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Another way to look at the distinction is to say that morals are accepted from an authority (cultural, religious, etc.), while ethics are accepted because they follow from personally-accepted principles. For example, if one accepts the authority of a religion, and that religion forbids stealing, then stealing would be immoral. An ethical view might be based on an idea of personal property that should not be taken without social consent (like a court order). Stealing would directly contradict that view. On the other hand, if one has different basic principles that didn't recognize an item as "property", a similar action might not be unethical. (Helping a slave escape would be ethical if one believes people should not be owned as property.)

Professional and "ethical" codes of conduct are an interesting case--they are very similar to morality in that they are often accepted and adhered to in a moral sense. For example, consider a doctor who follows a professional code of ethics, including a strong requirement to not violate the patient's privacy. The doctor discovers that a patient has a genetic/inherited disease that is treatable, and that the patient has siblings who are likely to have the same disease. The patient asks the doctor not to tell anyone (including the siblings) about the disease. The interesting question is not so much what the doctor should do, but how the doctor should come to a decision. Should the doctor follow the consensus of the professional community, even if it conflicts with personal ethics? Would it matter if the rest of the community was united or divided over the question?

A formal way of distinguishing them is to define ethics as 'those rules which it is rational for a group to possess so as to govern its external relations with other entities' and define morals as 'those rules which it is rational for a group to possess so as to govern its internal relations between members'. These definitions are consistent with the usage of professional ethics (of a profession with regards to clients, patients, et cetera) versus human morality (how one human should behave with respect to another). And keeping these examples in mind, it simply isn't correct that ethics does not derive from an authority (eg, a doctor's association) or that morality does not come from personally accepted principle. It also shows that professional ethics have nothing to do with the consensus or division in the group involved.

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Last edited February 13, 2001 4:37 pm by cobrand.bomis.com (diff)