Defining Democracy: The Important Distinction Between “Morality” and “Ethics”

Hillary Clinton Ethics and Morality
Hillary Clinton formally accepts the Democratic Party’s nomination for President on the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. (A. Shaker/VOA)

Public servants must be able to construct a firewall between their deeply-held private beliefs and their ideas about public policy.

By Logan Williams

In October 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton came under fire for the content of a paid speech that she had given, the original draft of which had been attained and released by WikiLeaks. In this speech, Hillary Clinton stated to the Multi-Family Housing Council, that “you need both a public and a private position” in political dealings.

The result of this leak was that Hillary Clinton was unfairly subjected to vituperation by the press, the voters, and then Republican candidate Donald Trump, such as when she was asked the plainly belittling question during the second presidential debate: “Is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues?” This line of question – buoyed by Donald Trump’s unjustified and misogynistic characterizations of Clinton – helped to confirm some voters’ pre-established perceptions of Hillary Clinton as a disingenuous, untrustworthy, shrew.

Ohio Governor John Kasich, just a few months before, had received similar harsh treatment for his attempts to differentiate between his privately-held, Judeo-Christian views of marriage, and his beliefs about the proper role of government.

What these two cases – and many others throughout recent history – reveal, is a deep-seated misunderstanding of the nature of liberal democracy, within the United States’ polity. Thus, this article will explore a sacrosanct concept that is key to the function of any form of liberal or democratic governance: the distinction between morality and ethics.

Human beings are motivated entirely by their own self-interest, however, over the course of generations or centuries – and in some cases, millennia – the methods by which this self-interest manifests or expresses itself, have been significantly altered as societies and their citizens have been inculcated with subjective notions of “right” and “wrong.” These standards are what enable a community to exist, they allow a society to transform into a polity. Thus, it is essential that scholars and policymakers be reminded of widely agreed-upon understandings of the concepts relating to the valuation of human behavior, in particular, due to this field of philosophy’s relevance within failing democracies.

Harold Newton Lee – Harvard-educated ethicist, professor of philosophy at Tulane University, renowned civil rights activist in Louisiana, and one of the key modern American philosophers of the early twentieth century – defines“morals” as the field of philosophy dedicated to considering “a piece of conduct or human action” and evaluating that conduct “in terms of its aims or results,” for the purpose of determining that conduct’s “good-ness.”

In simpler words, if a person is described as a “moralist,” as Harold N. Lee states, it simply means that they are preoccupied with determining the bounds of “right” conduct and constraining their behavior within those limits.

Harold Newton Lee describes “morality” as a “systematic sanction of conduct;” these systems, what H.N. Lee calls “moralities,” he defines as “human constructions within the broad field of morals, that is, [moralities] are systems of standardized evaluation of conduct. In plain terms, systems of morality are simply a collection of standards of conduct based upon human notions of righteousness, often based upon the habits of a particular community.

It is important to note the individualistic nature of morality, essentially standards of conduct which can be idiosyncratic to a particular person or group of people. Thus, when a person is described as “moral” or as “having morals” – although these descriptors have been erroneously used to mean the same thing as the term “moralist” – it simply means that their behavior aligns particularly well with the standards set by a particular system of morality’s rules — e.g. Judeo-Christian morality.

While the language of morality is preoccupied with concepts of “right” and “wrong,” “ethics,” by its very nature, is a vastly different field which is intent upon discovering a higher “Good.” Harold Newton Lee defines “ethics” as a “philosophical science [that] is disinterested in any particular system of morality” and one that “formulates a doctrine of the highest good.” Ethics has no notions of “right” and “wrong,” and thus, its intent is not to constrain behavior, but rather to formulate philosophical principles that serve as standards of reference to which particular systems of morality can be juxtaposed.

This distinction between the language of “morality” and that of “ethics” is accentuated by reviewing their negatives. In common English, there are two words, relating to the field of morals, which are commonly used to express the view that someone is a “bad” person or that they have committed a “bad” act: “immoral” and “amoral.” Immoral is the opposite of moral, as in, someone who has behaved in an immoral fashion has conducted themselves in a manner that is non-compliant with a particular code of morality — e.g. religious doctrine. Amoral is the opposite of “moralist,” as in, someone who ascribes to no codes of morality and has no interest in defining or constraining his behavior on the basis of notions of “right” and “wrong.” There is, however, only one word relevant to the field of ethics, expressing a similar sentiment: “unethical.” There is no equivalent to the word “amoral” in the field of ethics; that is because while morality speaks to an individual’s choice of code, or the choice not to ascribe to a moral code, “ethics” speaks to a collection of higher-order values which characterize a society. Every society has a collection of specific philosophical values, regardless of whether these values are discrete and written – such as the United States’ Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights – or primarily notional. Individual citizens of a political community are not required to constrain their behavior according to these principles, nor do members of the community choose whether or not to ascribe to these ethics, therefore, a term cannot exist which expresses the absence of ethical values. Thus, “unethical,” simply means that an individual’s behavior does not align with the perceived ethical principles of a community.

To summarize this essential distinction: Morals are the rules with which we choose to govern ourselves, and ethics are the higher-order principles which guide our construction of society. Ethics are the shared values which are an indispensable part of transforming a society into a community, a polity, or a nation.

Why does this distinction matter; why is it particularly prescient in this historical moment? The person who begins to conflate their personal morality with the ethics of a society, tears at the fabric of the political community; this person not only believes that his fellow citizens should be forcibly constrained to compliance with his chosen system of morality, but also that society should be re-constructed to permanently institutionalize that system of morality. This mindset is inimical to liberalism or democratic governance, because it fears diversity and loathes discourse, and it attacks the very notions of individualism and popular sovereignty which underpin democracy. Thus, the conflation of morals and ethics may be the most important warning sign of conventional totalitarianism — if not a working definition of totalitarianism, itself.

Unfortunately, the harsh criticism that Governor John Kasich and other candidates in the 2016 presidential election endured, demonstrates that this confusion of morality and ethics is widespread amongst American voters. This muddling of a very distinct concept has catalyzed much of the extremism and polarization that characterizes the United States’ domestic political scene. Political candidates should be lauded for recognizing that they cannot forcibly impose their personal way of life upon an entire nation, instead, they are vituperated and called “two-faced.” Unfortunately, the existence of any sort of political community hinges upon the re-emphasizing of the concept of “ethics” as shared and communal values, otherwise, this nation will continue to fragment irreparably along deep-seated ethno-religious cleavages.

About the Author

Logan Williams is a first-generation college student at the University of Connecticut, studying History and International Relations, with a focus on U.S. security policy. He has experience researching Ukrainian history and national identity, hegemonic theory, the Cold War, and international development/liberalization processes. He is beginning a career in foreign policy research at The Center for a Free Cuba, based in Washington D.C. The Center for a Free Cuba is a human rights organization dedicated to monitoring human rights abuses within Cuba and to advocating for Cuba’s eventual liberalization. He has previously been published in Geopolitics Magazine, The American Spectator, Modern Diplomacy, etc.

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