How Ethics and Morals Bring Clarity to a Chaotic World

The terms “ethics” and “morals” are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences between the two. Ethics require a group consensus of some form, whether formal or informal, whereas morals is for the individual to decide. Of course, one impacts the other, with a sort of chicken-and-egg effect, and both have an enormous impact on how we approach difficult subjects and navigate complex problems. TEDMED 2018 Speakers Adam Waytz, Rabiaa El Garani, Sherry Johnson, and Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin are each tackling moral and ethical dilemmas and sharing their wisdom from the Stage this November. Whether through research or lived experience, these Speakers will share stories of exploring, grappling with, and resolving health-related moral and ethical dilemmas on both individual and societal levels.

Adam Waytz, a psychologist and associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, is interested in uncovering what motivates a whistle-blower, or a person who decides to come forward to report someone else’s unethical behavior. Adam and his colleagues have conducted research to discover the psychological determinants of whistle-blowing in order to shed light on the factors that either encourage or discourage a potential whistle-blower to come forward. Their findings revealed that there are two basic moral values at odds when someone decides whether or not they will speak out about an offense: fairness and loyalty. People who prioritize fairness over loyalty tend to show a greater willingness to be a whistleblower, while those who prioritize loyalty show more hesitation to speak out. Through his work, Adam is lending new insight into how the guiding principles of ethics and morals can vary so much from person to person and contribute to drastically different decisions.

There are some issues around which morality and ethics are seemingly clear-cut. For instance, Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) is widely recognized as a serious crime and human rights violation. Unfortunately, SGBV is still a common occurrence in far too many places in the world. As an international investigator of SGBV and a member of the Justice Rapid Response-UN Women SGBV Justice Experts Roster, Rabiaa El Garani has traveled to places that are experiencing deep moral and ethical conflict surrounding SGBV—including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Central African Republic. In the JRR-UN Women documentary Evidence of Hope, a survivor who shared her traumatic experiences with Rabiaa underscored the importance of Rabiaa’s SGBV investigative work, saying “After I met [her] I realized that there are some people in the world that care about us.” Rabiaa’s work is bringing justice to survivors of SGBV, voicing their stories, and laying the groundwork for a new code of ethics in parts of the world where SGBV is often ignored or even accepted. 

While SGBV is considered a crime in every state across America, many people would be surprised to learn that child marriage is not. Sherry Johnson is a survivor of child marriage who was forced to marry her rapist at age 11, and by age 27, she was a mother of 9. Today, Sherry advocates for the fair treatment of children and fights for the abolishment of child marriage in the United States. After spending the past several years lobbying the Florida legislature on the issue of child marriage, Sherry recently achieved a major victory with the signing of SB 140 into law, which restricts marriage in the state to those who are at least 17 years old. However, the fight is far from over—almost all states still have some legal variation for children to marry.  

Another ethical debate that concerns America’s young people surrounds the practice of vaping, which is the inhaling and exhaling of aerosol (also referred to as vapor) through an e-cigarette or similar device. Vaping and e-cigarettes were initially considered to be a less harmful alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes, however recent studies have shown their effects to be much more deleterious than originally thought. Furthermore, with advertising that appears to target youth, candy-like flavors like mango and fruit medley, and devices that pack an alarmingly high nicotine content, the vaping industry has become the subject of extensive ethical scrutiny in recent years. Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin is a biobehavioral scientist and a professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine whose research focuses on the bio-behavioral understanding of vaping and substance use behaviors in young people. By digging deeper into teen vaping behavior, Suchitra is uncovering important information that can be used by policymakers as they look to regulate the e-cigarette industry in an effort to help keep children away from the highly addictive and harmful habit.

From health and wellbeing to human rights and policy, we look to ethics and morals to help bring clarity to our often chaotic world. Although the lines between right and wrong may seem clear to many, such as in the cases of child marriage, SGBV, and teen vaping, the fact is, these are not universal truths. Furthermore, given the individualized psychology behind how we establish our morals, we may never be able to see eye to eye on some things. We’re excited to continue exploring the complexities of ethics, morality, science, and behavior from the Stage this year and to gain a deeper understanding of these concepts from TEDMED 2018 Speakers Adam, Rabiaa, Sherry, and Suchitra. We hope to see you there!