motivated by a different value, let’s say, the value of personal relationships. if somebody valued their personal relationship with their neighbor more than they valued their neighbor’s car, they might not try to steal their car even though they didn’t believe their neighbor truly owned it because they couldn’t defend it. In this example that person might act ethically, meaning they might not steal the car, but not because they shared any moral understanding of property with their neighbor.
This little difference between ethics and morality is an important one. We have to understand whether we are debating the morality of an action, or its ethical nature. I found this particularly useful when writing characters for fiction. For example take Dust; the approach that the two nations take to the employment of AI is grounded in their perception of ethics. Both Donovia and LT Christopherson’s nation believe they are doing the right thing, but they chave arrived at wildly different ethical codes that govern their actions. Is this based in fundamentally different morals? Maybe, but that’s for the reader to judge.
Morals and ethics are not limited in utility to fiction, of course; they are also powerful tools of understanding when attempting to come to consensus with peers in one’s professional life. If we can agree to the ethical framework that we all operate under, then the underlying morality that one uses to justify it is far less important. And thus far in my life, I found it much easier to agree with people on ethics than morality. What do you think; should you base your actions on the moral underlying principles you believe in, or should you focus more on the actions to find consensus in defining the “right” thing to do? For the second part in this series, read on.