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October 10, 2019

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In any discussion of ethics, the first issue is always nomenclature. Unfortunately, this is often the topic that receives the least attention. Frequently, those involved in the conversation conduct deep insightful discourses in which there is virtually no understanding exchanged, although the participants will all agree that the quality of the rhetoric was outstanding.

The problem with the words ethics and morals is that they are generally interchangeable. Admittedly there are subtleties in their use and connotation, but generally they both mean a system of standards for good and evil, right and wrong, and the condition of being in harmony or disharmony with them (ethical, unethical, moral, immoral).

In the study of ethics, a common set of definitions is needed so the key ones are summarized below.

Ethics is a system of rules for behavior. As such, every individual, group, or subgroup has ethics. It represents the individuals’ choices for their behavior, or for a group or subgroup, an agreed upon set of rules for behavior. Implied in this is that the individuals over themselves, or the group or subgroup over its members or those under its authority, have the right to enforce those rules. It could be stated “I don’t accept your authority or the correctness of your ethics”, but this assertion does not relieve that individual from the consequences and authority of that group.

Morals are an individual’s decision to behave in a manner that may or may not be in alignment with ethics. It is possible to have a set of ethics, but have chosen not to follow them. A classic example used to differentiate morals and ethics is “An ethical man knows he shouldn’t cheat on his wife, a moral man is faithful to her.”

Habits are the way we conduct ourselves on a daily basis. These behaviors are set by repetition. For example, one may choose to either act or perform in a fashion that is more or less repetitive. There are both good habits and bad habits that shape our behavior. These behaviors are often either unconscious or typified by a lack of thought prior to the action. So an individual can do something “wrong” and even though they acknowledge that it is “wrong”, having done it in the past simply does it again. In this literature, this behavior has many euphemisms such as jaded, a calloused soul, and conscience seared with a hot iron. All of these imply that in the act of repetition, a moral numbness sets in that relieves the individual of the consequences of personal ethics relative to the deed. Habits rather than ethics and morals become the controlling factor in our behavior.

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