Ethics and Morals are often used interchangeably that it has become quite the task to sort out the difference between the two. There can be both a societal and personal Ethic. The same is true for Morality. Generally speaking, these concepts deal in what is right and wrong, correct and incorrect behavior to produce particular outcomes. From early childhood you are told stories with a moral with the purpose of coaching an Ethic. As you mature you discover that the effort is a futility.
Hansel & Gretel first published in 1812, is such an example of a story with both a moral and ethics at work.
Right off, the story begins with a couple with two children that are in financial strife to the point where they must make a decision, otherwise all (4) will starve. When the wife suggests that the children should be left to the woods and no longer their burden, the husband immediately reacts from a moral position. He couldn’t dream of abandoning his children and leave them directly in harm’s way. The wife counters with the practicality of such an act (Ethic), for if they keep their children then they run the risk of all of them starving. As Grimm as the story is, the silver lining is the chance that the children could learn to survive, and so too can the couple having 2 less people to be a burden to them. The husband reluctantly agrees but still feels ‘bad’ about what they are about to do.
The children are left and at first, they stay and weep and then hunger sets in. They can either stay put and starve, or venture out to find food and shelter. Hansel assures Gretel that God will not forsake them. Along their journey they happen upon a house made of sweets which alludes to HIS presence. Inside is an old woman that lures them with promises of comfort, though her intent is more malicious as she only seeks to fatten the children for her pot.
Morally, the children trusted the old woman because they couldn’t imagine in their naivety that she’d mean to do them harm. Once they discover her plot, Ethically they must do something or else end up her dinner. The two devise a plan, trick the old woman and push her in the oven to die thus saving themselves. To boot, they steal items of value before heading home. Why didn’t they stay, since the obstacle in their path to survival has been overcome?
Once they find their way home, they hand these goods over to their Father believing in the “Happy Ever After”. Mom is no longer in the scene, leaving that issue to the imagination and the reader’s instruction to explain it to their children. God has forsaken her, “Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Poisoner to Live”.
Metaphorically, the Mother and the Old Woman in the confectioner’s house are the same person. This is why she’s no longer mentioned after the old woman is killed in the oven. Thought to be written during a period of famine in the Middle Ages, this is situational Ethics. In spite of the normative sense of morality and ethics in any given society, there are situations that call for actions that may be in direct opposition to them. What is right and wrong, good and bad – change places.
The parents deceived and abandoned their children.
The children Murdered but by doing so, saved their own lives.
The old woman/mother is the villain, even if both parents share in responsibility. This contrast is needed, in order to teach morals. Forgiveness for Father but none for the Mother?
Father having shown a moral at the beginning of the story is forgiven, the stolen goods are salvation and happiness Ever After.
In spite of the religious era, and “All Seeing God”, sin is rarely if ever a consideration during the telling of the tale. Murder and Theft is no longer immoral because the ethic dictates that if one seeks to harm you, you do what you must to save yourself from harm. Didn’t Father also seek to harm the children? This can easily be justified by Religious Ethics, for God would just consider it self-defense and forgiveness is arbitrarily assigned based on the moral fiber of the characters.
Stories like this apply to a modern society that considers itself civilized and moral to have ethics that are situational.
Ethically, a governing body is seen as a ‘good’ until it does something bad. Equally, in spite of a personal moral, the normative sense opposes it. Even if citizens see ‘wrongs’, ethically they are lost to ‘right’ them. The ‘freedom’ to lament without consequence is even in ethical dilemma when the morals of what is being said fall subject to scrutiny.
Is it any wonder why the distinction between the two is so difficult to see?