Last week i wrote on sin, you can find that post here. This week i would like to consider morals and ethics. How are they different? How are they the same? Do i have the right to force my morals or ethics on others? If Mitt the Mormon missionary mused on his Mormon morals, would they be mere Mormon musing of a Massachusite monarch? (Also, is that joke now dated?)
Morals and ethics differ in their source material. Morals are based on a set of beliefs, like a religion. Ethics are based on a philosophy which is in turn based on a set of beliefs. In the end all ethics are a form or morality, but not all morality qualifies as ethics. This is analogous to how all politicians are tiny bloodsucking animals, but not all tiny bloodsucking animals are politicians. (Also; All french are cowards but not all cowards are french, all Catholics breed like rabbits but not all rabbits are Catholic (some are Jewish), you get the idea.) Morals and ethics both find their foundations in a belief set. For morals this belief set could be divine revelation, or alien transmissions, or the deluded ravings of a mad man living in a cave. These are not all equal in validity, but they are all sufficient for the foundation of a moral code. Ethics must find their footing in a person's foundational assumptions, those basic beliefs that inform our worldview, that is, the way we view the world.
Something is subjective if it only applies to a singular individual or group. Something is objective if it applies to everyone. An example most of us can relate to is temperature. A guy would generally find 72 degrees (22.2C) to be a little on the warm side. If a member of the opposite gender, your mom, sister, or girlfriend, walks into the room she will ask why it is so cold in here. Our perception of 72 degrees is subjective because it depends on the person; be it warm, cold or just right. However, it is an objective fact that the room is indeed 72 degrees.
Because morality is based on an individual's beliefs, there is such thing as subjective morality. However, most morality is objective. It would be objectively wrong for me to hunt down that person who cut me off in traffic the other day and burn her house down. There is no real doubt here. (sadly) I would say there is nothing objectively wrong with consuming alcohol, so long as it is done in moderation. A cold Yuengling after a hard day's work (or while watching anime on Hulu) is a very nice thing. However i have friends who think all alcohol is of the devil and it is a sin to consume any. (They would like me to give it up, but since i'm already going to hell for being Catholic, i don't see why i should surrender my Rum and Cokes.) For the sake of argument, we are gong to say i'm right and alcohol is a good thing; it's not wrong for me and thus not objectively wrong. However, it would be wrong for them to consume alcohol as it would be a violation of conscience. Thus we have subjective morality. It is morally acceptable for me to drink a Long Island Ice Tea but would be morally wrong for my puritanical Baptist friends.
Ethics are never subjective. They are objective by their very nature. I can be right in my ethical claims and i can be wrong in my ethical claims, but there are no ethical claims which apply only to me. In fact, the absolute nature of ethics allows us to distinguish subjective morality from objective morality. Burning down that lady's home would be ethically wrong. This is how i know it is objective morality. If we can back up our morality with ethics then it is objective morality, universal truth. Subjective morality can have no ethical footing.
This brings us to our core concept, politics. The role of government in Catholic thought is two fold, according Pope Pius XII, "to safeguard the inviolable
rights of the human person, and to facilitate the performance of his duties, is
the principal duty of every public authority." The government has the authority and obligation to defend basic human rights. In addition, as every right correspondes to a duty, the government can and should enforce the performance of those duties.
The role of morals in politics seems simple. Subjective morality has no place in the public sphere. Just as you are under no duty to obey my morality and i have no right to force my morality upon you. Most everyone believes their morality is of the objective type. Even people who say all morality is subjective will admit that murder is universally wrong, i.e. objective. I often hear people say it is wrong to force your morality on others, thus making a claim on universal, objective morality. In practice we all believe our own morals are objective, otherwise we wouldn't hold to them. However, who is to say who is right? Morals should not be legislated as it is simply presumption to assert my morality as superior to yours. I can and should strive to convert you to my way of thinking, and you should do the same for me, but i cannot and should not use the government as a way to force my beliefs on you.
Ethics are the complete opposite. Ethics inform us of our human rights and of our duties. Ethics tell us what we cannot do and what we must do. They are those universal truths for which government exists. It is not only acceptable that the government enforce ethics, the government fails in its very purpose when it fails to do so. I can make a moral argument against homosexual activity, but i cannot make an ethical argument against homosexual activity. Who's rights are being violated? What duty is being ignored? I must therefor conclude that it would be inappropriate for the government to legislate against homosexual acts. The truth is, i cannot make a half decent moral argument against abortion. However, ethics tells us that the right to life is the most foundational of all rights and we have a duty to defend human life no matter the age or location of the person. The ethical arguments against abortion are thoroughly sufficient to merit a universal ban.
My arguments against contraception are moral arguments, based in my religious beliefs. It would be inappropriate for me to try and ban contraception with the arguments i currently posses. However, the opposite is also true. Just as it would be wrong for Catholics to force our views of contraception on others, it would be equally wrong for them to force their views on us. For example, by forcing us to purchase contraception for them, directly or indirectly. It is ethically wrong to force people to act contrary to their own moral beliefs. Each one of us has a right to conscience and to violate this right is a serious abuse of government authority.
Human beings are political creatures by nature. Whenever we form groups we form ways of governing those groups. Even among a group of friends they will have a mode of decision making. As political creatures it is important for us to understand the role of government. We must understand why it is in place, what it can and cannot legislate. When the founding fathers put forth the declaration of independence they also put forth three ethical claims; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and
the pursuit of Happiness. At times we are called upon to lay down our lives to secure the liberty of another. At times we are called to lay down our liberty for the happiness of another. We can never enslave another for the sake of our own happiness. We can never kill another for the sake of our own liberty.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That
whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is
the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new
Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its
powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their
Safety and Happiness.