Monday, March 21, 2005

Post Number Seventeen: O Tempora! O Mores!

Of Morality and Ethics

It is said that Marcus Tullius Cicero, the most famous lawyer of Rome and one of the most prominent philosophers of Latin culture, uttered the sentence "O Tempora! O Mores!", commenting the degradation of Roman customs. The sentence can be freely translated as "What kind of age! What kind of customs!"


The word mores, plural of mos, means both "customs" and "morality". In fact, the word morality itself derives from the Latin mores. According to dictionary definitions, morality is a behavior that doesn't contrast with the society's standards. In more than a way, morality is defined by a specific society.
There is another word, of much higher philosophical stand, that is ethics. Like most of the philosophically meaningful words, this one derives from the Greek, more precisely from the word ethos, which means behavior. Ethics are defined as a system of moral values. As a branch of philosophy, it deals with the nature of morals and the choices made by a person.
If you are interested into the details and the intricacies of morality and ethics, Immanuel Kant (German philosopher of immense importance, whose arguments lie at the basis of modern civilization) has written various books on the topic. It's not nearly an easy reading and I won't dig into his views, but it is certainly useful to get in touch with his writings.

Anyway, it seems quite obvious that morality lies "one step below" ethics, in the sense that:
ethics focus on the principles that define what is moral and what is not, therefore nothing can be deemed moral or otherwise without resorting to ethics first.

An example of modern ethics is easily brought to mind. Liberals (like me) define their ethics through two very powerful principles:

1) Individuals are free to do whatever they want, as long as their actions do not interfere with any other individual
2) Individuals are free to do whatever they want to other consenting individuals

It's all there. Liberalism in its essence. These two principles define a precise set of moral actions. Once these two principles are clear, it becomes immediately obvious that:

1) the religious opinions of others, whether they are the majority or the minority of the population, cannot influence in any way an individual's choices
2) the political beliefs of others, regardless of how cherished they are by the majority of the population, cannot influence in any way an individual's life
3) regardless of how annoying the sight of an individual's life is, the society has no right to chastise him or her for his choices.

Points 1) to 3) define moral behaviors.
Anyway, in each situation, it is possible to define what is "morally acceptable" for a liberal, by resorting to the principles of our ethics (I say our, because I am a liberal).

I will dig further into this matter later. This happens to be a small summary of my famous disappeared post.