The following is excerpted from the book To Tell The Truth… Ethics Unwrapped. We will continue to provide excerpts from the book in future posts. In the meantime you may wish to read the entire book (?!)
Ethics is the study of values (ideals; standards; principles). Ethics has its roots in First Principles, the foremost being absolute truth— perfection. The frustration of coming up with a good working definition using standard references increases in proportion to their number:
“A branch of philosophy...” can bring us to a full stop without even considering the ambiguity of “the study of the nature of morals(?) and of specific moral choices...” (whatever they may be). “Rules of conduct” fails, because anyone could define his own rules of conduct according to his own standards, all of which would be “ethical” by this definition.
While ethics may indeed be an area of study and a branch of philosophy, neither of these definitions helps at all when trying to explain what ethics means in the sense of being ethical, universally understood as a wholly positive state of being. Being unethical is universally understood as negative.
What’s needed is a universally applicable definition of ethics that supports its adjective ethical. Now, ethics is not the plural of ethic (both are singular). An ethic is a body of moral values governing a particular group (the operative words here are group and values). Suffice to say that values (and any ethic that may be connected with them) are set by the group and can’t be extrapolated beyond the group. Neither the group nor its values are necessarily universal. But as an integral part of humanity, ethics (the one with an s) is universal–vital and inviolate.
Ethics is, in fact, the standard by which any ethic is measured. Ethics is not right, true or good as defined by anyone. Ethics is universally right as opposed to wrong, universally good as opposed to bad, universally true as opposed to false. It is right being.
Philosophy has classically defined ethics using the standards of both the right and the good. The right is based on results, the good on motive. Unfortunately, both are problematic and have been disputed since year one..
But if right and good may be open to debate, truth is not. And stripped to its bare bones, the root of ethics is Truth with a capital T. And, in its only context (humanity), ethics can be defined as
The (definitive) System of UNIVERSAL Moral Principle.
If ethics is difficult to define, consider its source—truth. It’s a fact that one cannot prove a principle using that which the principle produces. For example, philosophy cannot be defined using science, itself a child of philosophy. Therein lies the difficulty in defining truth using words which we’ve invented to define our ideas. Because truth is perfect—a timeless given—a First Principle. It is, in fact, the First Principle. Everything that IS springs from it.
First principles are those ideas that every rational being can’t not know. They are a part of us to us just as are our minds, an essential part of what makes us human. To claim that we do not know them is not open to question; it is instead moral denial. Want proof? Try Conscience. Every rational human being has one.
So philosophy (the pursuit of truth), being derivative from truth, can’t be used to prove its parent–truth. However, we need a definition that satisfies our idea of the concept in order to proceed. Allow me to suggest a definition (not original) of truth based on perfection: a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle; being in accord with reality; in other words, what is. This admittedly imperfect definition will be used here and henceforth.
Ethics/truth is consistent across time. What was ethical/true then is ethical/true now and will be ethical/true subsequently. But without some sort of application, ethics would be an empty formal abstraction to be studied, debated, explained and disputed, even misunderstood (but not changed!). In fact, ethics has suffered study, debate and dispute by countless others and in the process, has become an empty formal abstraction. It’s time to return to the basics. In doing so we’ll distinguish between ethics and morality so that we can move into the real world.
The M Words
While the words may look and even sound alike, there are significant differences in meaning between moral, moral, morals and morality (and we can throw in mores for good measure). Morals and mores are both nouns with their roots firmly planted in society; they are described in cultural terms. Moral, the singular noun, is an ambiguous term that can mean anything from lesson to platitude to principle (but it cannot be used to redefine principle because it’s derivative of it). Morality and its adjective moral are concepts founded in that old absolute, truth. (If this were not so, morality would have no basis at all.)
From here on, morality will be used in the context of ethical (honest) conduct—doing. Morality will be considered as applied ethics; therefore, if the essence of ethics is truth, then
morality = applied ethics = applied truth = HONESTY
The roots of ethics and morality can be reduced to absolute truth and honesty.
So if ethics defines right being, then morality and its adjective moral define right doing. Morality is, like ethics, an integral element of mankind, not a product of it. It’s universal. There are no man-made standards for ethical or moral conduct. They simply are. They are absolute. They are known and, whether or not you realize it, you know them. You only have to employ them. [to be continued…]