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The Ethics of Morals

Kevin Baldeosingh • 10 December 1998 • 840 words

"The difference between morals and ethics is essentially one of action. Ethics is defined as 'the science of morals.' It is so defined because morals have no science - i.e. morality cannot be proven to be 'good' by either logic or evidence."

Trinidad has too much morality. Every time some untoward incident occurs, especially when it involves young people, you will hear cries about the need to "restore moral values", to "return to morality", to "rebuild the society's moral base" and so on. The "re", of course, implies that there is some ethos of morality that existed in T&T's past which we have somehow lost.

I don't have a clue what the people who make these suggestions are talking about. I do know that their picture of the past is far too rosy to be true. There is absolutely nothing in our social history to suggest that Trinidadians and Tobagonians were more moral thirty, fifty or a hundred years ago than they are today. People in the past may have had more etiquette - but even that was just a reflection of their greater hypocrisy as compared to young people today.

What we really need in this country is fewer morals and more ethics. The two, of course, are not synonymous, but the distinction most people seem to make is a superficial one. "Morals" are generally used to refer to religion and "ethics" to political or professional conduct. Broadly speaking, this is correct. Yet, whenever a pertinent issue arises, you find people using moral reasons to justify ethical issues.

Dr. Anand Chatoorgoon, for example, said he prayed to Sai Baba before unplugging Joseph Dwarika. That was his moral defence. But deities, whether temporal or otherwise, generally tell people exactly what they want to hear and no ethical consequences resulted from Chatoorgoon's prayer to "the great one." In fact, Chatoorgoon completely avoided his ethical responsibility to inform the family of his decision. This is hardly surprising: informing the family was the only truly difficult part of his task.

Similarly, Dr. Courtenay Bartholomew, an AIDS researcher and staunch Catholic, thinks distributing condoms to young people (the age group with the highest infection rate) is an "abominable proposal" and that educating them about safe sex is not really a good idea. Dr. Bartholomew's ethical responsibilities as a prominent local scientist obviously take a back seat to his moral responsibilities as a Catholic - in fact, ethics don't even seem to be along for the drive.

The difference between morals and ethics is essentially one of action. Ethics is defined as "the science of morals." It is so defined because morals have no science - i.e. morality cannot be proven to be "good" by either logic or evidence. The word "good" itself is problematical, since objective values do not actually exist. But, shelving that rather complex issue, a moral principle is something considered to be good in itself; the goodness of an ethical principle, on the other hand, depends on its effects.

This latter definition is obviously unsatisfactory, since it means an action can never be truly judged as ethical until its effects are seen. But, over time, ethics are provable and, more importantly, pragmatic. The media, for instance, have an ethical responsibility to present facts accurately. There is nothing moral about this: it is eminently practical since, if a newspaper does not have the confidence of the reading public, it will not sell. That is why The Rising Sun is doomed to failure.

However, all ethical principles are underlain by moral axioms. In journalism, the axioms are that there is some inherent good in truth and free speech - assumptions that are largely unprovable. But the unprovability of its axioms does not necessarily reduce the power of a system or an institution. In geometry, for example, Euclid's axioms must be accepted as givens; in mathematics, Godel's First Theorem shows that any consistent system of logic contains formulae that are unprovable within the system; and even in science, the fundamental principle of induction (inferring a general law from particular instances) was shown by the philosopher David Hume to be purely an assumption.

Ethics, however, is far more complicated than mathematics or science. It impacts on every aspect of human behaviour, from sex to social organization. The problem in societies like ours is that morals too often substitute for ethics. Despite all proof to the contrary, most people assume that a person who claims moral belief will be ethically above-board. The man who stole one million dollars from the Presbyterian church would never have been able to do it so easily if he wasn't a church elder. And that is the problem: people who consider themselves morally superior often behave as though they are above secular ethical obligations.

What we need in this place, therefore, is a lot less morality. It is no use preaching to young people about moral values, when it is quite clear to them that morality has no discernible effect on how adults behave. If you want to preach, preach ethics: that a right action must be demonstrably right. Such an ethos, if taught from childhood, would encourage people to think carefully before making personal and social decisions. Who knows? It might even stop politicians making empty promises of transparency, meritocracy, and adoption.

Copyright © • Kevin Baldeosingh • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/baldeosinghPage Top