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L. Neil Smith's
Number 532, August 16, 2009

"Their real object is to control you and deny you joy."

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The Dilemma: Ethical or Moral
by Ian Titter

Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

There are two concepts that often used interchangeably in English. They are 'moral' and 'ethical'.

Latin gave us 'moral' and associated terms from its 'mores' meaning customs, traditions and usual practices, whereas the Greeks gave us 'ethical' and associated terms from 'ethos' which related to fairness, right (as opposed to wrong), good, socially acceptable and so on.

Modern English usage commonly regards the terms as synonyms and interchangeable.

I do not.

For my part, I regard morality, morals and any terms derived from the Latin 'mores' as behaviour and values that support the society of the times. Morality is plastic, variable over time and changes as society changes. Morality is not transferable between societies. It is, in computer terms, a local variable.

Ethics, on the other hand, are based on principles which do not change over time. An ethic may be extended, elaborated or the understanding concerning it refined, but it, itself is rigid. Ethical behaviour promotes and extends human survival (and will by extension govern human interaction with sovereign self-aware artificial intelligencesi and any of the aliens suggested by science fiction). Ethics therefore, are global variables in computer-speak.

Why then, do people use them interchangeably?

I think there are two main reasons.

The first is ignorance. Many people don't really know the origins of the words they use, they don't care to find out and they are not particularly concerned about precision. Laziness and carelessness are contributing factors.

The other reason they get mixed up is deliberate. There is a general group or class of people in the world who stand to gain by devaluing the use of ethical standards by promoting morality as equivalent. Ethics are firm. They are right or wrong regardless. Morals are flexible. They allow us to do things that we want because we want and because we can find a lot of fellow travellers going our way. There is a general perception in the world today that ethics are negatives. They define what the limits of our actions are and prevent us from doing as we like.

It is the old comparison between the short-term and the long term. Morality is short-term. Ethics are long-term. Morality is often like immediate gratification with a consequent long-term debt, and ethics by comparison resemble delayed gratification with no debt. Ethical behaviour is achieved by analysis of the situation, the application of principles and then following the course they indicate. Here we remember that our Ends are entangled with our Means.

Morals only require conformity to current or common practice. Follow the rules and maintain accepted standards. The more shapeless the accepted standards are the easier it is to adopt a set that suits you. Today the highest morality seems to be 'Don't Get Caught'.

Every criminal in prison, or out of it , has a morality that justifies his or her actions. Thieves look down on rapists and murderers, rapists look down on thieves, most career criminals dismiss the amateurs and everyone looks down on paedophiles (except the paedophiles, who regard themselves as better people than the thieves and murderers). Criminals as a class regard what they do as more honest than society in general, which they regard as hypocritical, ie: society does secretly, or wants to do, what they have the courage to do openly.

Politicians, social workers, bureaucrats, concentration camp guards, lawyers, corporate executives and many of this worlds activists may be highly moral people. Examining their actions in ethical terms however would often call much of what they do into question. It is therefore to their benefit to confuse the issue where morality and ethics are considered.

Attitudes to sex, marriage, divorce, child custody, the status of women and other matters of common concern can vary a great deal around the world and have changed a great deal in recent memory. We can therefore categorise most of it under the term 'Morality'. The ethical approach to these issues eliminates the variations by considering the interests of the people involved as self-governing individuals and removing coercion, tradition , custom and the application of privilege from disputes.

Libertarians regard the Zero Aggression Principle as a core belief of their value system. It is basically a form of 'The Golden Rule' which says "Treat other people as you want them to treat you". This then, is an ethical position because it doesn't change over time.

Other libertarian principles define crime as an offence against the personal sovereignty of an individual. There are no victimless crimes. Voluntary transactions between consenting individuals are not crimes either.

Children are their own persons. Parents function as their trustees inversely in accord with the child's capacity to manage their own personal sovereignty. The task of an ethical parent is therefore to develop the growth and independence of their children.

The proper Libertarian stance is inherently ethical. It makes no concessions to morality, expedience, compromise or subjection to the will of some outside authority. Proper Libertarians are their own authority.

Anyone who wants to discuss 'situational ethics', 'business ethics' or any other kind of limited aspect of ethics is trying to devalue ethical discourse and mix in morality. We ought to correct such people and when they use these terms say, "Don't you mean 'situational morality', 'business morality' or 'whatever morality' instead." And when they ask what the difference is we can explain.

Part of the appeal of Libertarian Anarchist Agorist thought is its simple ethical base. Promoting it as a gold standard compared to the base-metal alloys of current political platforms out in the world welfare state should achieve better results over time than any message that adulterates it to make is more in line with society at present. Libertarians want to improve the world not be forever subject to its current standard of operation.

Could we point this out to the "Pragmatists" in the Libertarian Party?

Principles outlast power because principles are eternal, power ephemeral. Let's keep our principles.


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