Morals, ethics, and laws perform different functions and operate at different scales. They can sometimes be in conflict with each other, because what is moral (to you) may be different from what is ethical (to your group), or legal (to society).

Moral Sensations are Like Taste Buds

We all have them, yet we experience them differently

In Professional Engineering Ethics, I reviewed the obligations that engineers have to society, the public, and the profession. And I talked about why it is essential for professions like engineering to adopt codes of ethical conduct. Nevertheless, the codes themselves are not as important as the principles and motives behind these codes, because professional ethics requires the professional to confront situations that are not explicitly addressed by the code.

When thinking about obligations to others, professional engineers face moral, ethical, and legal considerations, each operating at different scales. These differences can be confusing. Philosophers often use the terms moral and ethical interchangeably, and students often confuse ethical and legal. This article helps sort out the differences, and explain what morality is.

Moral Reasoning Requires Moral Sensations

Although philosophers often conflate the terms morals and ethics, for our purposes they are different. Morals exist at the scale of the individuals who experience emotions. They do not have to be shared, or agreed upon, or validated by others, because emotions need no such legitimization to be real. It is important to recognize that emotions are neither right nor wrong, nor good nor bad… they simply are. Some emotions are positive (e.g., elation, joy) and some are negative (e.g., sadness, anger) but these need not be imbued with moral standing just because they are positive or negative. That is, positive emotions are not necessarily a moral good, and negative emotions are not necessarily a moral bad. Examination of the moral dimensions of emotions requires more sophistication than such a simple approach suggests.

The most important moral emotion is probably disgust. Jonathan Haidt, in his books The Happiness Hypothesis (see Erik Oliver’s summary) and The Righteous Mind (see Tarek Amr’s review) documents his exploration of disgust by eliciting it in his research subjects. Haidt created a series of hypothetical anecdotes to pose questions about incest, bestiality, or necrophilia, and asked his subjects, “What’s wrong with this?” He was careful to impose constraints that ruled out the possibility of utilitarian measures of harm (e.g., risk of birth defects or communicable disease) and under such conditions, he found that highly educated research subjects struggled to describe their objections. However, research subjects he recruited from McDonald’s restaurants in rural Virginia were not burdened by the need for cognitive justification of their moral judgments. To them, it was enough to know that the behavior was disgusting, and that made it morally wrong.

Haidt reasons that there are good evolutionary biological reasons human beings are equipped to experience moral emotions, and that we are biologically structured to experience them at birth. For example, it is quite natural for children to be disgusted by bodily fluids like urine, feces, and blood. Certainly, some children are more sensitive than others, and almost everyone can be desensitized such that they no longer experience an automatic disgust response, but Haidt points out that these fluids are all potentially infectious. Therefore, a revulsion to bodily fluids offers some survival advantage by reducing exposure to life-threatening disease.

There is one interesting exception to the bodily fluid example that helps strengthen Haidt’s point — I don’t know anyone disgusted by tears. There are many people who object to crying, but tears themselves do not give rise to the same sense of revulsion that blood or saliva do. If they did, you can imagine the difficulty that a mother might have in overcoming her revulsion to her crying baby’s tears, and the impact that might have on infant mortality. But in fact, tears are sterile, and so there is no survival advantage conferred to a caregiver that might be repulsed by them. Just the opposite has always been true for me.

As a parent, my instinct was always to kiss the tears off my children’s cheeks.

The assertion that morality exists at the scale of individual emotion is dangerous in one important sense: it suggests that there may be no universal moral truths or laws that bind all human beings. In the absence of a foundational moral Truth, there would exist no objective basis on which to judge moral conduct. At best, moral judgment becomes an exercise in relativism, in which any abhorrent behavior might be justified simply by the emotional response in the individual who exhibits the behavior. In such a case, the concept of morality serves no purpose, given that individuals can be conditioned to suppress emotional responses to heinous acts. Because moral relativism could justify any harmful act on this basis of learned emotional responses, categories of right and wrong would cease to exist, and moral judgment would descend into a hedonistic “do what you feel” festival.

The Simpson’s “Do What You Feel Festival” is welcomed by residents of Springfield as a change from their traditional “Do What We Say” festival — until it descends into chaos.

Nonetheless, this reasoning is over intellectualized. The universal moral truths we seek can be found in the universal human emotions that we share. Although it is possible to train killers, bullies, abusers, and exploiters who feel no remorse, that does not make their actions moral. With the possible exception of some rare sociopathic individuals considered aberrant, all human beings are biologically wired with the capacity to experience moral emotions, and organized prior to experience to feel them under certain circumstances, albeit with different sensitivities.

In Moral Foundation Theory, I summarized the five different dimensions in which Haidt hypothesizes we respond with moral emotions:

1. Care (vs. harm)
2. Fairness (and reciprocity)
3. Loyalty (to members of a group)
4. Respect (and authority)
5. Sanctity (e.g., purity).

While Haidt calls these “moral foundations,” it is helpful to think of them as moral sensibilities. That is, they are sensations, analogous to the taste buds in our mouth and nose. For example, almost all of us are biologically capable of tasting bitter, sour, salty, sweet, and savory (i.e, umami). We have different sensitivities to these, and we have different preferences for them, but there can be no denial that human beings are endowed with these capacities to taste them.

Some humans might be conditioned, or injured, so that they can no longer experience some of theses tastes. Imagine, for example, that your receptors for bitter foods were damaged and you lost the ability to taste the bitter flavor of coffee or chocolate. You might also lose the ability to taste the bitterness in certain poisons or medicines, and the consequences could be dangerous. But it does not mean that there is no such thing as an objective or universal sense of bitter, or salty, or sweet. The foods retain their intrinsic tastes, even when an individual has lost the ability to sense that taste.

By analogy, Haidt’s moral foundations can be understood as different dimensions of our moral taste buds. While taste is experienced at the scale of the individual, just as moral emotions are, there are nevertheless certain acts or experiences that are capable of eliciting disgust in all humans.

Thinking about Haidt’s moral foundation theory as moral “taste buds” allows us to better understand our own moral sensibilities. For example, we may have a sensory preference for sweet foods over bitter, or sour over savory, and foods that violate our preferences taste bad to us. By analogy, actions that cause harm may elicit moral emotions in us and thus be judged as bad. To the extent that there are universal moral Truths, they exist in the biological organization of our sensory capacities, prior to experience. To this extent, moral Truths may be understood as objective, although maturation of these innate sensory capacities into socially acceptable judgments about right or wrong might nonetheless be inter-subjective, in which the experience of a subjective truth is shared by many people with the same culture, perspective, or values.

Between the moral sensation and the moral judgment, there is a sense-making process that must interpret what the emotions mean. For example, you might be averse to the sight or thought of human blood. That does not mean that it is morally wrong to donate blood. Even if it makes you queasy, anxious, or disgusted to have blood drawn, the act of donating blood may be a moral good. Experiencing a moral emotion does not (by itself) constitute a moral truth. As Haidt points out in The Coddling of the American Mind, emotional reasoning can be a cognitive distortion that takes us further from the truth. Moral judgment requires both the emotion and the reasoning, with the latter responsible for interpreting and making meaning of the emotion.

Moral responsibilities are always to others.

Although our sensations, feelings, and emotions are experienced at the scale of our individual selves, morality only exists in the context of relationships — because moral concerns are always about the impact that we have on others. Moral obligations are about the constraints we place on our own behavior because our actions influence the well-being of other creatures with moral standing. These may be other people, but they might also include animals or objects others endow with moral consideration. Although philosophers often talk about moral reasoning, it is not possible to disaggregate moral reasoning from moral emotion. That is, without emotion, there can be no moral basis for decision making, and without reason there can be no meaning-making.

Because morality exists only in the context of relationships, the moral worthiness of our own actions must can only be assessed by accessing the moral emotions felt by others, and the meaning they attach to those emotions. Certainly, we have our moral standards for our own conduct that may make us feel disgusted or ashamed of ourselves. But to constrain our own behavior to avoid these feelings is not a moral sacrifice. It is a selfish act motivated by the desire to avoid experiencing negative moral emotions. Therefore, moral behavior must be understood in relation to the moral emotions elicited in others.

A story about my Father might provide an example.

One weekend years ago, when my kids were in elementary school, my parents came to visit. My Father spent the morning in our guest room, sleeping late, but he emerged when he smelled breakfast cooking. Unfortunately, he was dressed only in his bathrobe, which I considered unsuitable attire for breakfast. I admonished him to return to the guest room and clothe himself properly, to which he replied “Why? I’m comfortable like this!”
The absurdity of his justification for slovenliness, and his poor example to his grandchildren, dumbfounded me. In the moment I had no clever rejoinder that might resolve his invitation to some sort of philosophical debate. It seemed to me that he was behaving as a child, without consideration to my expectations as his host, and daring me to enforce on him boundaries that his parents (my Grandparents) likely never did.
“Because we’re trying to have a civilization here,” was all I said.
He turned his back, marched in a huff back to his temporary quarters and emerged in a shirt and trousers.
He was rewarded with scrambled eggs.

Universal moral truths cannot be found in household customs, or merely in good manners. Nonetheless, there are moral dimensions to the exchange between my Father and I. From my perspective, his choice of clothing was a violation of my principles of sanctity at the breakfast table. He elicited in me feelings of disgust, and to me it meant that he was a lazy, inconsiderate buffoon. From his perspective, my attempt to shame him into conformance was an unjust manipulation that violated respect for his autonomy. Both his actions and mine can be perceived as immoral, albeit by different people.

The most difficult moral questions are not between right and wrong, but between right and right, or wrong and wrong.

Ethics are shared moral expectations among members of a group

Because we are born with different moral sensibilities, and socialized by different experiences, immersed in different cultural norms, and shamed to conform to different moral expectations, some conflicts among individuals cannot be resolved by moral appeals. Your emotions and meanings will not be the same as mine, and like my Father and I, we will inevitably discover moral disagreements.

Ethics are an agreement on moral expectations among members of an identity group. Not all members of the group must agree on all moral expectations. In fact, group members may even privately disagree with the ethical expectations of the group, and conform their behavior to them nonetheless. That is, my Father might believe my clothing expectations are a moral imposition on his individual autonomy, but nevertheless conform to my behavioral expectations because he wants to remain consistent with the ethical expectations of my family group — if only to avoid my sanction.

Ethical conformity is typically enforced by the members of the group that share the behavioral expectations, and punishments often involve an escalating scale that progresses from gossip, ridicule (e.g., making fun of), public shaming, sanction, physical violence or loss of privileges, culminating in excommunication (or worse). For example, violations of professional engineering ethics are adjudicated by panels of professional engineers (such as might be appointed by State Licensing Boards), and not in civil or criminal courts. The ultimate sanction for engineering ethics violations is to be stripped of licensure, and thus cast out from the group. Other professions, such as doctors and lawyers, operate in the same way.

Therefore, for our purposes, ethics exist at a larger social scale than morals, but operate over a more narrow set of behaviors. For example, engineering ethics do not address matters beyond engineering and in this way, they are more narrow than the set of personal moral sensibilities that apply to the whole of human interactions. On the other hand, morals are personal, and ethics are shared.

Promulgation of ethical codes requires extensive deliberation among the members of the group, to ensure that the rules of behavior advance the interests of the group as a whole, and represent the shared values of the group.

Moral acts are always out of consideration for others, but ethical acts can be self-interested at the scale of the group.

Ethical codes of conduct help solve a non-cooperative game theoretic problem faced by the group as a whole. One of the important functions of ethical codes is to prohibit behavior that might advance the interests of the individual at the expense of the group. For example, engineering ethics prohibit “competing unfairly with other engineers.” While the meaning of the adverb “unfairly” is open to interpretation, the implication is clear — an engineer might have a rationale self-interest in disparaging the reputation of competing engineers, but at the scale of the profession, such self-interested behavior would ruin the reputation of all engineers and lower fees. Thus, the ethical prohibitions against unfair competition is a way of keeping all engineers working towards protecting the reputation, fee structure, and social status of all engineers.

Legal considerations exist at the scale of society as a whole.

Laws are the most general of all the constraints on behavior. They emerge from whatever the governance processes are in the society that promulgates them, and they reflect the values or interests of the most powerful members of the society.

Lawbreakers typically risk punishment, but are not always punished. Because punishment inflicts costs on both the punished and the punishers, law enforcement requires members of the society who are willing (or are compelled to) bear the costs of enforcement.

There can be instances of moral, ethical, and legal considerations that are in conflict with one another. Traffic laws provide several good examples, because the complex process of negotiating between moral, ethical, and legal obligations can have counter-intuitive and surprising results that are not resolved by law. Police officers who enforce traffic laws sometimes will explore the conflicts between these different scales of behavioral judgment, and exercise discretion in enforcement that makes allowances for moral or ethical intentions.

Officers who ask, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” are investigating the driver’s moral intent. They may make allowances for those drivers they judge to be of good moral character, and exaggerate offenses for those they judge to be of poor moral character. While these judgments are subject to biases, prejudice, stereotyping (or profiling), they also represent an attempt to improve the efficient allocation of the scarce resources necessary to inflict legal punishments.

Perhaps the most important example of the potential contrast between legal, ethical, and oral obligations can be found in acts of civil disobedience. For example, the American civil rights movement that reached a crescendo in the 1960’s made martyrs of those who were punished for intentionally breaking laws they perceived as unjust or immoral — such as segregation of seating on public buses. Another famous example is found in organized crime, which promulgates an ethical code (punishable by death) prohibiting testimony against others belonging to the same gang or mafia family. In this case, a defendant is expected to accept the individual sacrifice of suffering criminal punishment to protect the well-being of the larger group.

Criminal violations carry serious penalties, and consequently the standard of proof in a criminal proceeding in the United States is “beyond a reasonable doubt”. By contrast, civil proceedings seek to settle disputes between private individuals or entities and the standard of civil responsibility is the less strict “clear and convincing evidence”.

Particularly in the case of civil proceedings, the legal system is preoccupied with the utilitarian moral dimension of harm. Although civil proceedings recognize pain and suffering (i.e., hurt feelings) as worthy of compensation, there is little consideration in legal proceedings for the dimensions of loyalty, authority, or sanctity. Thus, our legal foundations reinforce the academic intellectualization of harm/care at the expense of moral emotions.

Moral reasoning and the Industrial Revolution

Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory represents an important break from the philosophers that provided the moral underpinnings of the Industrial Revolution. For example, Haidt is especially critical of Jeremy Bentham’s (whom he suspects is autistic) utilitarianism, because of the way that it reduces human emotions to nothing but economic hyperrationalism. Similarly, he critiques Immanuel Kant’s philosophy as inadequate to describe the role of context for meaning making in moral judgment.

Nevertheless, both Bentham and Kant provided moral arguments for justification of the extraordinary human sacrifices made necessary by the Industrial model of production: the dehumanization that accompanies specialization of labor, the reallocation of human capital according to volatile market-based price signals, and the astonishing accumulation of wealth by the few successful capitalists near the top of the corporate pyramid that emerged from socially Darwinistic competitive structures.

Haidt’s theory restores human biology and emotion to moral judgment by balancing the harm/care utilitarianism with additional considerations overlooked by the cold calculus of the famous philosophers from the two European countries that were the leaders of the early industrialization: the United Kingdom (Bentham) and Germany (Kant).

As the Industrial Revolution fades into the history books of the countries that have largely completed the process of industrialization, it is likely that the industrialist philosophers that articulated the moral ideas that served the revolution will also fall from favor. The moral ideas that replace them will likely be more complex, less rigid and exaggerated in its thinking, and useful to the challenges of a post-industrial society more concerned with sustainability and resilience than with maximization of industrial efficiency.