The Battle Between Morality Vs. Ethics: Which One Wins?

Updated August 09, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article mentions trauma-related topics, including sexual assault and violence, which could potentially be triggering.

Sometimes two words that seem alike may be more different than you think. Ethics and morals are a good example. Some people may believe they are the same thing or perhaps that morality is just ethics viewed through a religious lens. However, this is not quite accurate. In this article, we will discuss the differences between the two words.

Comparing Morality and Ethics

It’s understandable why one would think that ethics and morals are the same thing. Both are related to what is right and what is wrong.

In fact, there is an important difference between the two terms. In In a nutshell, ethics are external. They can be codes of conduct you follow at school or work, or a list of rules to follow in a religion.

Morality, on the other hand, is internal. It is your own personal belief about what is right and wrong.

Here is another way of summarizing it:

Ethics:

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  • Ethics are rules that are recognized by a certain institution. The institution may be a group, culture, society, profession, or religion.
  • Ethics are external and socially constructed.
  • Ethics tend to be followed because society tells us we should follow them. Sometimes, we may follow ethics that we don’t agree with.
  • Someone doesn’t need to be moral to be ethical. Someone without a moral compass may follows ethical codes to be in good standing with society. On the other hand, someone can violate ethics all the time because they believe something is morally right.
  • Ethics originates from the word “ethos,” which is Greek for “character.” In other words, ethics show the character of one’s establishment.
  • Ethics are bound by society. As a society changes, so will its ethics.

Morals

  • Morals are rules, principles, or other habits that conform to what a person thinks is right or wrong.
  • Morality is internal, so it can be argued that morality is subjective.
  • People’s morality tends to be consistent. However, a person can change their beliefs and morals as they grow older, which may allow them to live a better life.
  • Morality comes from the Latin term mos, which means “custom.”
  • Morality can come from cultural norms, but it doesn’t have to follow them. Sometimes, your morals can transcend what is considered to be the norm.

Ethics can come from different sources, including:

  • The culture in which you live. There may be certain manners or codes of conduct that aren’t illegal but are eyebrow raising if you ignore them. For example, in some societies, tipping the server is to be expected, while in others, it’s considered an insult.
  • An institution. A school will have codes of ethical conduct for both teachers and students. A workplace will have ethical codes for employers and employees. Firefighters and police officers are expected to adhere to ethical codes as well.
  • Laws. Some people follow ethical codes because they don’t want to be punished. When it comes to workplace ethics, people don’t want to be fired. With laws, people may follow some they disagree with just because they don’t want to be fined or arrested. For example, a person may think the speed limit is too low but follow it because they don’t want to pay the fees caused by receiving a ticket.
  • Religion. Religions (and interpretations of religions) each have their own ethical guidelines. Many religions share similar ethics, such as the Golden Rule, but others differ.
  • A group of friends. Even a unit as small as a group of friends may have its own ethics to follow, and if you don’t follow them, you may be seen as a bad friend or one who can’t be trusted.

What about morals? All of the above can influence morals. Often what you believe is right or wrong comes from society or the rules of the land. However, you may have your own spin on them or deny them entirely because you think they’re unjust. For example, prostitution may be illegal, but you may believe it’s morally acceptable because it is consensual.

How Consistent Can Morals And Ethics Be?

Ethics may change depending on context, but they may also be similar across contexts. For example, the ethical guidelines of a hospital may be similar to those of a psychiatrist’s medical practice, while those of schools may widely vary.

The consistency of moral codes depend upon the person involved. We are all different, and how consistent our morals are across time and context will vary. Some people have a moral code that remains unchanged throughout time. Others are open for their code to change as new evidence emerges. Finally, some people lack self-awareness and may embrace different moral codes as it serves them.

How Morals And Ethics Can Clash

Morals and ethics can clash quite a bit, which raises some provocative questions. Should someone follow the rules of the society, or should they fight those rules if their values tell them something else? The answer to this question may depend on the situation.

Let’s look at a few examples. Say a police officer believes marijuana should be legalized, but they have to follow the law and arrest people who possess or sell it because it is illegal where they work. This raises some questions. Is it a good thing if the officer violates his morals to keep the ethics of the law consistent, while perhaps trying to change the system in different ways? Or should they try to look the other way when they see marijuana or give the person a lighter punishment? Some may argue that the moral choice is better, while others may believe that if they ignore one law, it’s a slippery slope toward ignoring the law in general.

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What about a defense attorney? Most attorneys have their own moral code that may clash with the laws of the land. For example, an attorney may believe that stealing is wrong. However, they may have to defend a client accused of burglary, even where all evidence points toward their guilt. If the attorney defends the client, they may seem like they are immoral, but in fact they are fulfilling the ethical code that ensures a person’s right to an attorney.

Then, in medicine, there’s the debate over euthanasia. If someone is dying from a terrible disease that has no cure, should the patient have the right to die? Many doctors won’t let the patient die because of medical ethics: there’s always the hope that a cure could be discovered that could save the patient’s life or they could miraculously get better. A doctor may believe that a person has the right to die but refuse to help them do so because of the law.

Sorting Things Out

When your morality doesn’t line up with the ethics of the institutions that you live with, it can cause problems. It may cause emotional or mental health problems like depression – or you may end up in legal trouble.

Talking with a counselor or therapist can help you understand how your clashes between morality and ethics may be causing problems. A counselor or therapist can also help you navigate situations in which these views seem at odds.

BetterHelp helps users stay connected with licensed and professional therapists and counselors over secure voice and video calls and private chats.

Therapy for Moral Injury

Moral injury is defined as harm that is done to an individual when their most deeply held beliefs and values are violated. Moral injury may occur to those serving in the military, and it can create a risk for poor mental health outcomes. Research indicates that conventional treatments for PTSD may not be as helpful to those with moral injury, as these treatments tend to focus on fear, while moral injury is associated with guilt and shame. One study indicated that treatments that focus on restructuring cognitions (e.g., CBT) are likely to be effective in treating moral injury. However, data is lacking, and there has been a call for more research in this area.

The Benefits of Online Therapy

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As discussed above, therapy with an emphasis on restructuring cognitions, such as CBT, may be helpful for those who have experienced moral injury. But it can be difficult to attend in-person therapy when experiencing the symptoms of moral injury. This is where online therapy comes in. You can access BetterHelp’s platform from the comfort and privacy of your own home. There’s no need to sit in traffic or take time out of your busy workday to drive to your appointment; you can speak with your licensed therapist from wherever you have an internet connection. BetterHelp’s licensed therapists have helped clients deal with moral injury and other conditions associated with morality and ethics. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar problems.

Counselor Reviews

“I’ve had quite a number of therapists since I began my mental health journey — some better than others — and can honestly say Sreela is the best. Not only do I receive unwavering (and honest) support from her in more difficult times, but I am also able to laugh with her, to talk about things beyond mental health, when things are good and still feel like I’m putting in the work toward improving myself. Whether I am doing well or not, I always look forward to sessions with Sreela because I know I will leave them feeling better than I did going in. She makes improving myself feel easy and accessible, and has helped me emotionally grow exponentially since I began seeing her. I couldn’t recommend her enough, she is truly wonderful and I am thankful to have found a therapist who suits me and my needs as well as she does.”

"Jenn has been a lifesaver this past year of working with her. Throughout this year of working with Jenn, I have learned to have more self-compassion for myself, to trust my gut more, and to communicate more effectively in relationships. I can always count on Jenn to write back to me in a timely manner, on the same day, ask me thought provoking questions to shift my mindset a little bit, and for her to speak up if I am not in line with my values, or morals. Jenn has a wide variety of experience in a bunch of different fields, so having this experience has allowed her to dive deeper into all the different issues that have arose in my life this past year, and trust that she knows exactly what I'm saying and going through. Thanks Jenn for being my confidant this past year - I have gained so much out of our time together each week."

Final Thoughts

Morality and ethics have been studied for centuries, and you can find many interpretations of both. Some people believe that following the laws of the land is the best choice, while others think that sticking to your morals is the highest good. And then there are people who believe in both, saying that you should follow ethical codes, but not if they violate your personal morals.


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