History: You can't discuss the word "morality" these days without likewise discussing "ethics." Depending on whom you ask, either one begat the other, or vice versa, which would seem to indicate that the distinction we currently draw between the two is simply not supported by history. For example, according to some sources, "ethics" predates even Cicero (106–43 b.c.), who, they say, translated the word into Latin as moralis. Others credit "morality" as the root, arguing that it came into use in the late 14th century, some 200 years before "ethics." Regardless of which came first, however, the words were always considered synonyms for "standards of correct behavior"—that is, until the late 17th and very early 18th centuries, when "ethics" started to refer to "non-universal rules of behavior." But even here the terms were intimately connected, both ultimately conceding that at least some standards of conduct applied to all people in all places at all times. This would change in 1934 with the publication of anthropologist Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture. Benedict alleged that "morality" was a relative measure of right and wrong that "ethics" sought to study, essentially negating the original definitions of both terms, as well as any sort of objective understanding of good and evil.
Etymology: "Morality" comes from the Old French word moralité, which in turn comes from the Late Latin moralitatem. From the very beginning, it meant "related to appropriate manners and character"—two concepts that were believed to transcend cultures and eras. Starting in the 1590s, the term also came to be associated with "goodness." Note the lack of a qualifier here. "Morality" did not mean a relative understanding of what's good; rather, it referred to absolute "goodness"—the underlying basis for the varying sets of rules that guide the actions of particular social groups. Somewhat similarly, "ethics" is derived from the Greek ethos, which means "moral character." Only later, around 1650, did the term come to apply to "customs" or "an individual's code of conduct." Again, this slight change in definition did not preclude the existence of universal values, though it did open the door for Ruth Benedict and her assertion that no such values existed. Benedict's insistence that "ethics" is the study of why a culture chooses to adopt a given set of morals pretty much undid the belief that "morality" was based on unchanging truths. In fact, it reduced "morality" to something oppressive and opposed to nature—an artificial set of principles that "ethics" is meant to expose.
Effect: "'Morality' brings with it a particular . . . resonance today," writes the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer in his book Ethics. "It suggests a stern set of duties that require us to subordinate our natural desires—and our sexual desires get particular emphasis here—in order to obey the moral law." This "resonance," as Singer calls it, is Ruth Benedict's legacy, and its impact can be seen in Singer himself, whose influential viewpoints are a logical outgrowth of the type of moral relativism that Benedict espoused. For example, when defending abortion, Singer argues "that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being's life." Correspondingly, he contends with regard to bestiality that "sex with animals does not always involve cruelty" and that "mutually satisfying activities" can take place between humans and animals. Both positions stem from the increasingly widespread belief that there is no right or wrong, but rather that "morality" is an arbitrary cultural convention that one should feel free to accept or reject on utilitarian grounds. Thanks to Benedict et al., "ethics" is now the study of that convention, leaving us without a word for—and thus a way of acknowledging—those standards of virtue that have been written upon our hearts. •
If you enjoyed this article from Salvo magazine, please consider contributing to our matching grant fundraising effort. All gifts will be matched dollar for dollar! Thanks for your continued support.
© 2014 Salvo magazine. Published by The Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved.