Annabel Beerel

The Ethics – Morality Gap

by Annabel Beerel, Ph.D.


“Learning How to Live Takes a Whole Life.”  Seneca

Why be ethical? Why should one bother? All the philosophers, sages, theologians, and social thinkers since the beginning of our recorded history agree on the answer to this question. Living an ethical life advances human well-being. Nowadays we acknowledge that ethical behavior advances all life, not just that of humans.

Pursuing an ethical life leads to a good life. What is a good life? A good life is one filled with flourishing, harmony, well-being and happiness. A good life means living and acting justly. A good life results from careful discernment that leads to the making of wise choices and good decisions.

How does one increase one’s wisdom? By enhancing self-awareness and engaging in continuous examination of how one lives one’s life. This means paying conscious attention to one’s own understanding of the world and how this understanding influences the decisions one makes. In looking at one’s decisions, one looks at the type of decisions one has made and how one arrived at those decisions. One reflects on the values, assumptions, inferences, personal biases and preferences, fears and hopes, knowledge and expectations that led one to select one decision choice over another. Ethics is about examination and reflection.

Ethics is also about deliberation. Deliberation occurs as one asks oneself what factors one is taking into account in making a certain decision. One questions what choice in a particular case would lead to a good decision and what would lead to a bad decision? What makes a decision a good or a bad one? What criteria should be used? Wherein lie the differences? Which ethical principles (see below), seem most appropriate to guide which type of decisions? What makes them appropriate? How does one justify using one principle rather than another? What factors should be taken into account? Ethical deliberation is also referred to as Moral Reasoning, something we discuss in detail in the next chapters.

Ethics is about questioning. Ethics is concerned with the interpretation of ethical principles. Should certain ethical principles be interpreted differently? Has the meaning of flourishing or well-being or justice changed due to time or circumstances? Are there new interpretations or new principles that one should consider? What ethical principles do we need to guide us now? How would that change the decision under consideration? How does one justify certain rules and roles in certain circumstances?

The issue of slavery provides a good example regarding ethical deliberation and questioning. The idea that people should be treated equally goes back 2500 years. The problem with this ethical principle was that at the time it applied only to “equal” people, i.e., only equal people were to be treated equally. In other words, those not considered “equal”; women, children, and slaves for example, did not fall within the ambit of this principle. It has taken thousands of years for ethics to catch up with the idea that all people, by virtue of their humanity, are equal and therefore, all people, without exception, should be treated equally. (In reality, we have not quite got there yet as regrettably we still discriminate and do not treat all people equally.)

A Definition of Ethics

Ethics is concerned with the principles of right conduct and the systematic endeavor to understand moral concepts and to justify moral principles. Ethics analyzes concepts such as “right,” “wrong,” “permissible,” “ought,” “good,” and “evil” in their moral contexts. Ethics seeks to establish principles of right behavior that may serve as action guides for individuals and groups. It investigates which values and virtues are paramount to the worthwhile life of society.” (White 1993.)

Ethical Principles

In order to live an ethical life, we can turn to many ethical principles that are available to guide us. These principles have evolved over the centuries. These principles take the form of theories and injunctions proposed by philosophers, theologians, social activists and others. Many of these theories and injunctions have been incorporated into our thinking as we have grown up. They have become part and parcel of our decision-making tools. The Golden Rule provides a well-known example: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Other examples of ethical principles include “you should do your duty” or “every person should be treated equally” or “we need to do what is best for the majority.”

Ethics, as a discipline, is continuously evolving. This means that as our social consciousness changes, and as new dilemmas arise we devise new, or reinterpret existing ethical principles. As a result, contrary to say 500 years ago, we now have business ethics, bioethics, and environmental ethics. If we take one case in particular, in the mid-1900s we suddenly awoke to the fact that the well-being of the planet is as important as our own personal well-being. There will be no human flourishing if we do not take care of the planet. (Indigenous people have known this and paid attention to this fact for eons.) As a result, we now have new ethical principles that focus on sustainability and harm to the natural habitat and to the earth.

Ethics has a developmental aspect. Ethics invites us to engage with principles that require interpretation and application. Ethics does not provide clear cut answers. It involves searching, seeking and striving: searching for the most appropriate interpretation; seeking for the optimal consideration of possibilities; and striving to uphold goodness, harmony and well-being.

Ethical thinking draws us into greater cognitive maturity. The ability to engage in ethical thinking as opposed to simply following norms or rules reflects greater engagement with the dynamics life and greater personal responsibility for the well-being of humankind.

Because ethics concerns principles rather than rules, we need to intellectually engage with them. We need to consider how the principles should be interpreted; how they relate to particular circumstances; how we deal with conflicting principles, and how applying different principles makes a personal statement about us.

As we see when we discuss Moral Development in Chapter 2, the majority of people prefer to conform to rules, norms and conventions rather than grapple with ethical principles that require intellectual and often emotional engagement for their application. People who strive to be ethical are far more thoughtful than those who do not for the simple reason that ethics requires an engagement in judgment and discernment. Effective managers need to judge and discern rather than obey. Exercising judgment and discernment entails more risk than simply obeying. Being ethical is risky. There will be more discussion on the matters of risk in Chapters 7 and 8.

Now let us look at the term “morality.”


Morality refers essentially to people’s behavior; what it is they actually do. A person’s behavior is deemed moral or immoral depending on whether it conforms to the commonly accepted rules of conduct, and customs of the group or society to which the person belongs. An example of a moral norm is monogamy. Anyone who chooses to have more than one spouse in a monogamous culture or society would be considered immoral.

A Definition of Morality

Morality refers to the norms, customs and mores approved by a particular group, society or nation as values and standards perceived to be good and right for that group, society or nation.

Moral norms or customs are established by people to facilitate their coexistence in a manner they believe is optimal. Moral norms and customs act together with laws to keep people’s self-interested behavior in check. They serve as a form of disciplinary control over group members.

The moral norms of a group or society are usually established by those in power (those in power make the rules), or those in the majority. Custom or tradition frequently plays a strong part in setting the standard or tone for expected moral behavior as people are often reluctant to overturn deeply embedded cultural norms. (Think of the years of haggling to get alcohol available on a Sunday in Massachusetts.)

Just as new ethical principles evolve as a result of questioning, moral norms also change. This might either be due to pressure from increasing acceptance of new ethical principles or because there is a changing of the guard. For example: New ethical principles focus on the environment and its sustainability. As a result, recycling has (almost) become a new moral norm.


ETHICS                                                         MORALITY

Cognitive                                                       Behavioral

Reference to ethical principles                       Dictated by moral norms and customs

Examination and reflection                             Conformance and obedience

Deliberation and continuous questioning        Adaptation to changing cultural pressures

Evidence of moral reasoning                          Evidence of actual behavior

Refer to striving for goodness                         Refer to right or wrong behavior

Emphasis: the person’s choice in freedom  Emphasis: the person’s action in conformance

As we can see ethics and morality are different concepts. Ethics concerns reflection and judgment; continual questioning and analysis, and is forever evolving. We also note that ethics is about theory that holds up an ideal, while morality is about the messy, real world of behavior and action. Ethics is the discipline, while morality is the subject under study. Ethics acts as the ongoing critical analysis of morality. In ethics, we are primarily concerned with motivation and deliberation, i.e. how we think and what we intend. With morality, the prime concern is with what we actually do.

If we refer to the opening quotation from St. Paul, St. Paul’s ethics guides him to what it is he should do; what he wills or really wants to do. However, when it comes to his actual actions, he does not follow through on his will or intention. He ends up doing the very thing he does not want to do. Here we see what I have referred to as the ethics-morality gap or tension in action. The opening case is an example of how this gap can occur in real life circumstances.

Once again:

Ethics – what ought we to do? – this concerns our thinking, deliberating, questioning, reasoning about what is good or bad, right or wrong conduct with the goal of advancing goodness or making a wise choice.

Morality – our actual behavior – are we applying the rules/norms/customs that govern what people do in the practice of life in a particular context with the goal of conformance to expected norms or adherence to the rules?