The difference between ethics and morals

Is there a difference between ethics and morals?

I was conversing with a very good friend of mine on Sunday after church and we were discussing the difference between ethics and morals (bet you didn’t know there was a difference):

Ethics – is what ought to be.

Morals – is what people are actually doing.

 Throughout the Bible there are ethical standards such as:

“Thou shalt not murder…”

“Thou shalt not commit adultery…”

“Thou shalt not steal…”

“Thou shalt not covet…”

When a person murders someone, he is falling short of an ethical standard established by God and by the State.  When a man commits adultery, he is not living up to the ethics established in his wedding vows of faithfulness “till death do us part.”  When a man like Ariel Castro abducts teenagers and keeps them as sex slaves, he is violating multiple ethical standards of God and our government and he must be held accountable.

Our country has been at a crossroads in defining ethics for the last 70 years.  The majority in our country once agreed with the Judeo-Christian standards of ethics as spelled out in the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus (see for example the Gospel of Matthew chapters 5-7). 

Now the majority in our country are defining ethics based on what is actually happening.  In other words the standard is shifting based on what is acceptable and not based on a fixed standard. 

Is this safe and right? What will be the consequences for basing ethics on what people are doing?

I first began to understand the difference between ethics and morals when I had a discussion with one of my aunts who was a school counselor when I was 13 years old.  She was asking me about what I was learning in school.  I explained we were learning about sex education and I made the point that we should not be taught about all the different ways of having “safe” sex, rather that we should be taught to wait to have sex on our wedding night.

She retorted, “Why would you wait, they’re not going to listen to you anyway…since they’re gonna experiment and start having sex when they reach puberty in late elementary school we should be teaching them about how to do it safely so they don’t make mistakes like get an STD or get pregnant and then have to get an abortion.”

I commented, “But most kids are introduced to methods and ides and ways of having sex during sex education…so if you want to prevent kids from getting STDs and getting pregnant…the best way is not to show them how to do various different sex acts…but to explain to them the ethical standard of waiting for your wife or husband.  Some will still likely ignore you and ‘make mistakes’…but if you’re not teaching them how, but rather teaching them that they shouldn’t be having sex until they are ready to have children and that the best environment to raise kids is in a stable marriage…then it is likely that less kids will be having sex before marriage and thus less ‘mistakes’ will be made.”

We went round-and-round and I am sure my logic was not quite as refined, but the point I make above is the point I was trying to make then.

So what’s the point?

The Creator God has ethical standards – as the Creator, God designed us to live and function a certain way and not to live and function contrary to God’s ethical standards. 

Our moral responsibility as humans is to stop looking at what people are doing to try to create man-made ethical standards based on the morality of the majority; rather we should look up to the God of Heaven and say, “Lord Jesus, teach us your ways and provide help for us to live, in reality, how you designed us to live.”  Pray this prayer and the Lord will send His helper, the Holy Spirit, to enable you to morally live by His ethics as outlined by Jesus in the Gospels.



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