I'm currently listening to an interview with Ed Helms and they got around to a discussion of our legal system and the movie From the Hip starring Judd Nelson. They raise a quote from that movie that has gotten me continually thinking about it.
How is it that what's ethical isn't moral?
I think it's easy to get these two mixed up, but it's important to remember that they are different, though they start from the same place. Ethics are moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity. Ethics are established and agreed upon by a particular community. In modern society, the particular ethics of a community are often codified in laws and rules.
Morality covers the broader spectrum. Morality focuses on principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. It is on a much higher scale, the cosmic battle between right and wrong. And without a recognized, agreed upon external basis to work from, morality can become something that is very internalized. Something that we look inward to decide what is right and wrong to us.
For the believer, the standard for morality is provided from God. The ultimate standard of morality, holding us up to perfection, to holiness. He provides us a guiding voice internally in the Holy Spirit, which can show us the higher, moral calling.
From this basis, we can see how things can be ethical but not moral. And vice versa.
- Driving over the speed limit may be moral but unethical - it may be justified, but it's against the law
- Cops lying to suspects to try and bring about a confession is ethical but potentially immoral - they are permitted to by the law, but it approaches a very gray line in morality
And we can go on and on with examples given the interplay of the law and our standard. Often, we know that they line up. We recognize murder and the intentional harm of others for the sole purposes of killing or injuring them as both unethical and immoral. But we can get in trouble when we try to play them against each other. To see what we can get away with as ethical or legal actions, though we know that they are immoral. To let ourselves feel ok with our actions because we're still a good person by society's standards.
We can also see this battle within the church and believers. I think the Pharisees are perhaps the greatest examples of this dichotomy. Their entire focus was on the law. Obedience to the law down to the smallest part. Correct tassels on their gowns, proper amount of steps on a Sabbath, every jot and tittle in its place. And yet, Jesus, our perfect standard of morality, described them as whitewashed tombs.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Matthew 23:27
They followed every rule, but missed the greater moral requirements: love, charity, compassion, generosity, and humility. And by failing to live up to the moral standard, Jesus treated their ethics as worthless.
We see this in the story of the prodigal son as well. The older brother was the epitome of a rule-follower, viewing himself as highly ethical, especially compared to his younger, rebellious brother. And yet, the older brother lacked the morality that would cause him to pursue his brother, to bring him back, and seek restoration. And because of this failing, his brother's restoration brought anger instead of celebration.
Let us seek the higher standard. To do what is moral, even when it goes beyond what is required by our laws, our societal ethics. To do what is moral, even if it is unethical by the world's standards. To follow God's call even when it hurts. Then maybe we can answer the question.
Because ethical is not the goal. Holiness is.