Morality and Ethics

I am still thinking about the place of morality in social systems theory. I am interested in how the concept of morality changes as society moves from centralization and stratification to functional differentiation. For instance, in the economy, morality doesn’t register at all. Prices have information value only. In the health (or medical) system, signs of illness have information value, but not morality, and so on.

As society becomes more functionally differentiated we seem to move from a semantics of morality to semantics of ethics. One difference seems to be that morality is a global concept; it refers to one’s character as a whole, whereas ethics seems more restricted to certain areas of life. For instance, one can be called an unethical business person or a unethical scientist without morality coming into play. Morality is also often associated with sex, while it sounds odd to talk about sexual ethics, even though it is discussed. Organizations also have ethical guidelines, but not moral guidelines, that members are expected to follow. For example, the American Medical Association has a Code of Medical Ethics. And guilds in 13th century Florence had codes of ethics.

Here are a couple of Google Books Ngrams that show the usage trend for the words morality, immoral, ethics, and unethical between the years 1880-2008.

Ethics versus Morality:


The above graph indicates that authors indexed in Google Books have started writing about ethics more than morality.

Immoral versus Unethical:


If we project forward, we might predict that unethical will overtake immoral in the near future, just as ethical overtook morality in the first graph.

However, ethics is often used as a synonym for morality. Two common definitions of ethics are “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity” and “the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles.”


Ethics is also called “moral philosophy.” Nonetheless, I think the distinction between morality if ethics is important for reasons discussed above. I like this statement from a very interesting blog (or wiki) called Diffen.

Ethics and morals relate to “right” and “wrong” conduct. While they are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different: ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong.

Ethics can also be called morality supported by reason rather than authority or religion.

So in terms of social systems theory, as organizations becomes more prominent or influential, we would expect discussions of ethics to become more prominent.


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