Ask Lewis: What is the Difference Between Morality and Ethics?

A Conversation on What is Moral Behavior?


Foundational Principle for this Conversation:  Religiously imposed  morality  leads  to  repression, sadness  and unnecessary struggle. Religious moralists wear special robes or clothes that in essence announce to the world, “Here walks a man of great morality and spiritual knowledge.”   Artificially spiritual as they appear on the outside, often  they only feel condescension and condemnation for others.  There is nothing wrong with truly moral behavior. It  is  actually something we need to aspire to. Our concern is with the type of artificial morality that is created by the rule of law.  We must place the inner ethics that comes from self-assessment on  a higher plane than religious morality.


Definition: Morality - the study of what makes actions right and wrong. Based on the Latin moralitas “manner, character, proper behavior”.

STUDENT: How is morality different than ethics?                                                                         

LEWIS: The distinction is not always clear and for some they are synonymous.  In the social sciences morality is the study of what makes actions right and wrong. Ethical behavior is  a  reflection  of  a  person’s  intent  to  act. In  Lewis

Harrison’s Applied Game Theory (LHAGT) morality is a reflection of a group’s ideas of what is right and  wrong  that  is imposed on an individual, whereas ethics is a personal choice of what is right or wrong.
STUDENT:  So in LHAGT you must behave morally or the group may punish you, whereas with ethics you are in essence violating your own rules.

STUDENT: Would most academics agree with the distinction you have just stated?
LEWIS: Some would and others wouldn’t. Generally speaking the word “moral” has three principal meanings.

Descriptive definition: Here morality means a code of conduct held to be authoritative in matters of right and wrong. Morals are created by and define society, philosophy, religion, or individual conscience. An example of the descriptive usage could be, “Common conceptions of morality have changed significantly over time.”
2.  The Normative definition: This is morality as it is used in a universal sense. Here morality refers to an ideal code of conduct, one  which would be espoused in preference to alternatives by all rational people, under specified  conditions. This is a  prescriptive sense  of  morality, one that  is quite different and at times even as opposed to the “descriptive” sense, where moral value judgments are made concerning issues such as,  “When is killing another human immoral?”
There are many who deny the concept of normative morality. This position is known as  moral  skepticism.  In  moral skepticism there is a denial of the idea that there are objective moral “truths”.
3.  Here morality and ethics are synonymous.

STUDENT: Let’s explore spirituality and religion-based morality. Would religion-based morality be the most authentic approach to living in the “good”?                                                                                                     

LEWIS: Not necessarily. Many highly ethical people view religion-based morality as fundamentally flawed. They believe that the primary failure of laws of morality that are imposed by religious leaders on their followers is that they lead to competition and repression without actually increasing and actual appreciation of what is ethical and moral.

STUDENT: What does self-actualization have to do with morality?                                         

LEWIS:  A person committed to self-actualization will need to behave ethically and with moral integrity because this is
the way that a person on such a path must act. Religious leaders create new rules and schemes to force their followers to be moral threatening them with hell and damnation.  For the self-actualized person, the true seeker of freedom, love and wealth, artificially created morals and artificially created rules of culture are the first signs of a deviation from the path of wisdom.

STUDENT: Why would a person focused on self-actualization have doubts about the value of traditional religious morality?

LEWIS: With the meditation, contemplation and  introspection associated  with  the  path  to  self-actualization  some individuals may begin to question traditional religious morality.  Some thinkers believe that  imposed  morality  is  a tool that pompous men use to show how deeply spiritual they are, to show how superior they are to the common man. They believe that such morality leads to the development  of  rites  and  rituals in religion (See the  Conversation: Religion). Though these religion-based moralists may seem intelligent and clever they may lack the wisdom of the self-actualized  person.

STUDENT: Speak more about religion and morality.
LEWIS: For a person who bases his/her moral standards of morality on some scripture or through  commentary  on the texts of revelation, what they are essentially implying is that some Divine force has  provided  these  principles  through revelation, sometimes in great detail. These codes are equivalent to “laws” in the religious sense as in the Law of Moses, or Sharia – Islamic law. Such  codes  are  distinguished  from  legal  or  judicial  codes  created by humans to serve the hierarchy or the greater community.

STUDENT: Why is a sense of morality important?

LEWIS: Morals help us decide what is acceptable and unacceptable. Science offers poor paradoxical advice on how we need to behave. There is always a struggle within us between  what  is  pleasurable and what serves our best interests.
STUDENT: If religiously imposed morality is insincere how would one describe authentic morality?               

LEWIS: For the self-actualized person morality is based on  the  doctrine  of  right intention, detachment from the world, and inaction – what the  Chinese Taoists call Wu-wei.  (See the Conversation: The Law of Attraction)). Wu- wei  may  appear esoteric in nature but in reality the concept is a reflection of natural law. Wu Wei proposes that it is possible and best, “to accrue the greatest benefit by thinking what is right and living with the least amount of action.”

STUDENT: What would be an example of right intention?
LEWIS: There are times in life when we resist an individual or an organization  that  seems  bent on harming others or destroying that which serves the world.  In such a situation the individual who resists these evil acts is acting ethically though to the group he may seem immoral. Such a person may not even think of their resistance in moral  terms. The resistance itself  is  of  an  even  greater  level of morality if one believes that what is good for humanity on the highest
level supersedes a group or nation’s definition.

STUDENT: Do you have any final thoughts on this subject in relation to Game Theory?
LEWIS: We must decide what is ethical and which life strategies we want to choose as a personal code of conduct. We don’t need government, clergy or other groups to tell us what is ethical or moral. History has shown us  through ancient Greece, Rome, China, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia that those civilizations which attempt  to  pass the immoral  as moral ultimately self-destruct.

STUDENT: Speak about how the emotions affect moral behavior.
LEWIS:  What you are asking about is known in the social sciences as “moral emotions”. These are emotions that are linked to the interests or welfare either of society as a whole  or  at  least of persons  other  than  the  judge, agent,  or player. Many evolutionary  biologists  believe  that  moral  emotions  are  based on  the principle of reciprocal altruism. This notion is in turn tied to the concept of group selection. In  evolutionary  biology, group selection  is a controversialbut interesting idea that refers to alleles  (specific forms of genetic material  – see the glossary for an in-depth definition)  that can become fixed or spread in a population because of the  benefits  they  bestow  on  groups, regardless  of  the alleles’ effect on the fitness of individuals within that group.

STUDENT:  What might be an example of a moral emotion?
LEWIS: Sympathy, anger, gratitude, and guilt.

STUDENT: Please explore this in greater depth.
LEWIS: In  applying  the idea  of  moral emotion in LHAGT one must choose whether winning id defined by individual benefit or group benefit as might be  described  in  group  selection.  Depending  on  one’s  perspective sympathy will motivate a person to offer the first favor, to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest and possibly benefit the one or the group most. Anger protects an individual or group against cheaters who accept a favor or a benefit of some type without reciprocating. Anger also motivates the individual or group  to  demand  accountability  from the cheater through coercion, implied coercion or by some form of penalty or punishment. In  extreme  situations the penalty may

be to exclude the ingrate or sever the relationship (expel him/her from the Game). Gratitude will impel a beneficiary to reward those who helped him/her in the past. Guilt motivates a cheater, in danger of  being  discovered,  to  repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and “loudly” communicating to the individual or group that he/she will play by the rules of the game in the future.

STUDENT: How important is the idea of religious belief or spiritual focus on morality?
LEWIS: It is irrelevant. There are many examples of secular and irreligious cultures that place great importance on the idea of the stable, the moral, the good and the humane. A group motivated by an  atheist agenda can still have a strong, even dogmatic moral code. Communism is an example of this.

STUDENT: Please define some of the different schools of thought and common ideas concerning ethics and morality.
LEWIS: Here are some of them: Applied ethics: It addresses questions such as how a moral outcome can be achieved in a specific situation.
• Normative ethics: It sums up how moral values should be determined.
• Descriptive ethics: It explains what morals people actually abide by, what the fundamental nature of ethics or morality   is, including whether it  has  any objective justification and how moral capacity or moral agency develops and what its   nature is.
• Meta-ethics: It is about the meaning of the terms “right” or “wrong”.
• Moral realism: It states that there are true moral statements which report objective moral facts.
• Anti-realism: It affirms that morality is derived from any one of the sociology based norms.
• Cultural relativism: It is based on norms prevalent in society.
• Divine command theory: It emphasizes that morality is based on the edicts of a god.
• Emotivism: It is merely an expression of the speaker’s sentiments.
• Error Theory: It falsely presupposes that there are objective moral facts.

STUDENT: Is it possible that there is no correct definition of right (moral) behavior?
LEWIS: Some important thinkers believe that there is no correct definition of right behavior. For them morality can only be judged  with  respect  to  particular situations, within the standards of particular belief systems and socio-historical contexts. This position, known  a s moral relativism, often  cites  empirical evidence from anthropology as evidence to support its claims.
STUDENT: What would one call the opposite view to moral relativism, the idea that there are universal, eternal moral truths?
LEWIS: Moral absolutism.

STUDENT: This seems rather rigid?
LEWIS:  Moral absolutists will concede that forces of social conformity can significantly shape moral decisions, but they still deny that cultural norms and customs define morally right behavior.


STUDENT: It would seem that it is not always easy to use logic to create an ethical system?
LEWIS: I agree. For instance in applied ethics, the prohibition against taking human life is controversial with respect to capital punishment, abortion and wars or invasion such as the American preemptive strike in the Iraq Wars.

STUDENT: What might be an example of complexity in creating a normative ethic?
LEWIS:  A common question here might be whether a lie told for the sake of protecting someone from harm is justified.

STUDENT:  Can we explore moral relativism and moral absolutism a bit more?
LEWIS: Celia Elizabeth Green, the  influential  writer  on philosophical  skepticism,  twentieth-century thought, lucid dreaming and psychology has pointed out a distinction between what  she  calls  tribal and  territorial morality.  She speaks of the latter as predominantly negative and proscriptive. In territorial morality one’s moral sense is  based  on that which protects a person’s defined territory, including his or her property and dependents. To damage or  interfere with any of this would be considered an immoral act. Apart from these proscriptions, territorial morality is permissive, allowing the individual any behavior that does not interfere with the territory of  another.  Tribal morality on  the  other hand is prescriptive. Here the norms of the group or collective are imposed on the individual.

When comparing the two one soon observes that where tribal morality tends to be arbitrary, culturally dependent and ‘flexible’, territorial morality creates rules which are universal and absolute.

STUDENT: What would be an example of each?
LEWIS:  American democracy based on the constitution would be an example of territorial morality. The creeds of the Roman Catholic Church, and Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative are examples.

STUDENT: What lead to these two perspectives concerning morality?
LEWIS: Green believes that the development of territorial morality came about with the concept of private property, and the ascendancy of contract over status.

STUDENT: So in territorial morality individuals may have distinct sets of moral rules that they apply to different groups of people.
LEWIS: That is correct. There may be an “in-group,”  which  includes  the  individual and those they believe to be of the same culture or race, and there is the “out-group,” whose members are not entitled to be treated according to the same rules.

STUDENT: What would be an example of territorial morality in an extreme situation?
LEWIS: In the Second World War the cruel treatment of prisoners by the Japanese military would be an expression of this idea.

STUDENT: Is territorial morality cultural or biological?
LEWIS: Some biologists, anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists believe this in-group/out-group difference is

an evolutionary mechanism – one which evolved due to its enhanced survival  aspects, and  this  hard-wiring  is  what directs individuals to become “patriots” and to have a nationalistic perspective concerning the rest  of  the  world. It is

this inclination that forms in-group/out-group boundaries.



Lewis Harrison is a futurist, speaker, NPR affiliated Talk Show Host and a professional  copywriter. He can be reached at

He is the administrator of a FB group on game theory and business solutions.


Lewis is an Internet marketing expert and copywriter and the author of the book “Gamification for Business”


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