The Ethical Man vs. the Moral Man
What’s the difference between an ethical person and a moral person? The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) seems to show that, from the earliest times, the words had similar but distinct meanings. So, let’s begin by defining terms:
- Ethics: “Ethic” as a noun has the senses “The science of morals” and “A scheme of moral science”, and these are treated as parts (a) and (b) of a single meaning. The earliest citation is from 1387. In the plural, it divides into a number of meanings. The sense of “The science of morals; the department of study concerned with the principles of human duty” dates from 1602. The sense of “The moral principles or system of a particular leader or school of thought” dates from 1651.
- Morality: “Morality” in the sense of “The doctrine or system concerned with conduct or duty; moral science” dates from 1449. In the sense of “Moral conduct; usually, good moral conduct; behavior conformed to the moral law; moral virtue” it dates to 1609. And finally, “morals” in the sense of “Moral habits or conduct; habits of life in regard to right and wrong conduct” dates to 1613. And the sense of “Moral science; moral doctrine; ethics” is said now to be rare, but dates at least as far back as 1651.
Notice that ethics is a theory or set of principles. It is a system or science of values that reside in the mind. Morality is concerned not so much with science and theory but with actual conduct and action. Therefore, the ethical man may know what is right, but the moral man can be counted on to do what is right.
On the TV Show NCIS, the character of Dr. Mallard gives a good example of this idea: “The ethical man knows he shouldn’t cheat on his wife, whereas the moral man actually wouldn’t.”
Knowledge means relatively little when it comes to determining character. It’s the man’s behavior, his actions over time that demonstrates and differentiates a moral man from a lesser individual. We’ve all heard the person who declares, “I know I shouldn’t smoke” while happily puffing away on a cigarette. As an old mentor of mine used to say, “To merely know and not do is not to know.”
The question we must ask ourselves is: Am I ethical or moral? How to those who know us best see us? In the Book of James we read:” If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” – James 4:17 NIV
If we know what is right, yet do not do what is right, we live in sin. We need to reflect on the fact that Jesus died and rose again to pay for our sins and give us the gift of eternal life. Our conduct demonstrates our gratitude to God for His great gift.
In contemporary society, we all face the struggle between ethics and morals. Abortion is legal and therefore medically ethical; we know it to be wholly immoral. Society advocates ideas about morality that impact each of our lives, even if indirectly through social pressures or legal discrimination.
In the case of homosexuality, many who acknowledge it is morally wrong also believe it is unethical to discriminate legally against a group of people by disallowing them the same rights afforded heterosexuals. This is a plain example of ethics and morals at battle. They are central issues as we strive to overcome the constant pull of a fallen world. We’re called to be doers and not merely hearers of the word. Fortunately, we have help that sustains. Isaiah 41:10 encourages us: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you. Surely I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
In a society that is increasingly hostile to the truth of scripture, men will have to stand for what is moral rather than be swayed by what the world deems ethical. This will not be an easy stance to take, but it will be one that will separate the men from the proverbial boys.