It’s a Dilemma, but is it Moral or Ethical?

One of the many things that has exercised my brain over the years (though not enough to work through diligently until recently) is the difference between morals and ethics.

Some of you are now saying “but it’s obvious, what are you talking about?”

I’ve had the discussion with lots of people and have been interested to hear their varying interpretations and explanations.

Yesterday it came up in the office. We’ve been asked to run a project with an outcome a couple of our people think is wrong. Not criminally wrong, just an outcome that doesn’t seem fair to the people who will buy the product. It sparked an ongoing conversation over a couple of hours. In the end we agreed to agree that in this case (as in all others with RNC), whether a project manager decides to take on the role is entirely up to them. What isn’t negotiable is that they say yes and start to attempt to divert the project in another direction with a more acceptable outcome – to them.

The interesting part about the discussion was whether it was a moral or ethical question – and either way some people were surprised to discover the variation in positions on this.

The questions became:

  • What’s a moral?
  • What’s an ethic?
  • Is there a difference?
  • Are they absolutes and should everyone share them?
  • Are laws morals or ethics?
  • If you’re okay with it but I’m not, whose opinion wins?
  • Can we draw up moral and ethical ‘rules’ for RNC?

I kicked the conversation into high gear and a robust discussion followed. In the end we arrived at:

  • A moral is an absolute. For example killing someone is morally wrong, stealing is morally wrong, cheating is morally wrong, and there are more but you get the picture. There’s no absolute right list of morals (though all religions have attempted to dictate them).
  • So ethics were invented to allow for wriggle room. They’re the interpretation of morals and are decided at the individual and/or group level. For example whilst killing is morally wrong, there are circumstances where most of us would agree it’s okay.
  • The difference then is that a moral is absolute and an ethic is the real life application of the moral.
  • If everyone shared them they wouldn’t need interpreting. Ethics are either each person’s interpretation or the interpretation adopted by a group. For example, ethically we at RNC have decided there are a couple of industries we won’t support.
  • Laws are derived from both and are developed to ensure a constant interpretation and application across groups and society.

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I was amazed to hear myself say yesterday in the warmth of the robust discussion “you can’t always run projects you think are good!” Whoa, I pulled myself up and had to agree that in fact you can, if you’re prepared to wear the consequences. You see that’s where the rubber hits the road. You can interpret morals anyway you like and even act on them. We’re free to do that but we need to understand there are consequences to interpretation and action.

Each of us can decide our ethics, which allow for almost anything we want to do. Inevitability though if our interpretation breaks the elasticity supported by the group in which we find ourselves, we can expect consequences. This one’s tough.

The bottom line is that RNC’s interpretation and application of morals into ethics, guides our behavior and tolerance for the behavior of others. That’s what we call the culture.