Ethics or morality: why make a distinction?

Should one invoke Ethics or morality? Though this question is not a new one, the distinction resurfaces every time the field of action of science is about to be extended. As if to justify certain transgressive practices. François-Xavier Putallaz[1], professor of philosophy at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and member of the Swiss National Ethics Committee gives Gènéthique his analysis concerning this arbitrary procedure.


Gènéthique: Some decisions rely on a distinction made between ethics and morality. Why is morality considered to be different from ethics?


François-Xavier Putallaz:  Today, morality has bad press, while ethics is the new trend. In both cases, it is bad news. Indeed, they are exactly the same, only, the word morality comes from Latin while ethics comes from Greek. Imagine asking any philosopher, such as Aristotle and his remarkable “Nicomachean ethics”, to make the arbitrary distinction between “morality” and “ethics”. He would, for the least, be surprised, and would be quite amused at in this irrational oddity.


I willingly believe that the reasons of such a distinction are due to a lack of coherence: on the one side, we are all well aware of the emergency of finding necessary norms to regulate biomedical techniques: because technique is not self-regulating. On the other side, we are reluctant to agree to such norms because their requirements would question our way of life too radically. To be quite clear, we seek regulations but not too regulatory, norms but not too normative, requirements but not too demanding. And that is why we invented the subterfuge, claiming norms are part of morality, making them a private affair, and emasculating ethics to change it into some kind of “right-thinking” concept, a consensus around the “lowest common denominator”.


With the result that ethics tends to give credibility to habits and techniques: it goes with the fashion, in favour of the most powerful interests. While morality is becoming a private affair, with no social impact. They are two sides of the same ideology, and to me, the approach seems wrong.


G: How can morality be considered different from ethics?


FXP: Two philosophical currents are used to justify this separation. The Kantian Thought and utilitarism.


The famous distinction of the principles of Beauchamp and Childress: autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice, is characteristic of utilitarism. This current, of Anglo-Saxon origin, claims one simply has to weigh the advantages and disadvantages, the benefits and risks, and look on what side the scales tilt to make an ethical decision with, in mind, the maximum wellbeing of the greatest number of sensible beings concerned. The typical keyword associated with this current is “interest”. In the light of these four principles, ethics is reduced to trying to achieve the best interest of an individual or a group. However, only a being provided with a central nervous system is prone to finding an interest and weighs his decisions on the scales. By following this logic, as such, an embryo has no interest. One could even go as far as saying it is against its future interest to let it survive if it is, for example, carrier of certain disabilities. Ethics, in this sense, becomes very sectoral and partial, and therefore biased. Used on a global level, this approach is currently the dominant trend: to my sense it is however obsolete, because it relies on very fragile foundations.


The Kantian though, on the other hand, is in direct opposition with utilitarism. It presents a morality guided by duty, cut loose from any interests. It is all about “wanting to do what one must”. In this sense, morality speaks for itself, is intangible, unconditional, as it bends to a categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law of Nature”. In that, we have a pure morality of righteous intention, guided by pure reason. This morality, also, is very sectorial and partial

Thus, utilitarism only considers the consequences (necessarily also social), and the Kantian thought only considers the intention (necessarily personal). Thus, ethics and morality are separated. Ethics therefore becomes utilitarist, while unconditional morality is made private.


G: What are the conditions for an integral form of morality, of ethics?


FXP:  Thanks to the Greeks, we know that ethics (morality) must include 4 factors, and not simply one as in the sectorial form of morality I just spoke about: righteous intentions, aggravating or mitigating circumstances, consequences and goodness (or malice) intrinsic to human actions.


It suggests two statements: first, this integral morality is both individual and social. Secondly, utilitarism and the Kantian thought only consider one or the other of the ethical factors.


G: By differentiating ethics and morality, don’t we risk making the notion of ethics relative?


FXP:  In order to answer this question, one should distinguish three different functions of human reason:


  • a) A theoretical function: reason, founded on observation. Its objective is to say how things work and how they are. It is the object of fundamental science, of theoretical philosophy. The objective is to say what truly is. For example: “the earth rotates on its axis”. The question of human embryos lies within this function, and is therefore neither an ethical nor a moral question. What is discovered is therefore rational.
  • b) A practical ethical function: reason guides moral actions (individual or collective) in the most humane way possible. Here, knowledge is not rational but reasonable.  It is in that sense that it takes into account the intrinsic nature of an act, but also its intentions, circumstances and consequences. In each case, one better discerns what it is best to do both individually and collectively. Confronting everyone’s opinions, experiences, and competences progressively enables one to find the best solutions. How, for example, should NIPT be funded and used [2] ? Or again, what should be decided, in the case of an individual form of ethics, if a couple knows it is potentially transmitter of a serious hereditary disease?
  • c) A technical practical function: reason guides technical activity, according to the “rules of art”. The objective is not to make men better, but to achieve a quality product. For example, what are the conditions for good medical practices?


We can see that technique (c) must be regulated by ethics (b) itself guided by science and theoretical wisdom (a). Ethics (b) is not meant to regulate science, only technique.


Thus, without any relativism whatsoever, morality (or ethics) (b) always implies a rightful share of relativity: every time, one must take into account the circumstances, the people present, the culture, the economic conditions, the predictable consequences, etc.


If a certain morality has a tendency to make ethics rigid and turn it into a form of science, (a), inversely, ethics one tries to differentiate from morality falls into relativism which excludes any moral norm. We lose on both plans.


The choice of an integral form of ethics takes into account the requirements of a natural morality: “You shall not kill”, which includes yourself. But also, the various circumstances and subjective intentions; it is rigorous, supple, very demanding, but never judgmental.


G: Can one deliberately insure the existence of a morality and make it relative in the acts?


FXP: It is unfortunately the consequence of this ambiguous choice, to say the least: we lose both morality and ethics.


G: What is the consequence of this conception of ethics and morality on how one consciously determines a good action? Isn’t there a risk of making the notion of good relative?


FXP: As there is no difference between ethics and morality, ethics, understood as the relativisation of good and evil, has a progressive consequence on the moral education of consciences, which bit by bit risk being satisfied by lesser requirements. On the contrary, the aim is to keep clear and demanding objectives, while taking into account the sometimes-dramatic situations, the inevitable exceptions of a situation and the weakness of all human beings, you and I alike.


G: If ethics doesn’t “reveal the good", what does it reveal?


FXP: As I said further up, it simply ends up being the expression of the interests of the people in power.


G: Is it indeed possible to differentiate personal morality from social ethics?


FXP:  It is up to the science of man, i.e., philosophical anthropology, to define what a human being is. Yet, human beings are both, and by nature, individual and social. The relationship with others in communities (families, local societies, countries, the whole of humanity) is an integral part of human beings.


One should therefore not oppose morality (individual) and ethics (collective), but make a distinction between individual morality and social morality or individual ethics and social ethics. They are two parts of ethics, which complement one another, can be distinguished, but are not in opposition.


[1] Professor François-Xavier Putallaz

University of Fribourg (Switzerland)

Member of the National Ethics Committee (Switzerland)

Member of UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee

President of the Bioethics Commission of the Swiss bishops’ Conference


[2] NIPT: Non-invasive prenatal testing