Morality & Ethics, Media & Form

The English words ethics and morality are often used synonymously. For instance, ethics might be called “moral philosophy.” But one way of distinguishing between morality and ethics is that moral values are undisputed; they don’t need discussion. Moral values remain “latent” or unspoken. For instance, caring for newborn children is an unspoken moral value; it’s a given. Anyone who questions this value only morally discredits himself. But the moment moral values become topics of discussion or debate, they become ethical questions rather than moral values.

This means that, socially speaking, morality would be a medial substrate and ethics would be a form. A medial substrate is like unformed clay, while a form is a finished vase. The vase, in contrast to the clay, is an immediately useful object. The transformation of the clay into the vase is also irreversible; the vase can’t be broken down to its previous clay medium because the heating changed its properties. This suggests that ethical questions cannot be reduced to implicit moral values. An ethical question is a social reality, not just a subjective feeling. Once we start debating the ethics of the death penalty, for example, the death penalty can never again become an obvious, unspoken moral good.

Luhmann discussed this in article discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Values are indisputable; they are not even in need of explicit communication. They can be taken for granted and this taken-for-grantedness can also be taken for granted. They are silent persuaders; but they decide nothing, because decisions are necessary only in cases of value conflict. In this sense, it is attractive to use values as criteria or programmes in moral communication, because they seem to fulfil but do not fulfil the function of allocating the values ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to concrete behaviour. They are stable, because they are ambivalent. They produce a semantic cover for unresolved conflicts. And therefore we need legitimation by procedure.

Luhmann, N. (1996). The Sociology of the Moral and Ethics. International Sociology11(1), 27–36. https://doi.org/10.1177/026858096011001003

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