"Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made" (Immanuel Kant)

    What is morality?  A good definition is provided by Gert (1998) who says that "morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal."  The two essential parts of this definition are that morality applies to all rational persons and that morality provides a system of governing behavior, which is also called a code of conduct.  The object of morality being good over evil is NOT an essential part of the definition, although some (e.g. Warnock 1971 and theologians in general) would disagree and argue that the object, or purpose of morality always matters.  When you attach an ultimate object or purpose to morality, you have entered the realm of APPLIED ETHICS.  Criminal justice ethics is an applied ethics (as well as a professional ethics), and in criminal justice ethics, we often substitute the words "right and wrong" for "good and evil."  With an applied ethics, we are usually concerned with the outcomes of decision-making or judgments that incorporate some pre-given duties or values (Pollock 2004).  With ethics in general (I hesitate to call it pure ethics), we suspend judgment about the ultimate purpose of morality to better get at the role of what the code of conduct is and whether or not it forms a logical and coherent ethical system.


    Again, the important parts of the definition are that morality is public and morality affects others.  This idea that morality is public and applies to all rational persons is called the "normative" (as opposed to the descriptive) approach.  You may or may not remember the word "normative" but it derives from the sociological term "norm," and "norms" are those parts of our culture which contain the mostly unspoken, invisible, yet commonly shared expectations about appropriate and inappropriate behavior.  Norms are the building blocks of social group formation (what a sociologist might say holds society together), since, within limits, norms define the boundaries of what constitutes conformity and what constitutes deviance.  Remember, norms are expectations not the actual behaviors themselves.  So, they always contain a range of acceptable conduct and are not an image of "perfect" behavior.  Norms are the mental expectations that people share about the acceptable range of behaviors, not the behaviors themselves nor the perfect behavior called for.

    The normative approach to morality is also called MORAL SKEPTICISM, which denies that there is an objective basis to truth, honest differences of opinion are possible, and there are multiple ethical theories each deserving of separate study.  If you make too much out of the part of this which says that there is no truth (and nothing is inherently wrong), then that is called MORAL NIHILISM.  No academic expert that I know of advocates moral nihilism.  Skepticism is a less extreme position than nihilism, and in many ways, skepticism is just keeping an open mind.  For those interested in learning more about moral skepticism and the possibility that good, evil, right, and wrong can never be known for certain, read Mackie (1977). 


    On the other hand, if one follows the "descriptive" approach to morality, instead of the normative approach, this is called MORAL RELATIVISM because what you would be doing is describing either a person, society, or standard, and comparing or "relating" it to all other persons, societies, or standards.  There are different varieties of moral relativism.  A focus on individual persons and whether or not they live by their own principles is called MORAL SUBJECTIVISM.  A focus on any particular society or culture as the dominant one which should serve as a guide for the rest of the world is called MORAL ABSOLUTISM, which also refers to the idea that there exists just one moral principle from which all others derive.  Most moral relativists hold to the idea of MORAL OBJECTIVISM, which is that there exist a set of fundamental moral principles (perhaps as many as ten or so) that are not so fundamental as to be overridden by other moral principles in cases of conflict.  When analyzing societies via the descriptive approach, it is important to make sure you are describing morality, and not the laws, customs, etiquette, and folkways of a people.  Moral does not mean legal.  Laws and customs, it is true, affect others, but in searching for morality, we are looking for the fundamental rules of behavior that transcend person, place, and time.  Some examples might include: Do not kill innocent people; Do not torment others for fun; Do not cause unnecessary pain or suffering; Do not cheat or steal; Do not deprive another of their freedom; Do good whenever possible; Keep your promises; Tell the truth; Help other people; and Seek justice in all things.  A sociologist might call these fundamental principles "mores," and an anthropologist might call them "proverbs," but the correct, philosophical term for them is "morality" or moral principles.  They are the basis for ethical systems.


    The phrase "ethical system" refers to when you have worked out such a clear, coherent, and consistent set of moral principles that they not only don't conflict in most situations, but it can be said they not only tell you what to do, but what you need to be.  It's fine to just develop moral principles that one can put in a rule book and say dutiful behavior consists of following those rules, but it's a bigger and better thing to say that you are personally affected by those moral principles, and that they serve as a guide for the whole kind of person you're trying to be.  We sometimes refer to this state as when a person achieves "integrity," gets their values together, or lives a "virtuous" life.  In philosophical terms, it's called "virtue" or "moral character."  An ethical system is a system precisely because the moral principles or rules it puts forward have significant and practical meaning for our character, our personalities, and our everyday life.  It's not simply that we feel emotional about our morals as a nice set of virtues to strive toward; that would be called having an ASPIRATIONAL ETHICS, or believing in things so high and mighty that the best we can do is aspire to its calling and hope to be like that one day.  Moral character is likewise not too concerned with REGULATORY ETHICS, which set a minimum standard for common morality, like Thou Shalt Not ....   Instead, the trick is to come up with something above the ordinary, not too high and mighty, and prescriptive as well as proscriptive. 

A Note on Criminal Justice Codes of Ethics

     Every criminal justice profession and association has "codes" of ethics, "canons" of professional responsibility, "statements" of values, "principles" of conduct, "standards" of practice, and "oaths" of office, along with "pledges", "vows", "maxims", "credos", "prayers", "tenets", and "declarations". Some are directed to God; others to superiors or the profession; and still others to society as a whole. Some are regulatory and others are aspirational; but they all make promises that people commit to keeping as a standard of performance. If a code of ethics must exist for criminal justice, it should set a standard above ordinary morality. Otherwise, there's no need for a code of ethics at all. This is especially relevant when dealing with unscrupulous characters, where it's going to take more than just a commitment to being an ordinary, decent human being. Further, it's going to take being a user of the code, not just being a promiser.  Such a code would lead to unmistakable integrity, and living up to the principles would not be difficult, puzzling, or impossible. Nothing the moral character in criminal justice does would come as a surprise to anyone. They would conduct themselves, as August Vollmer once said, in ways that make it impossible for anyone to make a joke about them.  And even if all the political leaders turn out to be a bunch of bunglers, and even if all society becomes a Sodom and Gomorrah, this becomes no excuse for the moral character in criminal justice to abandon or revise their ethical system. Their commitment to an ethical way of life is unconditional.  After all, the true test of character is keeping your faith in the face of adversity. 


    Not to put too fine a point on it, but it should be clear that ethics is about rising above what is normal and common.  The choice is between believing in what you are or believing in what you can be.  "Does your ethical system fit your life, or does your life fit your ethical system? Did you begin with your interests, desires, and prejudices and then justify them with tailor-made ethics?  Or, did you try to life your life based on your ethical beliefs?" (Halberstam 1993).  If it all fits too neatly and conveniently into what you believe already, then you practice a form of common morality known as PSYCHOLOGICAL EGOISM, which is characterized by self-serving ethics and the idea that they've got it all figured out by being "realistic."  Let's take a look at some mistakes of common morality that consist of well-worn clichés which provide bad advice to live by.


    People have usually fallen into a bad ethical system not because they had bad parents, bad teachers, and no religious upbringing (these things certainly matter), but typically because they have experienced one or more significant life events we call ETHICAL DILEMMAS.  An ethical dilemma involves a decision-making opportunity in which there seems like there is no right choice to make.  These "damned-if-I-do; damned-if-I-don't" situations are extremely important shapers of life, which along with ETHICAL ISSUES (the same as social issues), pretty much determine a person's ethical system.  Ethical dilemmas tend to involve behavioral choices (not just opinions) where the resolution or decision affects others as well as the self.  Not everyone resolves ethical dilemmas the same way, or in a moral way, and this diversity is called ETHICAL PLURALITY.  From a theoretical point of view, plurality exists because there is a large divide between the theories of decision-making and the theories of moral development.  From a practical point of view, plurality exists because few people agree on everything that constitutes right or wrong.


    The field of criminal justice comes close to being a field which claims to have reached agreement on everything that constitutes right and wrong.  Criminal justice also claims a type of legitimacy such that citizens are obligated to obey it, not just forced to do so (Leighton & Reiman 2001).  The force of this obligation is the RULE OF LAW, and it works when people realize that the power behind this force comes from the public trust, not some source of private power.  However, law is not the same as morality, and disagreements, diversity, and ethical plurality are bound to exist.  As far as possible, a criminal justice system must accommodate all the diverse ethical systems that exist among the citizenry.  It cannot impose the values of some citizens upon others, and when it comes to "justice," we must recognize that there are many types of justice (Crank 2003).  The accommodation of ethical plurality is the first special challenge or demand faced by those who work in criminal justice.

    People "obey" authority (not just comply with the second-best strictness of clear-cut rules) because they have reasons to believe that they "owe" obedience and are not just being pushed around.  Each law should protect something of value to every citizen.  When punishment is needed, the law should also provide for the most morally acceptable PUNISHMENT possible.  The role of criminal justice as the final arbitrator of punishment makes for another special challenge or demand.

    Criminal justice also faces a third demand -- social justice.  The simple fact is that criminal justice cannot be more just than the society it protects (Reiman 2001).  If injustice prevails within a society, the options for criminal justice are limited.  For example, if there is widespread social or economic injustice, then the criminal justice system will become nothing more than a "clean-up" detail that is trying to rectify the underlying problems of social injustice.  Nonetheless, criminal justice THEORY has always risen to this challenge, especially theory using a more philosophical approach.  Those familiar with criminology will know that there is a long tradition of theory with a reform agenda, the most notable example being the so-called "classical" school.  Theory is lacking in criminal justice, however, but a number of recent books address the subject (Braithwaite & Petit 1990; Duffee 1990; Kraska 2004).  Theory in social justice (or distributive justice) has a longer history, and there are several most well-known books on that subject (Hobhouse 1922; Rawls 1971; Elster 1992; Miller 1999), as well as a growing interest in global justice.             


    There are many criteria for evaluating whether an ethical system merits the status of "theory" or "philosophy."  Surely, there are "theories" that we think we all have, as when we say "I have a theory about that," but when something consistently provides us with a reasoned guide to good judgment and decision-making, we're talking about theory with a capital T.  Philosophies are sets of principles or beliefs that constitute a worldview (or paradigm) which allow us to understand how the world is constructed and how we ought to live in it.  For practical purposes, theory and philosophy are interchangeable terms in criminal justice.  Harris (1986: 33) defines a MORAL THEORY as "a systematic ordering of internally consistent moral principles that are consistent with generally held beliefs and possess a type of moral common sense."  Baelz (1977 further adds that moral theories have the following characteristics:

A Glossary of Ethical Terminology
Encyclopedia Article on Moral Skepticism
Ethics Resource Center
Institute for Criminal Justice Ethics
Institute for Global Communications

Gregg Barak's Internet Home of Criminology
Lecture Note on Moral Skepticism and Moral Relativism
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics & Decision Making site
Prof. Bernard Gert's Homepage at Dartmouth College
The Generalized Structure of Ethical Dilemmas

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Last updated: Oct 20, 2011
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
O'Connor, T.  (2011). "Overview of Morality and Ethics," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from accessed on Oct 20, 2011.