Humans love rules. We love to have something to help us through life and guide us along the most successful path. The most basic rules we seem to have given to ourselves are those of ethics and morality. These two words are often used interchangeably, as though they meant the same thing. Consider for a moment that they are actually quite different. I suggest that morals change depending on the person and his or her own personal belief of what makes a person “good” or “bad,” whereas ethics are simply the basics of human decency.
When discussing characters from books or movies, we often hear the phrase “moral compass.” Each character has his or her own set of morals that points in different ways. Some characters are amoral, such as Wolf Larsen in Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, who has no care in the world whether he is good or bad, he simply is. Then there are characters such as The Wicked Witch of the West in the movie The Wizard of Oz, who recognizes the typical standards of morality and intentionally goes against them. Someone who states their personal set of beliefs and truly follows them through would be the very rare moral person, such as William Shakespeare’s Isabella in his play Measure for Measure, who states her own moral beliefs and does her best to stand by them. Whether moral, immoral or amoral, characters rationalize their actions with the idea that they are doing what is best for either themselves or for others.
Ethics are different from a standard morality in that most people will agree on what is and what is not ethical. It is the very basic level of human decency a person must meet in order to properly take part in society. If a person acts unethically, most people will agree that repercussions are in order, whereas if someone is accused of acting immorally, it depends on whose morals have been violated and if someone should face consequences for doing something that their own personal beliefs do not consider wrong.
Morals are typically based in a religious belief and ethics seem to be based in the fundamental human experience. There are many cases where the two overlap. It is both unethical and widely considered to be immoral to cheat, lie, steal and murder. Morality can also change over time; one may grow up believing premarital sex is an immoral action and grow up to change their mind in later life where another person might have the exact opposite experience, their own personal beliefs change.
As students at a Seventh-Day Adventist University, we are called to follow in Christ’s example of morality, rather than meeting humanity’s basic level of decency. In this example, we find that inaction can in some circumstances be considered immoral. Denying a person in need, saying nothing in the face of discrimination, and refusing to forgive when we have been wronged all go against our morals. These are our beliefs, our chosen set of rules, and though we recognize that not every decision we make will be ethical and/or moral, we aspire to be better and ask forgiveness when we fail.