Judge Lint: Ethics Vs. Morals

One definition of ethics is a code of behavior – rules made and accepted by a specific group of people(s) to standardize what is considered fair and acceptable behavior to this group. Morals concerns itself with the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong. Perhaps you don’t agree with these definitions.

Good writing frequently deals with the clash between ethics and morals. So, is there a distinction between the two? Can ethical and moral conduct clash? Can we act ethically, yet be immoral? How about the other way around?

Here is a quick story of ethics versus morality. Subtle or not? You be the judge.


I answer the phone quickly, after one ring. Punctual as it should be for a judge.

“Is this the interpreter?” a severe female voice asks me on the other end of the line.

“Yes. Good morning, Judge Lint. I’m ready for the telephone hearing.”

“Okay. Let’s swear you in. Give me a moment to call the other parties. Actually, the employer will not be a part of the hearing. I will be collecting information and testimony from only the employee, Mr. Perez.”

I nod stupidly into the phone as if Judge Lint could see me. I swear in under oath and wait for Judge Lint to set up the telephone conference.  Three clicks later Mr. Perez’s telephone picks up. It is a voicemail.

I hear a frustrated puff on the other side of the phone from Judge Lint before she begins to leave her voice message.


“Good morning, Mr. Perez. This is Judge Lint from unemployment court. I’m calling about our nine o’clock scheduled telephone hearing. When you get this message please call my office.” Judge Lint goes on for a few more sentences, and I scramble to write it all down in my notepad.

My turn. I am impressed at Judge Lint’s professional message: quick, sharp, and to the point. A little long for me to repeat precisely word for word – my memory can only hold so much – yet clear and succinct nonetheless. I open my mouth to repeat Judge Lint’s words.


I close my mouth as I realize Judge Lint has just hung up. I shake my head in puzzlement, this time all too happy the phone is hiding my confused frown. I had not had a chance to utter a word.

“Well interpreter, I will hang up now. We will try Mr. Perez in 15 minutes again. Expect my call then.” The same strong, commanding tone of authority.

Wait!, I wanted to yell but clamped my jaw tight to find better words. I did not know how to begin – how to unfreeze my tongue from the shock. Who was I to tell the judge how to do her job?

“Excuse me, Judge Lint. Before you hang up –“ I pause.

“Yes?” she answers, her voice annoyed at my interruption of her morning. Her exasperated tone probably speaks to the piles of work she has waiting on her desk –I am only making her day longer. But I have a job too. As an interpreter I have to ensure communication.  How to proceed? Her severe tone has made it perfectly clear she finds my interruption an unwanted annoyance.

“I just wanted to point out before you hung up that you left the message to Mr. Perez in English.”


More silence.

I wait for a comment. The silence only thickens on the other end. It makes me wonder if Judge Lint has not understood my meaning or if I just irritated her even more. My throat feels dry.

“Yes?” she finally said, her tone now flat.

“Well, I just wanted to point out that I was not able to repeat your message in Spanish. Mr Perez might not understand and be able to call back.”

“Oh.” Judge Lint’s voice is now splashed with light amusement. “That makes sense. Let me call back. Can you just repeat my previous message in Spanish on his voicemail?”

Now it is my turn to be silent. My job is to ensure communication, not relay messages . A small difference for some perhaps, but leaving my own message felt professionally unethical –at minimum wrong. Hearing a message from me alone is very different than hearing Judge Lint’s voice repeated in Spanish by an interpreter.

“I’m sorry Judge Lint. I will need you to leave your own message. I will then repeat it the best I can in Spanish.”

More annoyed silence. By now we have spent more time not speaking on the phone than talking.

“Okay,” she finally says. “I will call back.”

The judge left the second message, this time pausing for me to repeat it in Spanish. Then, with a stiff, courteous farewell, Judge Lint hung the phone.

I take a deep breath, count to three to settle my stomach, hang the phone and go directly to take a long shower.




Judge Lint: Ethics Vs. Morals — 8 Comments

  1. I have a post-graduate degree in Philosophy, issued by a Chinese fortune-cookie company, so I am all over this.

    Actually, I’m not certain I see the distinction you are trying to draw, Paul. I think you are describing a nuance that the judge missed–a real time translation is not the same as passing along messages. This is especially the case where she made what was essentially a speech and then expected the interpreter to re-create it after the fact. Not at all the same as translating a conversational give and take.

    I think of morality as rules of behavior, e.g., “Thou shall not lie.” Ethics are standards of behavior, but not rules. A man assaults his wife, she flees to your house for protection, the man comes to your door and asks, “Is my wife here?” A purely moral answer is “Yes.” That avoids the lie, despite the bad consequences that will follow. An ethical answer would be “No.” The lie is justified because it serves a greater good.

    I know that this discussion can quickly descend to the level of how many angels can use hula-hoops on the head of a pin. At a practical level, that’s what I think the distinction is.

    Was the judge serving a greater good by asking the interpreter to bend the rules and just leave a message? Was the interpreter being an un-bending purist by refusing to bend the rules? Or were important rights being protected by correctly following required behavior? I can’t tell from the story you told.

    • Pat,

      “I think you are describing a nuance that the judge missed–a real time translation is not the same as passing along messages.”

      While protagonist in the short story did make a statement about ethics (“a small difference for some perhaps but leaving my own message felt professionally unethical –at minimum wrong”) the question of whether to pass along the old message versus a simultaneously newly interpreted message is not really the dilemma here. There are much more subtle moral/ethical issues in the story. For example, should a judge not only WANT TO communicate, but ENSURE communication happened. Does leaving a message in English ONLY to a NON-ENGLISH person speak toward the judge’s interest in being fair and impartial? Is the judge’s disregard unethical? Given the level of irritation the judge displayed at having to deal with a NON-ENGLISH case, did the judge (at a subconscious level) already pass some sort of judgment on this case before hearing one word? I will stop analyzing the story there, but let me just say I believe there is a lot more to this story than meets the eye.

  2. The short story does seem to fall short of setting a pace for this great philosophical topic. I was hoping it would provide a foothold for a better discussion. Perhaps, when others chime in it still may.

    I think ethics and morality are two topics that moves readers at an almost viceral level. Ethical and moral issues also add complexity and depth to most books. An author never says: “Okay, now I am going to drive the story through this subconscious psychological battle in my character of good and bad”, nevertheless this is the basis of many book (on way or another). Killing the bad guys is applauded by many audiences, while some authors play with the concept that the main character must battle internally while he chooses between survival and killing. And what happens when the morality of our protagonist is not the same as the morality of the reader? Does the reader put the book down? Or does it drive them to read more to find out why?

    I remember you giving us some quite interesting definitions – word distinctions between ethics and morality. Do you remember how you defined them on previous conversations with the group?

    Is there any truth to:

    ethics vs. morals

    I truly would like to understand this topic better. Are there many ethics and moralities? Can the ultimate battle between protagonists and antagonists be defined in terms of discrepant moralities?

    Well, have to run to work… hope to read more later.

  3. I think the beauty, and horror, of your three sets in the diagram is that you can draw any combination you want, AND each observer will have their own opinion as to where and how they overlap.

    I read a little piece today on ethics/morality and that writer, Elijah Weber, (http://everyday-ethics.org/2008/11/ethics-vs-morals-not-as-easy-as-it-seems/) had a couple nice descriptions:

    Morals, quite simply, are beliefs about right and wrong conduct. They are often based on sociological conditions and learned behavior, but not always. They do not require reason, consistency, or thorough analysis in their initial shaping or practical application. One can make a statement about morals without making a statement about ethics.

    Ethics, on the other hand, is a reason based, cumulative system of moral decision making. It is built upon one or a few basic principles and requires that we be thorough, honest, and comprehensive in making statements about right and wrong. Ethics is about building the kind of world we want to live in, and developing a consistent process by which to achieve this. Ethics is an advanced expression of morality.

    One of the founding premises of the society I am writing about is that all “People” are linked in a consensus of common morality (rules). There is only one perspective on right and wrong, no chance that one person might think “It’s OK to steal from you, but you better not take anything from me.”


    If you really assumed that everyone you came into contact with was, let’s say, honest, then it would be easy to take advantage of you. You would have to be trained to deal with “people” who might be dishonest, or even violent. And how would you know which people were “People=shared consensus” and which were not?

    My solution is you don’t permit mixing. The ordinary “people” are, in fact, not considered people because of this lack of shared consensus. One or two opportunities for conflict there.

    And the really big Except:
    Some of the People experience an ethical structure, not a set of moral “thou shalts.” They can maneuver more freely in making choices and are oriented to the “greater good.” (I know there are pitfalls and logical dangers in defining “greater good” as an ethical framework.) So, they apply ethical reasoning around the construct of the strict moral rules the rest of the society uses. They can, and are needed to do, things no-one else is morally capable of doing.

    More than you wanted to know and yet probably less there than meets the eye.

    • I actually think that is what makes your novel such a fascinating read. More than any of us, your work plays with the question of ethics vs. morals.

      Now unlike Pat, I did not get my post-graduate philosophy degree from a fortune cookie company… mine came from D&D where things are much simpler. There is a vertice of Good and a vertice of Law, and where these things come into conflict life becomes interesting. Now a gifted GM with skilled players could also introduce more telling ethical dilemmas (if you have a good character who values family above all else, what do you do when you discover that your family’s wealth and base of power stems from past or present injustice?) but usually the conflicts are more simple than that.

      I am always in awe of stories that pit not evil vs. good (or even law vs. good) but instead choose to do good vs. good — which is a simpler way of getting at your ethics vs. morals. Any conflict of value systems where both sides have an equal claim to the moral high ground is inherently interesting.*

      Getting back to your original question of ethics vs. morals, my favorite literary example of this sort of question occurs in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn where Huck finds out that Jim wants to escape. Jim is a slave, but also Huck’s most true and loyal friend. Huck’s moral upbringing has trained him to believe that abolitionists are evil people bent on the destruction and overturn of society. He has been taught by both his family and his church that abolitionists end up in Hell, and knowing this, he chooses to face eternal damnation to save Jim.

      I don’t know if this decision is strictly ethical in Huck’s viewpoint… He is certainly going against the greater good of the society of the Planter class, and he is not making the decision based on anything but love. But my, it is a riveting act of heroism.

      * Perhaps too interesting, and certainly too distracting to allow society to function and integrate, as is the case with modern partisan politics, where neither side can see the other’s “good” as anything other than a dangerous problem.

  4. That is one of the challenges with with “greater good.” Greater from what perspective, how measured? Huck probably could not have made that choice in my society (as an average person). Or, if he did, it would be with great internal cost. It isn’t like the People can’t make free choices, it’s that they share the same value system and have a powerful potential to overcome to go against it or to find a shading in the moral code that allows them to reach a non-consensus decision.

  5. Terry,

    I really liked your definition that “morals are how we judge others, while ethics are professional standards.”

    In Pat’s next post Pat discusses Lisbeth Salander, a great case of law vs. morals – and how an author can use this disparity to move a plot and develop a character. As Pat writes, “she [Lisbeth] is a liar. She steals. She looks…odd. She’s not just rude, she’s incapable of relating to most people. She deliberately and flagrantly breaks the law. Yet…she is appallingly attractive. Audiences adore her, people say they want to hug her.”

    Is Lisbeth’s lack of morality appealing to readers? Yet, Lisbeth clearly is shown to have her own odd set of rules. Many might consider these rules “immoral”, yet she sticks to them with the same way we stick to own acceptable codes of conduct. Through the story the author shows how Salander stays within her own set of morals in a pig-headed fashion. The authors builds the character using these difference set of rules, showing how Salander sees the world. Laws and typical rules don’t apply to her. Is this what, in part, makes her appallingly attractive?