Ethics and Morality

I left a comment on Adam’s blog saying I thought he was confusing ethics and morality. He said he found it confusing, and so I figured I’d elaborate here.

Morality is a determination of right and wrong. Pure and simple.

Ethics, on the other hand, has several meanings. In the philisophic sense, it represents the academic study of what is moral. But in the applied sense, it typically means “a set of rules designed to ensure against egregious immorality amongst its members, and to ensure the appearance of propriety both among its members and the profession as a whole.” While ethics and morality should, logically, generally be in sync, often they are not.

A simple instance of where they are often out of sync is the case of a defense attorney, who knows his client is guilty of murder, and works to ensure that his client is freed. By working to free his client, as opposed to just ensuring that his client gets fair treatment in court, the lawyer has done something deeply immoral. And yet there isn’t a lawyer in the country who would accuse him of behaving unethically.

Conversely, many so called “independence” rules have nothing to do with morality. People who work for accounting/auditing firms typically are not allowed to own stocks in companies that the firm immediately audits (except indirectly through mutual funds). The immoral action that they’re looking to ensure against is monkeying with the books. But it’s monkeying with the books that’s the immoral act, not owning the stock, which is just unethical. Another simple example is the Senator from Oklahoma who wants to continue practicing medicine while on congressional break, but is prevented from charging for it because of Senate “ethics rules”.

These types of contradictions are seen all the time in congress. Just think of all the times you see someone cleared of “ethics wrongdoing” but whose actions nevertheless stink to high heaven.

And therein lies the issue Adam is grappling with. In his post, he postulates that having an ethicist on the board of Sony would have done no good, because Sony would have believed that their DRM scheme was perfectly moral. He says “ethical” but he means moral.

If the music industry had a set of ethics, they likely wouldn’t cover DRM schemes, except maybe to oblige the label to do everything in their power to combat piracy. Their ethics would reflect their morality to that extent, and you can be sure that the guidelines they set up would be primarily to protect the industry as a whole from the potentially embarrassing conduct of its members. Installing spyware is something like the lawyer freeing the murderer, perhaps immoral, but it’s just what they do for a living.

In short, unless someone like Adam actually wrote a set of ethics for the industry and sat on the board of a record company, it’s unlikely that ethics guidelines would help resolve this issue.


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