The Law, Morality, & Ethics
Human experience is a jumble of beliefs, claims, rules, and social norms regarding how we all should live. Often times, these different requirements on us seem (and sometimes do) contradict each other, so — as anyone who hasn’t lived their life under a rock knows — it can often be hard to know what to do. To help better know what to do and when to do it, it’s important to detangle, to tease apart these various requirements and put them all in their appropriate category: as either law, morality, or ethics.
These three concepts (especially the latter two) are regularly lumped together and used interchangeably. But that’s not correct, and the misunderstanding of those terms only leads to the misunderstanding of the concepts they represent.
Laws are formal rules that determine how we must behave as people in a society. Laws sometimes tell us what to do (pay your taxes, sign up for selective service), but most often it seems to me that they tell us what we can’t do (don’t murder, don’t run the red light). Laws are written, upheld, and applied by the state for the purpose (at least, ideally) of creating a basic, decent, and enforceable standard of behavior.
Because the base intention of law is to create such a basic standard of behavior, and because of the complications that arise from state enforcement, law normally has a much more narrow focus than either morality or ethics. Law can be moral and immoral and is always vulnerable to ethical assessment. There are also many areas of life that law has nothing or little to say about that both morality and ethics have plenty to say. For example, the law is irrelevant when you hear a friend make a racist joke and are deciding whether or not to speak up; morality and ethics aren’t though, and you ideas about right and wrong, good and bad, will guide your actions.
Morality is an informal skeleton made of values, principles, beliefs, and traditions. Moralities attempt to provide answers to basic question, How should I live?. Most of the time (at least, in democracies) moralities writ large are not enforced by the state like law is, but there is often strong social pressure to conform to the dominant moral framework. Some people and groups bind themselves so tightly to a certain morality that they even consider questioning the moral code to be wrong.
For many of us, morality is inherited from our family, community, and/or culture. Not many people think of morality as something changeable (like law) so we don’t search around for a moral framework that more closely fits personal beliefs. The forming of our moral skeleton is an unconscious process.
This unconsciousness is what I believe truly sets morality apart from ethics: you can apply morality without thinking, it’s just a matter of habit really. You obey your moral code or follow moral instructions from people who you believe have moral authority, and that’s really all morality requires of you. For some people and groups, that’s enough — I’m certainly not going to say that a world full of habitually virtuous people is a bad thing. And, considering how complex and confusing the world is, the constancy and anchored-nature of morality telling us how to live is comforting. The Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates so the risk inherent in this though, when he lamented people living “an unexamined life”. Accepting a cookie-cutter, pre-baked answer to how we should live and what we should do, we run the risk of living our entire lives under the yoke of a moral system that deserves to be, either partly or fully, rejected.
Avoiding the risk of Socrates unexamined life is where ethics come in. While morality attempts to answer How should I live?, ethics is the branch of philosophy that attempts to address What should I do?. The distinction is subtle at first, but important. While morality tells you what to do with unconscious habits and social norms, thinking ethically is a process of reflection and shaping your decisions by your values, principles, and purpose (your telos, as Aristotle would say).
Your values (personal, subjective, arguable), principles (impersonal, objective, self-evident), and purpose give you sense of what is good, right, important, and substantial. They are your reference point for every conscious and self-aware decision you make. An ethical decision is one made with conscious reflection that projects your values, principles, and purpose into reality in the pursuit of a goal that is good, right, and meaningful.
Like I mentioned, it’s common to view law, morality, and ethics as more-or-less the same things. It’s convenient to think that so long as your abiding by the law and fulfilling your moral code that you’re also an ethical person. The truth though is that there’s so much more to ethics than that. Living ethically means you think seriously about issues the law either cannot or will not address. Living ethically means critically examining your moral system to see where it holds up and where it’s fragile.
Of course, ideally our ethics would provide at least the basic shape of our laws and moralities — when our conscious, ethical reflection causes our idea of just and unjust to change, the law should follow suit; likewise, morality that doesn’t adapt to new ethical insights on right and wrong is dead and useless. But we can only better our laws and morals if we have a robust and ready ability to handle questions of right and wrong, good and bad. Ethics are that ability.
To sum up: law, morality, and ethics are all critical parts of individual life, community, and society. Law is the baseline, the behavioral standards for a society. Morals are the customs and systems established by communities to determine how to live, and — practically speaking — ethics are the tool we use to apply law and morals in good and right ways based on particular situations. Law is omnipresent and amoral. Morality is communal and unconscious. Ethics are personal, situational, and character-based.
Lacking in any of these three areas causes problems, but in my opinion ethics is the practice the modern world lacks the most. It is my view that we as a society have outsourced our situational decision making to universal and rigid rules (morality), and that we have outsourced our morality to the law. This has had disastrous consequences in government, religious institutions, education, and almost every aspect of society I can think of. These are all avenues I want to explore more later on, but first I felt the need to differentiate (albeit briefly) these three concepts.