Morals and ethics are terms that describe how people decide what to do based on judgements of what is right and wrong. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they don't always refer the the same concepts. Morals are derived from beliefs that can be held by anyone, even by people who are irrational. Ethics, in the normative sense, are derived from rationality. Ethical conflicts can occur when different morals conflict with one another or when ethics and morals are out of balance.
Moral beliefs generally fall under the discipline of descriptive ethics. An individual’s own beliefs or a community’s culture describes how behaviors are judged as right and wrong. Codes of conduct are established based on common beliefs. Since different people, cultures and communities have different belief systems, moral beliefs -- or descriptive ethics -- are not universal. Expectations as to how someone should behave are not consistent.
When morals are considered normative rather than descriptive, judgements of right or wrong should be universal. Religious differences and individual beliefs shouldn’t matter. Normative ethics is a discipline that attempts to explain how every rational person should view acceptable behavior, regardless of any individual’s or group’s beliefs. Normative ethics is also referred to as “prescriptive ethics” because the expectation is that it should be possible to prescribe a universal code of conduct. Judgements of right or wrong should be consistent across all societies. To disagree with such judgments would be irrational.
The laws or rules of a society represent another code of conduct. A society is typically made up of several communities, many of which can have different moral beliefs defining different codes of conduct -- despite theories about normative ethics. Laws don’t always agree with each group’s code of conduct. While most moral beliefs and ethical codes seek to prevent harm to others, laws within a given society are established to protect that society as a whole and could work against some moral or ethical prohibitions against individuals.
Ethical conflicts can emerge when codes of conduct conflict in a given situation. For an example, consider a scenario posed several years ago in the magazine "Social Work Today." A social worker in a state-funded public agency is not allowed to counsel a clinically depressed undocumented immigrant who has previously attempted suicide. If he counsels the immigrant and saves her life, he will lose his job. If he turns away and the immigrant successfully commits suicide, the social worker’s inaction will have broken moral and ethical codes against allowing harm to come to others.
A moral dilemma occurs when someone is faced with a choice of two options, both of which will break some moral code. Stem cell research offers hope that could save millions of lives, but it requires the destruction of human embryos. A terminally ill patient is experiencing constant, excruciating pain and the only way to relieve that pain will cause the patient’s death. These are just two examples of moral dilemmas that are so difficult to resolve they can lead to political and legal battles.