Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
I thought Shin-ichi Wicks’ July 19 letter, “Morality is an acquired skill,” was thoughtful and rather appropriate for a Sunday. And it reminds me that all human behavior is “ethical,” and depends on the particular ethos of the perpetrator. That does not mean that all behavior is “moral” because “moral” and “ethical” are not synonymous. While the behavior of a psychopathic, genocidal Nazi was ethical according to Nazi ideals, it was not moral.
What, then defines morality and moral behavior? I think Wicks was on the right path when he said that morality is an “acquired skill.” Certainly, morality requires a high level of intelligence to make correct choices from among alternative behaviors, and then to live responsibly with the consequences of the act. Humans require maximum leeway to err for our behavior to have merit, and yet we desperately need intelligence not to err once we have the leeway to do so: No leeway to err means no virtue in choosing the moral alternative.
What distinguishes the “moral”from the merely “ethical” is the character of a behavior’s metaphysical properties and this requires some intelligence to perceive and wrestle with. It also means that morality is a matter for mature minds.
Published on Wednesday, July 29, 1998 as “Ethics and morality differ.”
I felt that my education at a seminary in Canada gave me more credibility on topics like this than the average guy in the street. And the appearance of a chance to distinguish“ethics” from “morality” gave me a chance to bring light to an issue that had bothered me for years - the tendency of people to treat the words as synonymous. I strongly disagree that they are synonymous.
My position is that morality is that special kind of ethics taught to us by God. But I can hardly say that so bluntly in public without creating a frenzy like bees protecting their hive.
Loving you enemies and treating others as you yourself want to be treated is no normal kind of ethic. Because I say that no normal human being would ever make such conclusions unless the inspiration came from God in the first place. That is just how unique ethical teachings like that are. The same is true of not coveting your neighbor’s wife, etc. Indeed, I think that coveting your neighbor’s wife and property and then killing him so that you can steal it for yourself are among the most natural things imaginable. It takes God to teach us otherwise. Human ethics teachese us the merit of killing and coveting, and only God’s moral ethics teaches us otherwise.