Say What You Mean

Take a look at the newsstands. It's obvious that most people recognize America is facing an ethical crisis. The Washington Post complains that "common decency can no longer be described as common." New Republic magazine warns that "there is a destructive sense that nothing is true and everything is permitted." Time magazine is so alarmed that it devoted a cover story to the subject of ethics. Now no one has ever accused the Washington Post, the New Republic, and Time magazine of being bastions of conservative morality. So when the secular media decries the loss of ethics, I think people realize some line has been crossed. America is indeed in a deep ethical malaise. What's the solution? We're told that what is needed is more education. And more education is what we are getting. Schools establish courses in what they call values and decision-making. Businesses hold ethics seminars and training sessions. Hospitals hire ethics committees. College textbooks are adapted to include sections on social responsibility. All this would be fine if educators knew what ethics is. But most of them don't. Like many of us, they use the word ethics inter-changeably with morality. And yet the two words mean entirely different things. Historically, ethics has meant a universal, unchanging standard for human behavior. It comes from the Greek word ethos, which derives from a root word meaning "stall." It conveys the sense of a dwelling place, a place of stability and permanence. By contrast, morality comes from the Latin word mores, which means the customs or manners practiced in any given community. We might speak of the morality of the ancient Romans, or the morality of a Polynesian tribe—meaning their social rules and regulations. In short, ethics describes what ought to be. Morality describes what is. In our day, the notion of real ethics— universal, timeless principles of right and wrong—has gone the way of hoop skirts and pocket watches: quaint, but out-of-date. People assume that right and wrong are just a matter of what a social group approves or disapproves—or even what an individual approves. According to this view, if you say murder is wrong, you aren't proclaiming a universal ethical principle. You're merely expressing your own feelings: I don't like murder. Now as Christians we can't even discuss issues like this with people in the secular culture until we realize that they are confused over the distinction between ethics and morality. And in confusing the terms, they've lost the concept altogether. We talk about ethics; they think morality. We declare universal principles; they think we're simply talking about our personal feelings. The late Francis Schaeffer said we Christians must treat our own culture the way missionaries treat a foreign culture. We've got to learn people's language so they can understand what we are saying. Then we must teach them a new language—the language of real ethics.


Chuck Colson


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