“Morals are for You or Me: Ethics are for Us”

I believe it is time for all societies to stop using Moral Imperatives to guide our actions. Instead, Ethical Guidelines work much better and will always aid us in improving society. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, the President published tweets that suggestively urged his fans to take up arms against the leaders of their states. He referenced several states–such as Virginia and Minnesota–reminded them of the 2nd Amendment, and put his tweet advocating violence in all caps. By doing this, he got the point across while maintaining a tiny margin for deniability. He did not explicitely say to try and violently overthrow state governments. Therefore, if there is any violence based on his tweets, he will deny any complicity. That has been his pattern so far in 3.5 years in office.

I believe it is time for all societies to stop using Moral Imperatives to guide our actions. Instead, Ethical Guidelines work much better and will always aid us in improving society. Click To Tweet

As of the writing of this blog, the nation is facing a terrible ethical dilemma: Do we stay at home, sheltered-in-place and risk harming many citizens in our country because of the destabilization of the economy? Or do we end the shelter-in-place, perhaps prematurely, and potentially kill more people than the COVID-19 virus would otherwise kill?

I don’t want to understate how important an ethical decision this is. There are almost no right answers to it. Regardless of where you land on this decision, you should admit it is a tricky and dangerous dilemma.

This follows on the heels of a decision many churches and Christians had to make for the past few weeks. This decision is NOT an ethical decision. Rather, it is a moral decision, and not even a very convincing one. Many states have made it illegal to gather in groups larger than 10 people. For most of those states, this includes churches.

The vast majority of churches have seen the ethical value of closing the doors, choosing instead to host virtual gatherings of their members online. But not all churches have complied. Some have defiantly opened the doors of their churches. Not only do they feel they have a first amendment right to do so, they claim to have a moral right and obligation to do so, given to them by God.

For instance, Pastor Tony Spell of Baton Rouge, LA held services for several Sundays in defiance of that state’s orders not to. Over 1000 people attended. When interviewed, Spell said,

“The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”

NBC News

The concept of “religious rights” is not an ethical foundation but a moral one. And in many cases, ethical and moral foundations can be completely opposed to each other.

Recently, Stephanie Tait, who is an advocate for the disabled and how churches relate to their needs, had this to say about the church’s attitude toward opening up churches and potentially exposing many more people to the virus. She likens it to the church’s disregard for the handicapped by claiming they should be exempt from Accessibility Requirements according to the law. She states:

So I see abled Christians who are “shocked” to see some of their fellow Christians framing this as a religious freedom issue, and essentially fighting for the right to hurt other people in the name of their “liberty” being preserved above all else?

Churches have repeatedly asserted that their right to harm certain others with legal impunity is a religious liberty issue – including disabled ppl, LGBTQ+ ppl, and Black ppl. This is nothing new. This is not “shocking.”

So respectfully, if you find yourself “shocked” at people fighting to keep holding services in the pandemic, recognize that you’ve been living in a bubble of privilege, where you could remain blissfully unaware of our history of fighting for special rights to harm others.

Stephanie Tait, 2020 on Facebook

Stephanie is stating that some Christians are claiming their rights–which is a moral claim–above what is helpful for other people (which is an ethical approach).

At this point, I want to define two terms: Morals and Ethics. In doing many hours of research into this subject, I found few philosophers, ethicists, social scientists, or pastors who could agree on a definition. So I have compiled a number of them together to come up with a working model for this document.

The concept of “religious rights” is not an ethical foundation but a moral one. And in many cases, ethical and moral foundations can be completely opposed to each other. Click To Tweet

Morals are the principles underlying the ideal behavior of each individual.

Ethics are the principles underlying all of the acceptable behavior of members of a culture.

Morals are subjective and personal. Ethics are subjective and communal.

Morals are usually based on a philosophy or religious belief. Ethics are decided upon by a society after debate and trial.

Morals transcend cultural norms, but may conflict with them. Ethics are based on cultural norms, but may conflict with an individuals morals.

We use Ethical guidelines when we decide whether or not to open up the society to business and social events again during the virus. We will debate the pros and cons of any approach and decide as carefully as possible which approach would create the most advantage and good to the most people. There is no other way of doing it.

Morals are involved as people decide if they should be in church, if they should visit a loved one, if they should share their food or toilet paper with others during this crisis.

In 2011, Jared Lee Loughner shot several people in Arizona, including Congresswoman Gabby Gifford. After killing six people, he was charged with murder and attempted murder. His lawyers used an interesting moral defense. They said he firmly believed in the moral philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who taught that weakness must be eradicated in order for the race of Ubermensch to appear. (Ubermensch refers to “Supermen” or “Master race”). His legal team argued that his moral compass was pointing in a different direction than the rest of society and even though that compass directed him to kill people, he should not be charged with murder. He needed to be re-educated, not incarcerated.

The court disagreed and gave him 7 consecutive life sentences.

It is the argument that is intriguing. And it is not a new argument. The argument is that a person has a right to their moral beliefs, regardless if their society considers them ethical. This does not make every action a person takes based on those morals legal, just defensible.

Soren Kierkegaard spent years wrestling with this incongruence of morals and ethics. He used the life of Abraham in the Old Testament book of Genesis as his starting point for figuring this out. In the story of Abraham, he takes his only son Isaac up on a mountain to sacrifice him there. He believed that God had told him to do so. He trudged up the mountain also carrying an ethical dilemma: Do I kill my only son and lose him? Or do I disobey God and lose my standing with Him? It seems like a dilemma where Abraham (and Isaac) lose either way.

In the ultimate deus ex machina, God intervenes at the last minute and gives Isaac a reprieve. A ram is caught in the thicket and Abraham is ordered to sacrifice the ram instead of his son. God then revealed he was only testing Abraham to see if he would obey.

As Kierkegaard pondered this moral and ethical quagmire, he imagined what the biblical tale would have shown us if it had been told differently.

In his book “Fear and Trembling” Kierkegaard imagines four possible retellings of this story:

  1. Abraham decides to kill Isaac and tells him it was his decision alone to kill him, and doesn’t mention God. Doing it this way, God doesn’t look like the tyrant Abraham now believes Him to be.
  2. Abraham kills the ram instead. But because God didn’t trust him and put him to the test, Abraham loses faith in God.
  3. He decides not to kill Isaac and lives in complete dejection. He believes he is not a man of faith and sees himself as a spiritual failure.
  4. Isaac sees his father hesitate: That is when Isaac realizes it was God who told his father to kill him. Isaac loses faith in God’s goodness.

Here is what Kierkegaard concludes. There is no good solution to Abraham’s dilemma. It is one of the conflicts for which morals and ethics will always disagree. The moral solution sometimes must struggle with believing something is right to do even if it is not ethical. The ethical solution must struggle as it must sometimes disgregard the moral underpinnings of our lives.

Most people believe they will choose the moral position first. In practice, however, we see they choose the ethical position. Indeed, there are times when people do choose the moral position over the ethical one, that they are often condemned by society.

Indeed, there are times when people do choose the moral position over the ethical one, that they are often condemned by society. Click To Tweet

Look at churches who have chosen to open at this time. Even other Christian groups condemned that practice.

In 1978, Jim Jones brought 1000 members of his cult church down to South America to start a communal society. As their Jonestown cult began to deteriorate, and they murdered a US senator, they realized they would all be taken into custody. As a result, Jones gathered all 1000 people into their makeshift auditorium. He invited them to join him in a final Communion service. The drink was laced with a poison. This was a mass suicide and all but the smallest children knew what they were being asked to do. Some refused and ran out of the meeting, but most of the Jonestown group killed themselves. Over 900 people died.

They were acting upon what they considered to be a moral imperative. They believed a version of an apocalyptic belief: That they would be rewarded in the Afterlife if they were faithful in this life. We do not agree with their decision, but philosophically we must conclude they were trying to live according to their moral standards. And their morality was based upon the words of Jim Jones.

They were indeed moral. But just as decidedly, their actions were unethical. We consider it wrong to do what they did. The “wrongness” of it is an ethical consideration not a moral one. In our culture, mass suicide is always wrong, as is mass murder–for the same reasons.

To be fair, some ethical decisions can lack a moral foundation, depending on what culture one lives in. In cultures where headhunting is practiced, taking the head of another person can sometimes be ethical. That is, if everyone accepts it as a standard practice, then it is ethical.

In the Ancient Near East, a woman was considered property. It was considered ethical for a husband to physically assault his wife. But if he physically assaulted another man’s wife, he had to give compensation, since she was his property. This is why, in the Bible, when David sexually assaulted Bathsheba he is not condemned for the sexual assault but for taking another man’s wife. Nathan the prophet chastises David for taking Uriah’s wife–he does not even give her a name–not for raping her. But that fit the ethical climate of that day.

Though today in America, we would consider headhunting, sexual assault, and ownership of women to be unethical and even immoral, they did not consider it that way back then in Ancient Near East cultures.

Unfortunately, because the Jews–and now Christians–believe their Scriptures are both ethical and moral standards for all time, the two ideas of morals and ethics have become conflated.

In any theocratic nation–that is any nation that accepts a religious moral standard as a de facto ethical standard–the moral law is the ethical law. This is true with Sharia Law in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has been true in Israel’s history. And when Christians have enacted Biblical laws as mandatory in some countries, the moral and the ethical get confused.

In any theocratic nation–that is any nation that accepts a religious moral standard as a de facto ethical standard–the moral law is the ethical law. Click To Tweet

Philosopher and ethicist, Elizabeth Anscombe has noted,

“The impact of monotheistic religion was to transform morality into a set of laws that had to be obeyed. Laws require a legislator and a police force. God was that legislator, the Church the enforcer.”

The Quest for a Moral Compass (p. 296). Melville House.

Therefore, in any nation where the moral rules are governed by one religion or religious group, it gives power to the leaders of that group to decide what is moral or immoral.

In today’s America, the idea of “morality” or “moral standards” is almost exclusively applied to one’s sexuality. Social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt says that world culture encompasses six themes when it comes to their personal morality: liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, care, and purity. But he also notes that in today’s America, authority, loyalty, and purity are mostly emphasized by Conservatives, and fairness and care are mostly emphasized by liberals. He notes that liberty is emphasized by both groups, and is seen as both a moral imperative and as a right.

Yet when it comes to ethics, liberty is sometimes shoved aside.

Unfortunately, because the Jews–and now Christians–believe their Scriptures are both ethical and moral standards for all time, the two ideas of morals and ethics have become conflated. Click To Tweet

He concludes that morality has focused way too much on sexuality: either sexual purity or sexual freedom. And he also says the problem is that most people will focus on those two things based on their personal viewpoints, whether religious, philosophical, or political.


Here is my contention. For the human race to move forward we must have an ethical dialectic. A “dialectic” is a discussion where two sides with differing opinions come together to discuss their differences. Out of that comes a new understanding of an ethical position. We have seen in the history of the world that society keeps trying to get ethics correct. And when they find out they have not got it correct, they keep having a discussion.

In other words, the ideal is to continue debating our current ethical guidelines until the majority of people are satisfied we are benefiting the most people.

Morality does not offer a changing dialectic, since it is based on some kind of absolute standard.

Here is how moral imperatives work. Christian morality told us in the middle ages that all peasants must submit to the authority of the King and the nobles. Christian morality said that men could beat their wives as long as they didn’t do permanent damage. Christian morality said that the Bible justified the owning of slaves, the subjugation of women, the fighting of just wars. All of these were placed under the aegis of morality. The people who decided what was moral were the Christian leaders.

In other words, the ideal is to continue debating our current ethical guidelines until the majority of people are satisfied we are benefiting the most people. Click To Tweet

There was no society-wide discussion on these standards. They were decided upon by religious leaders and all people were required to accept these moral imperatives.

Even today, Christian leaders tell their churches what moral sexual standards should be. They say homosexuality is wrong. They say that polyamory is wrong. They say that sex before marriage is wrong. They say it is wrong for a wife to refuse her husband sex. They say that marital rape is impossible since wives have a sexual duty to their husbands. Each of these beliefs is unassailable because they are held to be absolute imperatives. If one does not accept the moral imperative, then one must face the censure of their religion.

Now let’s look at ethics. Ethics are societal standards of behavior. Ethics have also been brutal at times through the centuries. The idea of an “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” seemed like a good idea at the time. If someone causes you to lose a limb, cut off his limb. At least it limited the damage you were allowed to enact in vengeance. But it meant a lot of people with swords were cutting off a lot of appendages.

Ethics have also created justification for war. Ethics have concluded that some people have to die for the good of others. Ethics were at the base of the Final Solution where the Nazis sought to exterminate all the Jews. We know that ethics can be harmful.

And we know that morals can be harmful.

The difference is this: Morals are not supposed to change; ethics are supposed to constantly adapt and change depending on the current ethical understanding of the culture.

Which one then should we adopt to guide our society?

In his book “How Then Shall We Live”, Chuck Colson suggested that we use an absolute moral standard as the basis for how we craft our laws and live our lives. Why? He says that only a Moral Consensus gives people a tangible sense of security that something is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. In this book, he bemoans that so many people do not hold to a Christian standard of morality any longer. He believed that this lack of a clear Moral Consensus was going to ruin us as a nation.

Is he correct? I don’t think so. Even within the Christian Church, a moral consensus has proved to be impossible. On so many issues, the church disagrees with itself. On issues like divorce, war and pacifism, premarital sexuality, marital sexuality, birth control, sexual identity, euthenasia, capital punishment, separation of church and state, etc. there is no moral consensus. The disagreements outweigh the agreements. Consensus is usually reached only by denominational legislation and not through dialogue.

Let’s take the issue of birth control. My wife is a school nurse. She helped to found a local clinic. She and one of her close friends, an OB/Gyn, sought to be allowed to put out a bowl of condoms at the front desk of the clinic. A member of the school board opposed this. Why? Because she had a moral opposition to condoms, she would not vote to allow them.

This person’s moral argument against handing out condoms is simple. They believe the Bible opposes premarital sexuality. They believe that giving a teen a condom is giving them a way to practice sexuality without immediate consequences like pregnancy or STD’s. They believe this gives tacit approval to a teen to have sex. Since this is what they don’t want, the condom is the point of the spear.

The ethical argument for condoms is simple. Teens will have sex whether you want them to or not. Only condoms protect against both STD’s and pregnancy. Condoms prevent both unwanted outcomes.

The Moral Imperative is a personally held belief that teen sexuality is wrong. The Ethical Guideline is based on something both groups can agree to: No one wants a teen to be pregnant or catch an STD.

I believe that an Ethical Guideline ultimately can be a better way of governing human behavior because it requires the majority of all of us–regardless of religious or philosophical belief–to agree before we accept it. And Ethical Guidelines are not legislated first. They are felt first. They are things we know to be true among us.

For instance, look at sexuality. As we have moved on from the middle ages, through the Enlightenment, to the modern age, and now into a Postmodern reality, we have changed our views on what is ethical. And I think many of those changes are good and just. They could stand improvement, but they are changing much more quickly than the moral views of sexuality.

Here are Ethical Guidelines of sexuality that most people today can approve:

  1. That all sexuality needs to take place after all parties give consent and continue to give consent all through the sexual act.
  2. That consent must be informed. This means that if someone does not understand the deep significance of sexuality, they should not enter into it. This includes minors, the mentally disabled, and those for whom sexuality would be dangerous.
  3. That consent must be equal. This means that anyone who uses their authority, position of power, or position as overseer to have sex with an individual, the sexual act is not ethical and may be illegal.
  4. All sexuality should be carried on between two adults who are honest and straightforward about their relationship status. This excludes adultery and lying about one’s identity.

There may be many other ethical guidelines that we could come up with as a society. Other societies might have different guidelines. In the future, more guidelines might be developed.

But the advantage of an ethical guideline over a moral imperative is that it embraces everyone in a culture and doesn’t require them to first ascribe to a religion or a philosophy. I propose that even if we strongly hold to a religious or philosophical viewpoint, we can all participate in the discussion on the best ethical guidelines for all to accept and live.