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In this lesson, learn the differences between ethics and morals. Consider how these terms can mean different things to philosophers compared with the general public and how values factor into the conversation.

A Question of Morality

Joan is a defense attorney and a mother of two kids. Her younger child, Ben, a high school student, tells her they’re talking about moral values in a class on religion this week. Ben says to her, ‘Mom, some of your clients have committed terrible crimes, but you defend them in court. Do you sometimes wonder if that’s immoral?’This sparks a conversation between Ben and his mom about ethics, morals, and values.

In this lesson, you’ll learn how different people distinguish between these three concepts.

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Ethics vs. Morals

Joan isn’t surprised by Ben’s question since adults sometimes ask her the same thing. She doesn’t get angry. She’s interested in how her son understands morals. So Joan asks him, ‘What do you think morals are, Ben?’Ben says, ‘Morals are what we should do. They’re our personal beliefs.

We can use morals to decide how to act.’Joan agrees, but she asks Ben if he’s also heard of ethics. She says that to be in her profession, she must adhere to the ethical code of conduct of the legal profession. This includes confidentiality for her clients and an obligation to defend them to the best of her ability.

Philosophical Definitions

A voice pipes up from the other side of the room. It’s Joan’s older child, Tara, who’s been listening to the conversation.

‘I don’t agree with how you distinguish between ethics and morals,’ she says. Tara is a philosophy major in college and immediately notices a difference in how her mom and Ben are talking about ethics and morals compared with what she understands from her classes.Tara points out, ‘Ethics is the branch of philosophy dealing with morality.’ In other words, ethics is the study of morality. ‘Morality,’ Tara says, ‘is understood differently in the field of philosophy than society in general.’Morals are understood as the ways people should act or how they believe they should act.

Morality can be either descriptive or prescriptive, depending on how one approaches the topic. Descriptive morality is focused on describing how people believe they should behave, without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with their actions. Prescriptive morality, on the other hand, is focused on prescribing how a person should behave.Tara says, ‘Ben, if you argue that mom should or should not defend her client, you are using an approach of prescriptive morality, telling her what she should do. If, on the other hand, you’re studying what she does and why she does it, you would be using an approach of descriptive morality.’

Values

Joan starts to understand the reason why Tara describes the terms ethics and morals differently than she does.

There are specific ways that they are understood in the academic field of philosophy, but there are also a great variety of different ways these terms have come to be understood by the general public. The terms simply have different meanings depending on who is discussing them.What many discussions about morals and ethics have in common is a focus on certain values. Tara points out, ‘Values are aspects of life that we consider important and worthwhile. For instance, both philosophers and the general public are concerned with values such as love, freedom, justice, fairness, happiness, and security, for instance. These are a few examples of possible values.

‘Joan immediately acknowledges that several values factor the most into her decisions. Justice and fairness are high on the list. It’s true that she defends people who have actually committed crimes, but she sees her role as an important part of a larger system of justice and fairness – one in which individuals are guaranteed a fair trial.Joan also values security and safety for herself, her family, and society, so her toughest moments on the job are when she finds it hard to defend a client she knows may hurt someone again. Choosing what to do can become complicated when two or more of our values come into conflict like this.

The field of ethics acknowledges tough moral decisions and aims to understand them better.

Lesson Summary

In academic terms, ethics is the branch of philosophy dealing with morality. Morals are the ways people should act or how they believe they should act. Morality can be either descriptive or prescriptive, depending on how one approaches the topic.

Descriptive morality is focused on describing how people make moral decisions, without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with their actions. Prescriptive morality, on the other hand, is focused on prescribing how a person should behave.Outside of the academic field of philosophy there are other ways of describing ethics and morals. What most approaches have in common, however, is that they take an interest in our values, or aspects of life that we consider important and worthwhile.

The field of ethics acknowledges tough moral decisions and aims to understand them better.

Learning Outcomes

Following this video lesson, you will be able to:

  • Define ethics, morals and values according to the field of philosophy
  • Explain how these philosophical definitions can differ from everyday descriptions of ethics and morals
  • Differentiate between descriptive and prescriptive morality

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