Sometimes, the terms morality and ethics are thought to be synonymous words. I say that there’s a difference between morality and ethics. Morality has to do with the goodness or badness of an action. Ethics or moral philosophy is a science dealing with human activity and being using reason as its guide.
Theological ethics (or religious ethics) is a science dealing with human activity and being using faith and reason as its guide. For example, Roman Catholics make moral decisions based not only on reason alone but what the church teaches as found in the teaching authority or magisterium of the church. In this connection, one thinks of the encyclical Laudato Si’ of Pope Francis that deals with caring for the Earth as our common home and ecological conversion or living in a sustainable way.
There are several factors involved in making a moral decision. First, one must consider the question “What” issue are we talking about? Is it about cheating on one’s taxes or if I’m stopped on I-85 for speeding, will I lie to the arresting officer about how fast I was going or how many beers I had that evening?
To lie is to speak against one’s mind. “You see, officer, I only did 30 miles an hour in a 25-mile speed zone or I only had one beer when, in reality, I had five Heinekens.” The second factor in making a moral decision concerns the circumstances such as when, where, how, alternatives, and consequences of one’s decision.
I once had a neighbor who called me about five in the morning to take him to the hospital because he had a serious condition and had excruciating pain. I went about 10-15 miles per hour above the speed limit the entire way to East Alabama Medical Center.
I told myself that if I were stopped for speeding, I would tell the officer that this was a question of saving one’s life. Even if the officer didn’t believe me, I would pay the fine because the man’s life was on the line and, for me, this was the right thing to do in these circumstances.
One alternative I had concerning my neighbor who had severe pain was to call 911. However, my friend did not want me to call 911, but thought I could take him to the hospital quicker than waiting for an ambulance or emergency medical technician (EMT) to come. Recently, East Alabama Medical Center opened a satellite hospital with an emergency room off Shug Jordan about eight minutes from my home.
A third factor in making an ethical or moral decision concerns “why,” or the motive for making a particular moral decision. In this connection, moralists speak of the Principle or Doctrine of the Double Effect. This principle may be used by a physician to justify the use of high doses of drugs, e.g., a morphine drip, for the purpose of reducing suffering in terminally-ill patients.
In the above case, the doctor doesn’t aim at directly killing the patient since the bad result of the patient’s death is a side-effect of the good result of reliving the pain of a terminally-ill patient. This principle or doctrine makes good sense to me.
When my paternal grandmother (age 96) developed end-stage heart disease, while on the cardiology floor of the Bayonne, N.J. hospital, she coded. The staff went into action by calling Code Blue, in which a team applied an electric paddle to her chest and she lived another two weeks before she died.
Was there any reason to call Code Blue when she already had end-stage heart failure? I don’t think so. Yet, doctors fear they will be sued by the patient’s family if they simply let the patient die. Isn’t death in certain circumstances as natural as life? I know of a physician who would not take on as patients those with a serious illness and whose days on earth were numbered.
In a future article, I will write about the meaning of conscience.
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus-Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.