Don't let the gloves intimidate you; the gloves are off.

[Home]  [Sutta Indexes]  [Glossology]  [Site Sub-Sections]


[ Ethical Culture and Self Discipline ]

Ethics or Morality

What is the difference between Ethics and Morality?

Morality is based on the common, accepted behavior of the times,
Ethics is based on perceptions of fundamental reality.

Morals are rules and customs of behavior that are determined to be right based on "norms"; behavior accepted by the majority in a society. Morals may be rational and they may be irrational.

Ethics are rules of behavior that are determined based on what is believed to be a rational understanding of reality. Ethics are always rational, relative to that understanding.

In the USA, today (Saturday, March 08, 2003 6:32 AM), where there is any standard at all, it is a moral standard, and it is dominated by the Christian ethic.

For Buddhists who follow the Pali, the standard for a rational system of ethics is an understanding of Kamma which teaches that the individual is responsible for his intentions, deeds of thought and word, and deeds of body, and that those deeds cause his subjective experience of pain and pleasure.

There is no punishment and no reward, there is only consequence.

Deeds done with the intent to cause pain, result in the return of pain to the individual, deeds done with the intent to cause pleasure result in the return of pleasure to the individual.

The return is not one-for-one, but hugely magnified. The ethics that follows from this perceived mechanism of action of reality comes in the form of "good advice": "Dont do deeds of thought and word or deeds if body that proceed from the intent to cause pain."

So, for example, the moral view is that stealing is bad, because the majority of people hold it to be bad and to be against goodness, and to be contrary to their religious beliefs and subject to punishments both here and in the world beyond.

The ethical view, without reference to kamma, is that stealing is bad because it creates a conflict in the mind with those who hold moral views that stealing is bad; it engenders fear that one will be caught and punished; it often results in being caught and punished; one's fellow-men hold one in bad repute here and now; it causes others to fear for the safety of their possessions; it causes others the pain of loss of their possessions; there is the knowledge that if one steals one's self, then one has allowed that others may steal also and that consequently one's own possessions are vulnerable to theft without consequences, and there is, from that, fear and anxiety and a perpetual need to guard over what is one's own; and the intelligent see that the thief has played a one-sided game, not covering his ass against the possibility that morality has some grounds and that there is holy retribution hereafter.




Case Study

This is a re-write to transform a real event into a generic one; it is a case that comes up in the real world quite frequently.

An individual ordered a $23 item on line and received an item worth $300 by mistake. This individual inquired on a public forum as to what the others thought he should do and indicated that his inclination was to keep the item and say nothing.

Several individuals responded by encouraging the fellow to keep the item. Because this individual had asked for advice about the matter I stepped in with this:

Doesn't look like anyone is going to try and save you from yourself here, and that is what you need. Return the item. That is the ethical thing to do. That doesn't mean you cannot mention your expenses connected with the mixup at the same time. I would be surprised if they didn't make you some kind of offer.
Otherwise, consider that you have more or less publicly confessed to intent to commit a felony, and whether or not they take action, they could.

This individual responded to all the advice received with hostility and outrage that his morality was being judged.

"I don't want people coming in and judging why I did not return the thing.[1] It is just my decision. I will think about it and if I decide I want to send it back to them I will. I don't think anyone here has the right to be judging my decision.[2] I like [name of company where the item was purchased] and their business style. That is the only reason I am considering giving it back. If it was another company that had bad practices I would not even give it a second thought."

The discussion that followed included input from others (after the first exchange, a number of others, arguing the Christian, moral position entered the discussion) and the discussion of the distinction between ethics and morality included in this article. In the end, this individual decided to return the item, but not because of the logic of this argument but because of peer pressure. The company compensated the individual for his extra effort by giving him a number of gifts — also possibly because of peer pressure, as the owner of the establishment from which this fellow had purchsed the item, was monitoring the discussion.




The danger, for Buddhists, in jumping in to issues like this here today is twofold as I see it:

On the one hand one may commit the error of using the Pali as a club to vent one's anger and show one's superiority over others, and this is an incorrect use of the Dhamma.

On the other hand one may fall into a "savior" mode and feel there is a desperate need to set others straight. This would be acting from an incomplete understanding of the Dhamma and would most likely result in errors in one's arguments.
This is a system in which the destiny of others is a matter of indifference.
In helping others we should act out of compassion for others, not a desire to save them.
This means: One has the answer to a certain question, one sees the need in another for this answer to avoid a painful destiny, one provides the answer if:
1. there is a possibility that the answer will be understood;
2. if there is the understanding in one's self that one is able to teach the answer; and this, whether or not it is a matter of some trouble and disagreeableness in either one's self or another.
If items 1 and 2 are not present, then one abstains from the effort with the thought: "Why make trouble uselessly for myself and others?"


[1] He might have thought of that before he asked for advice!
Others who responded may have been judging him, I was not; I was judging the deed. I was motivated by the reasonable conclusion from his speaking about the subject that he was actually confused as to what to do and was asking for help in determining the best course of action. On the other hand, subsequent to his hostile reaction, there is enough information to make a judgment:
There are these three signs of a fool:
foolish bodily deeds,
foolish words and
foolish imaginings.
Were there not these three signs of a fool, how could the intelligent judge of a person:
This person is a fool, no real person."

[2] In it's sense of having the ability to do a thing whether or not it is allowed by rules or customs, everyone has the "right" to judge anything period. But this is not to say that judging is not sometimes or even often a dangerous and presumptious proposition! Without the right to judge there could be no personal growth, but this is not what people who say this really mean.
For the Pali method of judging what is right, see: How to Judge from Personal Experience.)
Having the "right" really means that, standing in the position of the correct thing, one judges the correctness of something.
What it is understood to mean is that one is in some position which has been designated by way of the rule, "might is right," as having the authority to make such judgments. It is largely because of the abuse of the idea of "right" that people object to having their behavior judged.




See also: DhammaTalk: Thinking in Ethical Terms

[ DhammaTalk Contents ]

Copyright Statement