Words and meanings interest me, and as a writer, often become important. Some words have vague meanings, others several different meanings, like a minute of time and in minute detail, and the exact definition needs clarification of the meaning desired in the writing. Every term I talk to my students about plagiarism, ethics, and morals. Many have a very imprecise concept of any of these terms, so I decided to explore it on my own. Perhaps then, I can help clarify it for myself and for them.
Ethics comes from the Greek word ethos, used by Aristotelian in his philosophical approach of ethos, logos, and pathos, which when used in arguments led to understanding and solutions of issues. Ethos is the behavioral guidelines set up by society, logos the logic involved, and pathos the appeal to the audiences’ compassion. Ethics became the rules for right and wrong within a society, the group’s law or code of conduct. If the Greeks were using ethos, logos, and pathos to discover the nuances of right and wrong, then these three properties must have become involved in human development long before then.
The French word etiquette, or the standard for polite interaction, also comes from this principle. What is interesting with the French word is the standards were vastly different for genders and classes within the society. An aristocratic man acted one way within the restrictions of his class for public deportment, but almost the opposite with the other class. This discrepancy in behavior has proven true within codified laws and the accepted behavior norms for other societies, too. Not so long ago the United States codified who was a citizen by race and gender. So, ethics can be a somewhat nebulous thing, but if someone breaks societal ethics, harsh punishment is often meted out to the guilty by society such as shunning, loss of reputation, name-calling, and worse. Ethical standards can also change. Science, medicine, differing interpretations of wording, and social change can affect ethics.
Have humans always used some ethical standards? I do not know, but I know every group that lives together must have some standard or endure constant chaos. No matter how unprincipled or brutal the society or what tyrannical rules the group’s leadership follows, it follows some kind of ethical standard. As mentioned above, understanding of right and wrong can change, and certain former ‘ethics’ can now be seen as evil. My guess is that even prehistoric societies had these rules, perhaps even the Neanderthals, who recent research has shown we're not so different from the Homo sapiens. After all, humans are known to act irresponsibly, spiteful, and hateful, and also known to steal, injure others, lie, and cheat. Sometimes this is an aberration in a person’s behavior due to stress or situational events; then again, some humans are just reprehensible individuals whether from the effects of nature or nurture. Societies need protection from such people, which ethical standards supposedly establish.
Today we have volumes of law codes and philosophical and religious principles guiding our ethical standards, which still change from country to country and society to society. While the general American population follows the law codes of the nation and state, some subgroups like gangs live by their own code. Individuals develop their own codes too, sometimes in opposition to society’s accepted norms. Media often subtly supports this undermining of known standards, which might have evolved from America’s myth for rugged individualism (big supposition). Yet, for instance, how often in a fictional crime or investigation procedural show has a main character broken the legal or ethical standards of his profession to deal out a supposedly more appropriate punishment? In NCIS, the main character Gibbs has his own ‘rules,’ even when those rules counter those of his job.
Morals, on the other hand, while often used interchangeably with ethics, have a different meaning. The word comes from the Latin moralis, or proper manners. Morals are more about personal choices, each individual deciding what ethics they believe and follow. I suspect family often influences morals, but so could personal psychological issues, or a person's social dynamics within their society, or someone's personal situation.
Can a sociopath be a moral person? Yes: They may have no empathy (pathos) for anyone, but they are capable of following an ethical standard, and choosing to follow those standards would make them moral. Can a moral person be unethical? Yes: When their morals in a situation oppose the ethical standards of their society. Can a person’s morals change? Yes: If a person moves into an ethically different society, or if their morals lead them to an emotional or intellectual conflict they must resolve, morals can transform. Morals can also be very situational, such as the white lie given to prevent a friend’s suffering.
That means that in the end, ethics are guidelines, morals are choices. So, in another example from NCIS, the character Ducky tells his assistant Jimmy, “The difference between morals and ethics is the ethical man knows he shouldn't cheat on his wife, whereas the moral man doesn't cheat on his wife.” Most of us, luckily, choose to follow our society’s ethical standards, our morals, however, are often challenged. As mentioned above, moral choices can also lead to societal punishment. In many instances, though, a more personal punishment of guilt affects the transgressor, which can be lifelong and every bit as prosecutorial as any other form of punishment. After all, aren't we often our own worst judge and jury?