Mores, Laws, Morality, and Ethics

Read this exploration of Aristotle's understanding of how societies (the state or governments) translate their ethical beliefs to create a legal framework for their citizens to follow.

How are we to behave toward one another? Morality is a social phenomenon. Think about this. If a person is alone on some deserted island would anything that person did be moral or immoral? That person may do things that increase or decrease the chance for survival or rescue but would those acts be moral or immoral? Most of what we are concerned with in Ethics is related to the situation in which humans are living with others. Humans are social animals. Society contributes to making humans what they are. For humans there arises the question of how are humans to behave toward one another.

What are the rules to be? How are we to learn of them? Why do we need them?

Why be Moral?

Consider what the world would be like if there were no traffic rules at all. Would people be able to travel by automobiles, buses and other vehicles on the roadways if there were no traffic regulations? The answer should be obvious to all rational members of the human species. Without basic rules, no matter how much some would like to avoid them or break them, there would be chaos. The fact that some people break the rules is quite clearly and obviously not sufficient to do away with the rules. The rules are needed for transportation to take place.

Why are moral rules needed? For example, why do humans need rules about keeping promises, telling the truth and private property? This answer should be fairly obvious. Without such rules people would not be able to live amongst other humans. People could not make plans, could not leave their belongings behind them wherever they went. We would not know who to trust and what to expect from others. Civilized, social life would not be possible.

So the Question is: Why should humans care about being moral?

Reasons – There are several answers.

Without morality social life is nearly impossible.


People care about what others think of them. Reputation and social censure

Some people care about doing the right thing. Conscience

Theological: Some people care about what will happen after death, to their soul or spirit. For many religions there is an afterlife that involves a person’s being rewarded or punished for what they have done.

So, that is out of the way. We know that we should be moral and so should others and without some sense of morality it would be very difficult if not impossible for large numbers of humans to be living with one another. Now to the questions that deal with the rules of morality and all the rules which govern human behavior.

First, some terms need to be clarified.

– customs and rules of conduct

Etiquette – rules of conduct concerning matters of relatively minor importance but which do contribute to the quality of life. Violations of such rules may bring social censure. Etiquette deals with rules concerning dress and table manners and deal with politeness. Violations would bring denunciations for being, rude, crude or gross. Friendships would not likely break up over violations of these rules as they would for violating rules of morality, such as lies and broken promises!

These rules are not just “made up” as one student once volunteered in class. But they are made up by people to encourage a better life. In each society there are authorities on these matters and there are collections of such rules. Many books are sold each year to prospective brides who want to observe the proper rules of decorum and etiquette. There are newspapers that have regular features with questions and answers concerning these matters.

This deals with matters such as when do you place the napkin on your lap when you sit at a dining table? How long do you wait on HOLD on a telephone call with someone with call waiting? Should you use a cell phone at the dining table? Should you have a beeper on or a cell phone on in class? In a movie theatre? Check on the answers to these questions. Hint: there are books on etiquette and you can also surf the internet – the answers are out there!

Morality – rules of right conduct concerning matters of greater importance. Violations of such can bring disturbance to individual conscience and social sanctions. 

Law – rules which are enforced by society. Violations may bring a loss of or reduction in freedom and possessions.

What is the relation of law to morality? They are not the same. You can not equate the two. Just because something is immoral does not make it illegal and just because something is illegal it does not make it immoral. You can probable think of many examples to support this view once you think about it.

Things that are illegal, but are thought to be moral (for many).

  • Drinking under age.
  • Driving over the speed limit.
  • Smoking marijuana.
  • Cheating on a tax return.
  • Splitting a cable signal to send it to more than one television.
  • People do not think of themselves or of others as being immoral for breaking these laws.
  • Can you think of other examples?

Things that are immoral (for many), but are not illegal.

  • Cheating on your spouse.
  • Breaking a promise to a friend.
  • Using abortion as a birth control measure.
  • People can not be arrested or punished with imprisonment or fines for doing these things.
  • Can you think of other examples?

What is the relation of morality to law? Well, when enough people think that something is immoral they will work to have a law that will forbid it and punish those that do it.

When enough people think that something is moral, they will work to have a law that forbids it and punishes those that do it repealed or, in other words, if there is a law that says doing X is wrong and illegal and enough people no longer agree with that those people will work to change that law.

Moral Philosophy to understand and to justify moral principles.

Ethics to establish principles of the GOOD and those of right behavior Ethics deals with the basic principles that serve as the basis for moral rules. Different principles will produce different rules.

Meta Ethics – discussion of ethical theories and language.

So, ethics and morality are not the same things! A person is moral if that person follows the moral rules. A person is immoral if that person breaks the moral rules. A person is amoral if that person does not know about or care about the moral rules.

A person is ethical if that person is aware of the basic principles governing moral conduct and acts in a manner consistent with those principles. If the person does not do so they are unethical.

Source: Philip A. Pecorino,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License.

Last modified: Wednesday, September 22, 2021, 9:13 AM