Ethics and Morals not Always in Lockstep

At first examination, ethics and morals seem to be the same concept. If something is not moral, it is not ethical. A closer examination reveals that something immoral can actually be the ethical thing to do. The reason is that morals and ethics originate with two different concepts.

Morals are programmed into us through our world view. They generally stem back to some absolute rule we learned as a child. Two familiar moral concepts are that it is wrong to take something that does not belong to you (to steal) and it is wrong to kill another person.

Ethics originate from an analysis of what is the right thing to do in a given circumstance. Therefore, we can conjure up examples of when it is ethical to take something that does not belong to you.

For an example, consider the busboy who steals food from the plates of diners after they are done with their meals. He is using the food to feed his starving parents. If he does not take the food, it will be flushed down the disposal and become fish food. He is taking something that does not belong to him, which is immoral, but whether it is ethical or not is a different question.

Likewise, we can find examples of when it is ethical to kill someone even though it is not moral. For example, if we are being attacked by another person who is intent on killing us, if we kill that person, it is self defence – therefore it is ethical.

Of course, in most cases what is immoral is also unethical, but we do need to provide flexibility in this rule because there can be exceptions.

Adapted from the book “Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind” by Robert Whipple.

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