Two words, ethics and morals are closely related in terms of their meanings but are often far apart when it comes to their practice. The two words and their cousins are used by all kinds of people and therefore have very different applications.
Technically, ethics refers to a recognized standard of moral principles. However, when some people use the term they do not refer to anything that they believe is right or wrong. Rather, they are talking about an agreed upon way of operating. For example, businessmen will talk about their ethics, but it will mean how they believe they can be fair, making a reasonable amount of money or profit, yet still serve the customer. We can see immediately that some owners of a business will say that they are being fair because they agree with other owners, but the customer may not feel they are being fair at all.
Ethics is the way that people claim they will live, given a particular standard that they agree with. The House of Parliament has a standard of ethics or behaviour which its members have agreed to follow. One of the principles is to put the needs of PNG and its people before their own individual wishes or reward. This is a high ideal, one which is honorable and noble.
In most governments, however, officials have the opportunity to use their office for personal advantage. The same holds true if we work for a company, church, or a mission. In fact it is the case wherever we are. We may use the firm’s car, photo–copier, telephone, stamps, or whatever, for our own use, rather than for the use of the business.
If a business, company, or profession has a written code of ethics, these are a list of promises or procedures which the employees claim they will follow. For example, a medical doctor may not give a complete physical examination to a person without another professional person present. The doctor will not unduly expose the patients by making them completely undress. This is not because the doctor is likely to act immorally, it is because the doctor has no wish to be accused of acting improperly, that is, without the proper concern for the dignity of the patient. It is helpful for every organisation to have such a set of rules.
Of course, not everyone will follow the code of ethics. At times people are bribed and dishonest and do not follow the code of conduct to which they have agreed. When this happens we can say that the person is acting immorally because he deliberately refuses to follow the code. Sometimes the person may claim that the rules do not apply to him. This can be illustrated as follows: the average person in the USA consumes 15 times more energy than a person in a country like Papua New Guinea. Yet the typical American will not see that any ethical or moral principle is violated when he uses so much energy. He may claim that he has in fact paid for the energy. He will show that his personal needs come first because he believes he has earned the right or privilege to consume the energy.
We see, then, that the interpretation of waste, consumption, greed, and so on are part of the character of a person, regardless of the duty or moral obligation that someone else may believe he should have.
Christians are to follow God’s commandments so that certain ethical and moral standards are not offended. Jesus said that Christians, for example, are to love not only their family or wantoks, but their neighbors and even enemies as well. The Good Samaritan which we read about in St. Luke (10.30–37) illustrated this moral principle when he stopped and crossed the road to assist a man who had been robbed. He did not ask for compensation as a reward for this good deed, nor did he leave the man with a debt after he took him to the guest house. He freely paid the man’s debt and in so doing he followed the highest commandment in God’s moral system: he loved the man, just as Jesus loves us.
People who live within God’s moral system are those who display the character of God. This is their usual behaviour and they see it as their duty to help other fellow humans. We should not be surprised when they help others because they are living in character. If they did not we could say that they were quite out of character. This is one of their traits, qualities, or virtues.
We see then that the development of our character is closely related to our moral system. We have to develop a conscience which will give us a fair and reasonable view of what is expected. Although a person’s conscience can become a poor guide, this is because the good commands and prodings have been ignored. In its state of disuse a conscience cannot help, just like a muscle is useless if it is never exercised properly.
Countries, too, come to have certain characters or characteristics, depending upon their ethical and moral systems. Countries which are godless have no standard that is higher than their own to rely upon. Their system changes according to the times and according to the feelings they have about other people and countries. When this happens God’s moral standards are disobeyed and the nation and its people are left to their own devices.
In talking of morals we can talk of related expressions, like moral support and moral victory. The latter is a defeat that should have been a victory and the former includes help that is more in the line of encouragement than financial or physical.
I hope that we can see that all of us need to be morally responsible for our actions. We can best do this if we understand clearly the system of ethics which we are following. For Christians these are best summed up in the teachings of Christ.