Philosophers have often tried to lay down a distinct line in the morals vs. ethics debate, but this is still an area of thought that produces conflicting views in the minds of many people. The conflict arises as a result of different schools of thought, and very few people manage to understand the subtlety that goes into differentiating morals and ethics from one another.
To many people, morals and ethics seem like one and the same thing. To them it simply means a system of principles that can be applied in order to tell, right from wrong. But as one delves further into this subject of philosophy, the fine differences between morals and ethics start becoming clearer. It is the context in which one applies these values and principles, that the real difference between morals and ethics becomes apparent.
Difference Between Morals and Ethics
The main difference that must be considered in this situation is that ethics are about the behavior about a collection of people, whereas morals are highly individualistic and personal in nature. Morals arise more as a set of rules passed down by society that we must conform to, in order to be accepted by the civilized strata of society. For instance, we are taught not to lie, steal, murder and commit acts of debauchery since our childhood. Following these principles would qualify a human being as moral, and if the individual does not follow these rules he is viewed as an immoral person.
The choice ultimately lies in the hands of the individual. If he chooses to be immoral he will be castigated by society and will have to suffer the consequences of his actions. There is no right or wrong; only the consequences of actions. And society is trained to punish and reprimand an immoral man, because that's the way it has always been.
Now, this is not relevant to this debate, so let us see what ethics really imply. Ethics can be said to be a set of principles and beliefs that you choose to live by. But nobody says that one set of ethics is better than the other. There is no right or wrong in ethics, because society itself is confused in this regard. Some large profitable companies employ unethical means like fraud, polluting the environment and paying low wages to their laborers. This is wrong but not illegal, because the company's ethics demands that the workers work as hard as possible, and the organization reduces costs as far as they can.
Ethics Are Collective
Ethics are usually used to denote the behavior of a group that the individual belongs to. It can be an organization, a Government, a country, a political party or a group of mercenaries. The point is that they all live within a certain code of conduct that they are not allowed to breach. Within that code of conduct, anything goes. Jotting down differences between morals and ethics makes us think about which is superior, and the truth is that collective ethics override personal morals many times.
Countries go to war with each other and kill millions of innocent people because it is unethical (in the Government's view) for the people of that nation to stock weapons of mass destruction. The morals of the President of that country may discourage him from killing someone with his bare hands, but his ethics give him the power to bomb thousands of homes from above. This in spite of the fact that their country is the only one in the history of the world to have ever used these weapons of mass destruction on others. Twice.
Power of Ethics
This brings us to the real cause of the debate. Morals can be breached, and an individual will be punished. Ethics can be stretched to accommodate more harmful doings, because ethics are ultimately created by those who have the power to wield it. What was unethical ten years ago, may be ethical today because it benefits the people in power. Morality is something that is nurtured since childhood and clearly states what is right and what is wrong. Ethics are much more accommodating. Morality vs. ethics always confuses us about the right thing to do and the right things to say, but we are inevitably always swayed by those in power.
Understanding the differences between both is not something that can be done without a deep study of history, politics and religion. Philosophers have come out with a lot of preachings about morals and ethics, but the truth is still something that is shrouded in mystery.