In our vocabulary, you’ll find that most people use the words, ethics and morality interchangeably, as if they were synonyms. But historically, that’s not been the case.
The English word “ethic” or “ethics” comes from the Greek word ethos. The word “morals” or “morality” comes from the word mores. The difference is that the ethos of a society or culture deals with its foundational philosophy, its concept of values, and its system of understanding how the world fits together. There is a philosophical value system that is the etho of every culture in the world. On the other hand, mores has to do with the customs, habits, and normal forms of behavior that are found within a given culture.
In the first instance, ethics is called a normative science; it’s the study of norms or standards by which things are measured or evaluated. Morality, on the other hand, is what we would call a descriptive science. A descriptive science is a method to describe the way things operate or behave. Ethics are concerned with the imperative and morality is concerned with the indicative. What do we mean by that? It means that ethics is concerned with “ought-ness,“ and morality is concerned with “is-ness.”
Ethics, or ethos, is normative and imperative. It deals with what someone ought to do. Morality describes what someone is actually doing. That’s a significant difference, particularly as we understand it in light of our Christian faith, and also in light of the fact that the two concepts are confused, merged, and blended in our contemporary understanding.
What has come out of the confusion of ethics and morality is the emergence of what I call “statistical morality.” This is where the normal or regular becomes the normative. Here’s how it works: to find out what is normal, we do a statistical survey, we take a poll, or we find out what people are actually doing. For example, suppose we find out that a majority of teenagers are using marijuana. We then come to the conclusion that at this point in history, it is normal for an adolescent in the American culture to indulge in the use of marijuana. If it is normal, we deem it to be good and right.
Ultimately, the science of ethics is concerned with what is right, and morality is concerned with what is accepted. In most societies, when something is accepted, it is judged to be right. But oftentimes, this provokes a crisis for the Christian. When the normal becomes the normative, when what is determines what ought to be, we may as Christians find ourselves swimming hard against the cultural current.
The Christian concept of ethics is on a collision course with much of what is being expressed as morality. This is because we do not determine right or wrong based on what everybody else is doing. For example, if we study the statistics, we will see that all men at one time or another lie. That doesn’t mean that all men lie all the time, but that all men have indulged in lying at some time or another. If we look at that statistically, we would say that one hundred percent of people indulge in dishonesty, and since it’s one hundred percent universal, we should come to the conclusion that it’s perfectly normal for human beings to tell lies. Not only normal, but perfectly human. If we want to be fully human, we should encourage ourselves in the direction of lying. Of course, that’s what we call a reductio ad absurdum argument, where we take something to its logical conclusion and show the folly of it. But that’s not what usually occurs in our culture. Such obvious problems in developing a statistical morality are often overlooked. The Bible says that we lean toward lying, and yet we are called to a higher standard. As Christians, the character of God supplies our ultimate ethos or ethic, the ultimate framework by which we discern what is right, good, and pleasing to Him.
This article originally appeared here and is used by permission.