Have you ever deemed someone's behavior to be unethical? Have you ever questioned their moral code or the values upon which they base their decisions? When our minds wander to these places, the three terms -- ethics, morals and values -- tend to get a bit murky. As a society, we tend to interchange the three.
So, what's the difference between ethics, morals, and values? The difference is slight but it's there. Understanding the difference between the three will help you delve into your next novel with a greater understanding of each character.
Let's start with values. Values are the foundation of a person's ability to judge between right and wrong. Values include a deep-rooted system of beliefs. They have intrinsic worth, but are not universally accepted. This system allows each individual to determine what should and shouldn't be.
For example, if someone's value system is founded upon honesty, they would probably make a proper judgment between cheating on a college entrance exam (wrong) and studying hard to ace a college entrance exam (right).
Conversely, if someone valued achievement and success over honesty, that person may opt to cheat on the exam in order to achieve the desired result. This relates to which value is "worth more" to the individual.
These fundamental beliefs are the barometer that go on to guide a person's decisions. Values don't necessarily need to be "system wide" in a group of people. Rather, they tend to be a personal, individual foundation that influences a particular person's behavior.
Next, we have morals, which are formed out of values. They're the actual system of beliefs that emerge out of a person's core values. Morals are specific and context-driven rules that govern a person's behavior. Because this system of beliefs is individually tailored to a person's life experience, it's subject to opinion.
Be careful with the terminology in this category. Sometimes, the words "amoral" and "immoral" are interchanged. However, they're quite different. If someone is amoral, they have no sense of right and wrong. They don't have the foundation that comes with a sound set of values.
Meanwhile, if someone if immoral, you can be sure they know right from wrong. They're just choosing to do the wrong thing.
Given the personal nature of morals, someone might deem an action to be "good" even if it's breaking a law. For example, what if a daughter couldn't afford the life-saving medicine her dying mother needed but she, somehow, had access to the storeroom where the medicine was housed?
In this instance, her core values might tell her stealing is wrong. However, her morality would tell her she needs to protect her mother. As such, the daughter might end up doing the wrong thing (stealing, as judged by her values) for the right reasons (saving her mother, as judged by her morals).
Finally, we have ethics. Ethics are the vehicle to our morals. They're our morals in action. Ethics enact the system we've developed in our moral code. As such, someone will behave ethically or unethically. For example, someone's ethics will prevent them from taking action and telling a bold-faced lie or stealing their mother-in-law's secret recipe for cornbread.
This might seem like muddy water to you. The line between morals and ethics is so fine, it's easy to miss. Well, you're not alone. Encyclopedia Britannica considers "morals" and "ethics" to be interchangeable terms. However, the context in which they're used might provide further distinction.
We tend to link morals to matters of religion and spirituality. Meanwhile, ethics are closely linked to matters pertaining to medicine or law. We know doctors are held to a strict code of ethics when they swear the Hippocratic Oath. Similarly, an organization like PETA literally stands for "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals."
Consider morals as the rulebook and ethics as the motivator that leads to proper or improper action.
Sound moral judgment is rooted in strong values and acted upon by our ethics. It seems like the three are the same, but they're different enough to warrant a closer study. If you're writing a short story, you might want to approach your main character from this viewpoint.
As you develop the conflict your main character will face, try to create a deep-rooted set of values. Consider where those values might have come from. Then, use their morality as the barometer in any decisions they have to make.
Finally, allow your readers to watch your main character choose right or wrong as their ethics come to full view. This evolution will take your readers on an exciting ride. They'll be able to connect with and fully understand the choices the main character makes.
For more on the evolution of a short story, enjoy Get Creative: How to Write a Short Story.