Ethics v. Morals

Ethics and morals are used interchangeably by many people, and while they serve similar goals, they have differing origins and intentions. Ethics belong in the workplace; morals belong at home. Bringing morals to work, or into public in general, is the cause of a large amount of strife in our current world as well as the past.

Morals

Morals are given to us by religion (or other spiritual sources which, for the ease of discussion, I will simply refer to ask “religion”). They are a code that tell us how to behave and be successful within our religion. Often morals are a foundation for and understanding of “good” and “bad” (or “evil”). A “good” person has some traits, lacks other traits, engages in certain behavior, and eschews other behaviors.

Morals give us a guideline to aspire against, a high benchmark which we cannot meet, in order to help us strive for continual improvement. They also serve to define “us” and “not us” — to let us know who does not belong to our group, who is less worthy, and who is morally inferior. If I eat meat, I am automatically inferior in many moral systems; similarly if I am homosexual, female, or rest on the wrong day of the week.

Morals are like a Jell-O mold: we come into the world as liquid gelatin, and our morals help us solidify into a pleasing, good shape. Unfortunately, there are thousands of shapes of Jell-O molds in the world. And no one shape is more right than any other.

Ethics

Ethics are given to us by society. They are a code that tells us how to behave and be successful in the region, socioeconomic sphere, and culture in which we grew up. When we move into a different culture, their ethics can be difficult to understand. Ethics are often the basis of culture-based miscommunication. An ethical person does the right thing, in the context of a society at large. An unethical person does something that harms the society at large.

Ethics say: in our society, you can expect each Jell-O person to be an individual — not mixed in with other people’s Jell-O. And the Jell-O should have some rough shape or size — you can’t be selfish and take up too much space because that will infringe on the rights of other people to exist. And you shouldn’t consume the other Jell-O people, no matter how tasty they look, because you wouldn’t want to wake up consumed one day, would you? (It may be okay to eat other Jell-O people in other cultures.) And all Jell-O should have the right to have fruit bits inside or bubbles, or not, if they choose.

Examples

When an executive embezzles money from their company, this is an ethical violation — it harms the larger community. It may also be a moral violation for some people, but probably not for the embezzler.

Littering is an ethical violation.

Adultery is a moral violation. It may also be an ethical violation in prominent members of the community, to whom we look for demonstrations of virtue.

Intolerance always starts as a moral violation, but if the majority of a population share the same mores it becomes an ethical violation. Interestingly, tolerance is the opposite — it starts with ethics and gradually seeps into morality.

Morals at Work

A workplace is a societal construct. While in the United States, we have freedom of religion and speech; issues with morality at work are often based more on the ethical violation others can feel than a disagreement of religion. Since we do not all share the same morals, if I expect people to act according to my sense of morality, I will be consistently disappointed and sow dissent. By speaking in a moral way, I will alienate some listeners, and I will cause others to feel that I am prejudiced. Even innocuous things like me telling someone to, “Have a Blessed day,” can cause unintended offense and harm.

Since morals speak to the part of us that strives to perfection but can never succeed, they can inadvertently push a lot of buttons. Perhaps my “blessed day” comment is received by someone struggling to come out to their family, and it reminds them of their fear that their family will not accept them — now I have identified to them that I am also not a safe person for them to be around, which increases their anxiety at work.

Ethics at Work

Since ethics are based in social expectations, they are right at home at work. By speaking in an ethical way, I can appeal to the better side of all listeners who grew up in my society. If I suggest we pitch in to clean up the canal, to keep our environment healthier, this will be better received than if I were to couch the request in a moral context. Everyone in my society understands that we need to be better stewards of the planet. (It is possible to go too far, and have environmentalism become a moral issue, but that is out of scope for the purpose of this example.)

If I’m considering embezzling from the company, my morals may drive me to be a “good provider” — if I feel that I am not a good provider, embezzlement may seem like a viable option. I may be able to rationalize it away — If I take this much for this amount of time and I’m careful, I won’t get caught, and I’ll be able to pay for my spouse’s surgery. However, if I approach embezzlement from an ethical standpoint, it is never the correct action. Embezzlement helps only myself and my immediate family; it hurts hundreds if not thousands of other people. By helping myself, I am doing harm to my society.

Ethical questions do not always have an answer. Consider the question of whether or not someone should be able to choose the sex of their child. In approaching this question from a moral perspective, the answers are clearly told to us by our religious leaders. In approaching it ethically, we must instead come to our own conclusions, based on weighing evidence and weighing the rights of people as individuals as compared to the larger social impact such a choice would have.

Unless your job involves dealing with difficult ethical choices every day, you should steer clear of these topics, because the controversy will only breed moral discussion.

Diversity and Inclusion

There is a large movement toward diversity and inclusion in the workforce these days. This is fantastic. It shows that as a society, we are growing, expanding past our previous boundaries, becoming better than we were. The only way we are able to do this, to embrace diversity, is through ethical thought and consideration. If any one of us bring morals to work, diversity becomes another word for prejudice.

If my morals tell me that llamas are terrible, and I have to work with llamas in my job, I need to leave those morals at home. If I make disparaging or offhanded comments about llamas, the llamas I work with will be offended or hurt; I have created a hostile work environment. Maybe I’m the kind of person who rejoices in llama-hating and I want those dirty llamas out in the barn instead of in my office — then you should get rid me, because I’m a person who cannot keep their morals at home and I will only cause problems for you, your company, and your employees.


If you feel the need to be moral at work, ask yourself why. Then ask yourself how you can redirect that into a more ethical pathway. Morals provide structure, and by that very nature, exclude. Ethics provide big-picture context side-by-side with individual context; they are by nature inclusive. Ethics are more difficult to work with, certainly, because it is only up to each of us imperfect humans to decide what the ethical course of action is. Sometimes we get it wrong; sometimes we get it very wrong. But the great thing is, in applying our ethics we can always go back and make the choice again and get it right.