Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Research Engines, Morality and Ethics

What pains me, a child of the 1960s, is that this age of humanity provides so many more resources than the age of my birth — but people don't seem to use them as much as they should. Take for example this choice paragraph that an acquaintance of mine (to my thinly disguised horror) produced in the course of a discussion:
You say there is 'medical ethics' and 'legal ethics' but no 'medical morality' and 'legal morality' but I say we use 'medically moral' and 'legally moral'. I raise the possibility that this may be that due to Zipfian distributions in English, leading to the words being used interchangeably in when sentences are constructed differently.
The discussion was about the distinction between morality and ethics. I asserted that there were clear empirical distinctions; that is, humans in general have a sense that the terms are not completely interchangeable. Behind my assertion is my belief, on empirical grounds, that the two terms have nuances that are sufficiently different that they overlap somewhat but far from completely.

Now, anyone can check our claims using Google as a measure of modern usage. If the terms used receive roughly the same order of magnitude of hits, you can assume that they are roughly as frequently used. Furthermore, Zipf's law is an empirical finding that the frequency rank of popularity is inversely proportionate to the number of hits in a sample. With this information, anyone can carry out a crude test of his own or someone else's assertion very easily.

Obviously, my interlocutor didn't think of doing this. Here is what I found with Google alone:
  • medical ethics (1.84 m hits)
  • legal ethics (1.44 m hits)
  • medically moral (103 hits)
  • medical morality (27.4 k hits)
  • legally moral (575 hits)
  • legal morality (11.3 k hits)
Clearly, ethics and morality are not interchangeable in terms of frequency of use. But what about Zipfian distribution? Perhaps what he was trying to say was that 'morality' was the 2nd or 3rd ranked term (in order of preference) after 'ethics' in this context. That is, it should appear with 1/2 the frequency or 1/3 the frequency.

Well, a quick look at the data shows that the relative frequency is 1/100 or so, which is clearly a) of a different order of magnitude, and b) would rank the terms as somewhere roughly between 64 and 128 positions apart. In other words, his assertion is probably false at a high level of confidence — morality cannot be substituted for ethics in such cases.

So why do people conflate morality and ethics? It boils down to a lack of historical context. The Romans translated the Greek ethikos as Latin mores without realising that to the Greeks, ethikos implied the customary conduct of a person within a polis as imposed by a city-state's sociocultural milieu. That is where the confusion came from, because to a Roman, mores/moralis was more about individual character and self-moderated behaviour towards society.

That is why 'morality' should refer to attitudes and behaviours towards society, arising from the basis of personal choice — the term is aesthetic or 1st person in nature, whereas 'ethics' should refer to the behaviours and conduct that a group of people consider normally acceptable (whether or not individuals might have reservations). It is as easy as that, and while etymologists and philosophers still have some hairs to split, the point remains that these distinctions are validated by extremely widespread usage.

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