I was thinking aloud (actually, online) last night on matters of morality and how the boundaries of morality depend in large part on one’s upbringing and one’s perspective on the human condition. Though one might recognize certain behaviors as “immoral,” one might engage in them, nonetheless, for myriad reasons. Does that make those behaviors any less immoral? Does that make the person who engages in them immoral? Are there “extenuating circumstances” that relieve a person who engages in immoral acts of the brand “immoral actor?” Morality and ethics, frequently used interchangeably, are different; morality derives from one’s own principles about right and wrong, whereas ethics relate to rules imposed on behaviors externally by the society in which one lives, e.g., church, legal system, etc.
I say about many characters in my writing that they are “good people who do bad things.” In one sense, that could define people who live according to their own sense of morality but who behave in ways that break the rules imposed on them externally. In another, though, that statement could provide the tension the character feels between his or her moral beliefs and actions that run counter to them.
Ultimately, both morality and ethics should (in my view) be guided by the physician’s creed: “first do no harm.” So much easier to espouse than to apply.