Friday, 8 February 2013

A Non-Circular Definition of Morality

This much seems clear from an earlier article on the circular definition of morality (the article which you should start with, if you are coming in from reddit/r/philosophy looking for an answer the question "is it possible to have what the subject of this article refers to?"): morality and ethics are both about right in so much as ‘good’ and ‘right’ are synonymous.  What makes something right or wrong is not as clear, at least not immediately but will be the subject of a later article.  For now, I want to look at creating working definitions of morality and ethics in terms of right, acknowledging that further effort is required on understanding the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ (and thus ‘good’ and ‘bad’, I’ll avoid the loaded term ‘evil’).  Furthermore, I’ll clearly distinguish between the concepts of moral and ethical and introduce into the discussion an important third term – legal.

In terms of philosophy, ethics is the study of right and wrong.  Less stringently, ‘ethics’ describes the ethical structure in which one operates.  Similarly, morality describes the moral structure in which one operates.  If an act or notion is ethical or moral, it is ‘right’.  The two terms are distinguished by the fact that morals are considered to be universal whereas ethics are commonly acknowledged as being of restricted application.  Before giving examples to clarify this distinction, we must examine legality.

Strangely enough, legal considerations tend to transcend moral and ethical considerations.  There are laws against acts which are not considered immoral, such as taking one's dog for a walk in certain public parks.  On the other hand, some acts which are considered immoral by many people are not illegal, pre-marital sex for instance.  Generally however, once an act is illegal, talking about it as being immoral or unethical loses its power in everyday usage.  It seems rather absurd to say that it is immoral to commit manslaughter, let alone unethical.

It might seem tempting to use the concept of murder and killing to illustrate the distinction between unethical and immoral acts.  The problem is that while killing a person seems somewhat worse than stealing from them, the moral and ethical injunctions against killing are in truth weaker than the moral and ethical injunctions against stealing.  There is a strong injunction against ‘murder’ but murder is wrongful killing, killing which is not right and is therefore morally and ethically wrong by definition.  The justifications for killing are legion even if we clarify that we are only talking about the killing of other humans.  We kill in wars, we kill in self-defence, we kill the unborn, assisted suicide is permitted in some countries and, in some cases, we allow or condone our government's killing of other citizens as punishment for serious crimes.  Killing is often wrong, but by no means universally.

There is far more universal agreement that stealing things from other people is wrong.  (Note that stealing or ‘taking that which is not yours’ could also be argued to wrong by definition but the wording ‘wrongful taking’ does not ring true.)   There are situations in which people justify overriding the principle that stealing is wrong, for example by appeal to a greater need or by merely saying that they don’t care that it’s wrong.  What is not argued is that stealing is in actual fact wrong.  People will, on the other hand, argue that in some instances killing another person is entirely justified and thus not wrong.  We shall, therefore, resort to theft in order to illustrate the distinction between what is illegal, what is unethical and what is immoral.

If Tina were to run into a bank, brandish a weapon and successfully demand money, she would be committing a crime.  What she does is illegal, it’s unnecessary to ponder further on whether it is immoral or unethical because in some statute book somewhere is a law that states you are not allowed to rob banks.  Under most circumstances, it is ridiculous to talk of Tina’s actions as immoral or unethical.

Imagine however that Thomas is the manager of the bank and he manipulates a loophole in the legal system to transfer money from deceased estates into his own account.  What he does is not illegal, due to the legal loophole.  It is however unethical.

Tammy, on the other hand, is a somewhat less than devoted grandchild who only ever visits her ailing grandfather to get money.  Each time she visits she plays upon her grandfather’s poor memory by stating clearly that it is her birthday and taking the money which she is invariably offered.  The grandfather gives the money willingly, and even knowingly because his memory is not as bad as he makes out, so Tammy is not actually doing anything illegal.  What she does is immoral.

The reason why Thomas is unethical while Tammy is immoral is that Thomas is a bank manager.  Thomas is doing more than taking money which is not rightfully his; he is also abusing his position of trust as a bank manager to do so.  Furthermore, not all of us can be a bank manager.  The rule Thomas is breaking is ‘don’t abuse your position of trust to take things which don’t rightfully belong to you’.

Tammy, meanwhile, is immoral because she is breaking a rule which may be applied to all of us, namely ‘don’t take advantage of those who are weaker than you’.

If a rule is either written down or otherwise proclaimed by an accepted authority, such as in tribal or traditional law, then it is illegal to break it – morality and ethics may have been applied in the framing of that rule, but now that it is in place morality and ethics are pretty much redundant until someone proposes changing the rule.  If a rule is unwritten or does not carry the force of legality and applies only to a subset of society, particularly where that subset of society has some power over others, then breaking that rule is unethical.  When a rule is unwritten or does not carry the force of legality and is considered to apply to everyone, then breaking that rule is immoral.

In other words, in my definition of the terms:

What you do is illegal if there is a law which states that it is wrong.

What you do is unethical if what you do is wrong by virtue of the role you have or who you are.

What you do is immoral if what you do is wrong no matter who you are.

I’ll be using these meanings of the terms in later articles in which I look at what makes certain acts right and certain other acts wrong.


This article is one of a series.  It was preceded by Divine Command Theory and will be followed by The Siamese Emperor - Part 1.


  1. What is this trash? I should have stopped reading when you put "reddit" and "philosophy" closer than 3 words apart. This article does nothing to address the truly hard problem of the circular nature of morality. Your comparison of the morality of killing to stealing is ignorant and short sighted. Also legality is not a core issue relevant to the problem. This article is not insightful, helpful, nor thought provoking.

    1. Thank you for your interest and comment but I think you have misunderstood the intent and context of this article. I must accept some responsibility for that since the links to earlier articles were broken. I've fixed that now and you can go take a look at "Morally Circular Definitions" at your leisure.


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