Introduction: In this exercise, we will explore some distinctions. I will not give you exact answers, but I will give you some facts to consider. After completing this exercise, I encourage you to do it again at the end of the course to see how your answers have deepened.

Format: Class Dicsussion/Notes

Main Ideas: Ethics is not law, etiquette, religion, art, or mere preference. A good ethical theory should promote human flourishing, reduce suffering, and prevent the collapse of society.

Discuss the following questions to clarify the nature of ethics and morality. After discussion, read my thoughts and do additional research to deepen your answers.

1) What is the difference between morality and law?

2) What is the difference between morality and etiquette?

3) What is the difference between morality and religion?

4) What is the difference between morality and art?

5) What is the difference between morality and mere preference?

6) What is the difference between morality and law?

7) What should a good ethical theory do?


1) What is the difference between morality and law?

This question leads to interesting distinctions. Here is one line of reasoning:

Morality and law may overlap, but they are not identical.

If morality and law were identical, we could consult the law to determine what is right. But this is ridiculous because there are immoral laws. For example, cheating on your spouse is legal in most states, but you probably believe it is immoral. A thinking person’s morality is not derived from the law, rather it is that which she uses to judge the law.

On the other hand, we pass many laws for moral reasons. For example, my culture created laws making it illegal to starve horses because most people believe it is highly immoral to starve horses.

But not all laws are based on morality.   For example, many people believe there is nothing morally wrong with driving on the left side of the road even though it is illegal.  Others believe smoking marijuana is a morally neutral act, yet it too is illegal in many states.

Perhaps we could say laws have external sanctions (e.g. fines and prison) whereas morality consists of more internal sanctions (e.g. the pains of conscience)? Law is more superficial than morality.

Thinking about these cases should help you see that there is a difference between morality and law. Morality is not solely derived from the law, nor is the law solely derived from morality. They may inform each other, but they are not identical. People create moral and legal rules for similar reason like promoting human flourishing, but we enforce laws with more external sanctions.

Questions: In your opinion, which laws in your country are most immoral? Which laws in another country are immoral? Which time period had the most immoral laws?


2) What is the difference between morality and etiquette?

Rules of Etiquette may direct you to place the fork on the left side and chew with your mouth closed. They focus on how you should dress, eat, treat the dead, and so on. Etiquette is similar to morality in that both present rules to improve social relations and the quality of life, but etiquette is not identical to morality.

As with law, there may be some rules of etiquette that you think are morally neutral or wrong. For example, whether one places a fork on the left or right seems arbitrary and morally neutral. Imagine Culture A places the fork on the right, Culture B on the left, and Culture C uses chopsticks. Now, if Culture B practiced slavery, you would probably judge that as wrong. But you probably don’t think there is anything wrong with placing forks on the left.  So, rules of etiquette seem more arbitrary and less “serious” than rules of morality.

Etiquette is similar to morality in that it is an attempt to create (or discover) rules that lead to flourishing, but morality is concerned with the most important rules while etiquette seems focused on secondary rules. Morality is the engine of the car; etiquette is the color of the car. Morality is the hardware; etiquette is the software. Morality is the cake; Etiquette is the icing on the cake. Morality is governed by conscience and the principles underlying conscience; etiquette is guided more by social approval. Morality, not etiquette, is essential for societal flourishing, though it does lubricate the gears of social interaction.

According to Louis Pojman, “etiquette is concerned with form and style rather than the essence of social existence. Etiquette determines what polite behavior is rather than what right behavior is in a deeper sense” (Discovering, Ch. 1).

In short, morality is not etiquette. While both originate as means to promote human flourishing, morality is more essential than etiquette.

Questions: Can you think of a time when your sense of etiquette conflicted with your moral sense? Which did you side with and why?


3) What is the difference between morality and religion?

Morality and religion are neither identical nor necessarily antagonistic. In general, ethics (i.e. moral reasoning) is based more on reason than on appeals to authority or revelation.

Let’s begin by explaining why they are not identical. First, atheists like Thomas Hobbes have moral ways of thinking, so religion cannot be necessary for morality. Second, religious people often give “nonreligious” reasons for their morality, so the moral systems of theists are not entirely based on their religious beliefs. For example, both theists and atheists who choose to pull the lever in the trolley dilemma argue it is right because it will save a net of four lives. They do not quote a holy book or any other religious authority. In this case, the theist uses the same type of reasoning as the atheist (i.e. utilitarian intuitions). The only difference between the atheist and theist is where they believe these intuitions originate. The theist believes they originate in God, whereas the atheist usually believes they come from reason, upbringing, culture, or an evolved human nature.

Of course, not all religious people reason in this way. Religious fundamentalism is a type of religion that is based on authority and the literal interpretation of texts. For example, some Christian Fundamentalists argue “Homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so.” In this case, ethical reasoning and authoritative religious belief seem opposed. So moral reasoning is quite different from fundamentalist appeals to authority. Ethics (i.e. moral reasoning) is based more on reasoning while religion is based more on authority.

Also, some theists base their morality on personal revelation, not authority or reason alone. So, ethics is based more on reason while religion is based more on revelation (personal or institutional).

In conclusion, theists should not fear the study of ethics since it can clarify their God-given conscience. As physics discovers the principles that govern the physical world, so the study of ethics uncovers the principles that govern the moral world. In the end, the study of ethics develops the tools and concepts needed to create a good world . . . and both the good theist and good atheist want that good world.


4) What is the difference between morality and art/aesthetics?

Morality is about right and wrong; Aesthetics is about beauty. But is there really a difference between the good and the beautiful? Is morality in the eye of the beholder like beauty supposedly is?

The relationship between morality and beauty is profound and interesting. Although I cannot fully explore it here, I can say that morality seems to override beauty when the two conflict. For example, if I believe hurting people is beautiful but wrong, then I should refrain from hurting them. If I must sacrifice others to be beautiful, then I should give up on being beautiful. In short, it seems most people believe morality should override beauty when the two conflict.

Morality also seems to involve more reasoning than aesthetics. Although people argue about works of art, the arguments about morality involve more factual claims and inferences. An argument about Van Gogh’s Sunflowers does not involve as many factual claims and inferences as an argument about women’s rights. Perhaps this is because morality is more serious than art since so much is at stake. In short, ethics (i.e. moral reasoning) relies more on reasoning and facts with the goal of promoting human flourishing whereas art relies more on preferences with the goal of aesthetic enjoyment, not necessarily human flourishing.

Just as one can enjoy stolen goods, so one can enjoy immoral art. I leave it to you to fully identify the differences.

Questions: Most people believe “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Even if you agree, what are the most powerful arguments against this position? Is morality simply a form of beauty (consider the chart in the relativism chapter)?


5) What is the difference between morality and mere preference?

I prefer green over blue, and I do not need to give you reasons for my preference precisely because it is a mere preference.

But If I prefer slavery over freedom, I do need to give reasons because morality is not merely preference. We give arguments when we give moral reasons. We try to logically persuade each other about moral issues. So, most moral opinions are not merely preferences.

As you will see in the relativism chapter, morality is more than mere preference though it might be based on preference at a fundamental level.  Still, there is a world of difference between “I prefer strawberry ice cream” and “I do not believe slavery is right.” A study of ethics will make this clear.

Also, one might argue that “x is wrong” based on factual claims he believes to be true (e.g. it is immoral for women to vote because they are intellectually inferior). This person may change his moral opinion if he learns his supporting claim is false (e.g. women are not intellectually inferior). So, morality is not JUST about feelings or preferences.


6) What is the difference between morality and ethics?

People disagree about the difference between morality and ethics but most philosophers use the words interchangeably. Morality comes from “mores” (Latin) and Ethics comes from “ethos” (Greek). Both are derived from “custom,” which refers to the guiding ideas of a culture.  Let’s look at some good ways to distinguish these terms.

Some people define morals as your personal rules whereas ethics are rules from an external source. For example, your place of employment probably has a set of ethical rules that you must follow, whereas your view on abortion is a personal moral matter.

There are other ways to distinguish them. Here is one simple way:

ethics vs morals


Questions: Is it wrong to cheat? Explain your reasoning. What is the difference between stating a preference (e.g. I like green more than blue) and stating a moral opinion (e.g. slavery is wrong)? Are the statements “I prefer green” and “I prefer slavery not exist” the same kinds of statements?


7) What should a good ethical theory do?

As you read through this book, you will encounter many ethical theories. I suggest you evaluate them according to the criteria below.


1) Is the ethical theory consistent with your core moral beliefs? For example, you should reject or refine a theory if it supports genocide and you are against genocide. An ethical theory should be consistent with the principles that ground your most strongly held moral beliefs, intuitions, and emotions.

Now, you could reject your core beliefs and accept the theory instead, but you must decide whether your core moral belief or the theory is true or best. In most cases, the theory should be rejected or revised. That is, you probably believe there is something wrong with genocide and any theory that disagrees is false.

*This approach is called “moral equilibrium” because you are seeking an equilibrium between your core moral beliefs and a theory of ethics. Another approach is procedural. This is when one uses a procedure like utilitarianism or social contract theory to determine what is right or wrong. The fundamental questions is, “Do you start with certain moral truths and proceed or do you discover all moral truths using some procedure? Most disciplines like math and science start with some truths that cannot be proved (e.g. there is an external world or parallel lines never meet) and work from there.


2) Does the theory lead to a flourishing life, a life in which you and others can actualize your full potential? Good theories are like healthy food or maps; they should help you actualize your potential and guide you to a life well lived. This partly means good theories should keep society together since we need society to actualize our full potential as social animals.


3) Would you choose the theory? I disagree with the idea that morality is “whatever each individual wants it to be.” But if you happen to believe this, you will still benefit from the study of ethics since each theory will increase your awareness of the consequences of your choices. As you study the theories, ask, “Which theory will I choose? Which theory am I currently living? What kind of person do I want to be, and will this ethical theory help me become that type of person?”


4) Is the theory consistent? If the theory constantly contradicts itself, we think it incomplete just as we think an contradictory scientific theory incomplete or false.

In short, exploring the ethical theories will help you better understand the pros and cons of choosing to live according to them. And I do not think you can escape the choice.

I think it is also important to remember that morality is made for humans, not humans for morality (Pojman, Ch. 1). Morality is a set of rules to help us flourish and be good, and this is true whether these rules are human inventions, built into reality, or God-given. So, if a moral theory causes the collapse of societal relations or increases overall human suffering, it is most likely a weak moral theory and should be rejected.

I hope your answers to all these questions will be deepened after exploring the material in this course.


Questions: Should a moral theory be beautiful? Should it motivate? Should it be scientifically proven? Can science prove what ought to be the case?


Paul Stearns, 2016