OH, this is a tough one–it’s tough because society often blurs the line between the two. This isn’t a new problem and it’s not going away as a problem for the foreseeable future…and here’s why:
Morals: The Principles or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct. While morals also prescribe dos and don’ts, morality is a personal compass of right and wrong–often created by religious or other environmental variables.
Ethics: The rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group or culture within a social construct. Ethics are guidance for dealing with society regardless of personal moral codes.
–source: Diffen.com and Oxford English Dictionary.–
There is the additional conflicting issue in the dictionary:
mo·ral·i·ty [məˈralədē] NOUN
principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.synonyms: ethics · rights and wrongs
The dictionary even says morality and ethics are synonymous (though only in the broadest sense by saying “rights and wrongs”)
SO, how do we as simple wordsmiths use such a seemingly convoluted measuring stick to write our characters? Easy (if you can keep your objectivity); Ethics are concrete (or a much more slowly moving megalith) when compared to the diversity of morality.
1. Morals may tell you it’s wrong for a fifty year old man to date an eighteen year old girl, but Ethics tells you both are legal adults and are capable of making their own decisions. Your morals (your personal code) might push you to impart the importance of a young woman seeking a partner who is more an intellectual equal so as not to be victimized, but the ethics of this society would rule you are nothing but a nosy, judgmental prude, applying your personal opinion to a situation you know nothing about; the girl might be an intellectual giant. She may not be attracted to younger men or the testosterone driven behavior that is often associated with them. The man might be, at fifty, a professional skateboarder or surfer who feels it’s difficult to find like minded free spirits of his own age.
2. Morals may tell you its wrong to eat meat. Your strongly held belief that the killing of an animal just so someone might enjoy tasty flesh is nothing more than murder, and is so strong, that looking at meat actually makes you ill. Ethics on the other hand SHOULD tell you that the rest of the world accepts lower animal forms as an acceptable nutrition source. Come to think of it, so has nature. Your argument, though profound and enlightened to you, is based on your opinion and to attempt to force that on the rest of society is seen as arrogant and presumptuous.
So how do we use this to shape our characters? Again…easy (if you can keep your objectivity)
Good guys will always have a moral code that has to butt heads with ethics from time to time. The reading of your protagonist (and villains) depends very much on how they react to that contradiction. A protagonist must adhere to ethics of society to be respected and any blurring of the line between morality and ethics must be minor and paid for (if they are to be believable and remain likable). Your bad guys will let their personal code guide them completely, justifying the breach of ethics with a “higher calling”. The higher calling doesn’t even have to be a set of “bad” morals. Anytime an individual uses their own personal compass of right and wrong to judge and then deal with others, they become the villain, even if you agree with their moral standing.
Here’s why. Below is a fictional circumstance applied both to a protagonist and a villain: Little Bobby grew up in an abusive household. His father was rarely present and when he was present, said father would pull off the belt and strap little Bobby for the smallest infraction, even if it was just standing in an inconvenient place when dear old dad didn’t want him there. Let’s look in on little Bobby once he reaches adulthood.
Protagonist: Bobby watched the man in the hardware store grab his son by the wrist. He flinched when the father’s hand swung down in a wide arc and landed with a solid thwack on his son’s bottom. Memories of Bobby’s own beatings as a child swept up from deep within, accompanied by a warm flush to his face.
The man’s eyes caught Bobby staring at the display and locked gazes briefly before the second blow could be delivered. The man looked away, slightly embarrassed before kneeling in front of the now crying son.
“This place has lots of dangerous stuff laying around,” the father said. “Don’t walk away from me again and don’t touch the things on the shelves…you could get hurt.”
Bobby walked away and released his breath in a whoosh.
And here is that same scene with Bobby as a villain.
Villain: Bobby watched the man in the hardware store grab his son by the wrist. He flinched when the father’s hand swung down in a wide arc and landed with a solid thwack on his son’s bottom. Memories of Bobby’s own beatings as a child swept up from deep within, accompanied by a warm flush to his face.
He was moving before he had time to think about it.
The man’s eyes caught Bobby as the fist flashed through the air, smashing the man in the cheek. The boy fell backward to the floor and began crying as the man tried to get up, but Bobby kicked the man in the gut. “It’s not so much fun when it’s someone who can hit back, is it? Bobby hissed through gritted teeth.
The man coughed and choked as Bobby reached into the man’s pocket for his wallet. When he reached up to stop Bobby, another brutal punch was delivered.
As the man lay on the floor gasping, Bobby pulled out the man’s driver’s license. “I’m gonna check in on you, ‘Charles Granger’,” Bobby said. “And if I find out you’ve laid one hand on your son, or any other kid again, next time you won’t be able to walk away…you got me?”
The man coughed again but didn’t answer.
Bobby pushed him roughly with his foot. “You got me?!”
“Yes…yes, I’ve got you.”
Bobby clearly thinks he is the hero in this scene, because he has applied his own moral code, his own deeply held sense of right and wrong, to a situation he knew nothing about. And because he felt he had the moral high ground, he allowed himself to cross several ethical barriers to exact what he considered righteous justice. Unfortunately, he made the man second guess himself as a father who would thereafter avoid any confrontation with his son. The son, after having witnessed his father being beaten for delivering a single whack on the behind, became more bold in his defiance. Granted, perhaps the man could have delivered his message to his his son without the whack…I would have. But by interfering, the familial balance was upset and that boy, with a father who was now hesitant to face disciplining his son, became a hooligan…true story. 🙂
It also applies to someone who walks into a Planned Parenthood clinic and shoots a bunch of people with a Kalashnikov…even if you agree with his Moral Code, you have to agree his ethics are seriously screwed up. If you don’t you might need to examine your own ethics.
The problem with writing this dynamic (and one of the benefits if you play it right) is that EVERYONE thinks their moral code is the right one. If you are writing to a niche audience and want to convey a message, you can do so by slowly leading your protagonist out of applying their personal moral code to everyone else, and instead, take the bolder, society stabilizing ethical course. This is difficult, as you no doubt are aware as a human being. But that seemingly easy, but practically difficult act makes a true hero…someone who everyone can respect, not just those who agree with his personal code.
If you liked this post, then please like this post 🙂 S.L. Shelton is the author of an Amazon Bestselling Political Thriller Action Espionage Series, (The Scott Wolfe Series). Follow him here on WordPress, on Twitter @SLSheltonAuthor or Facebook. He will love you for it. And if you like the posts, click like (likes, follows and reviews are the best way to get authors to write more.)