I love an exchange in the film Election between two teachers. One accuses the other of acting unethically and immorally and the other asks, “There’s a difference?” I was reminded of this a few nights ago, having the umpteenth discussion with comics about ethics and morals in standup.

Put simply, ethics are the rules, logical and objective and black and white. Morals are how we feel the rules should be, emotional, subjective. Take this classic thought experiment: man has son, son needs medicine to survive, man can’t afford medicine, but he could steal it. Is stealing ethical, in this case? No. There’s no room for debate. Stealing is against the law, even the Bible says so. Is it moral to steal, though? We could debate that until the cows come home.

It makes me chuckle when comics – who are, by and large, both unethical and immoral by nature – launch into a diatribe about injustice in the comedy community, since their complaints are (a) based on morals, not ethics, and (b) quite selective and biased. It doesn’t take much to notice a pattern in complaints about clubs in particular. All clubs act the same, but you’ll bash a club that doesn’t book you, look the other way for clubs that do.

No comic gets to perform everywhere and not every club will book every comic. There’s nothing unethical about that. Club owners have no ethical responsibility to develop talent or promote diversity. We can debate whether or not they should (for the record, I think they should) but that gets us into a zero-sum moral discussion. For example, it was once proposed on a comics’ forum that a list of all female comics in Sweden would be made available to all club owners, so that lineups could always include a fair representation of women. There was much rejoicing until someone asked, “What about the gay comics?” and then another, “What about the disabled comics?” If the list was ever completed, it would just be a list of every comic who isn’t a straight, white, fully-abled man, and the whole thing is moot anyway because no club owner would ever book a comic by picking a name off a list.

There’s that club that has a cover charge but doesn’t pay all the comics. Oh right, that’s every club that has a cover charge, and there’s nothing unethical about it. Immoral, sure, but when it comes to money and/or the lack thereof, our outrage is selective. There’s the comic who runs a daily podcast featuring other comics. The podcast is fan supported, the comic makes a good chunk of money, the comics who provide daily content get nothing, and no one is outraged because being on the podcast means prestige and the infamous exposure. It works for everyone, at least for now.

There’s the club that had a cover charge when it first opened, but in later seasons became a free show. One might think that was done to attract a larger audience, but one would be wrong. Shows were just as well-attended before and after the change. Naturally, the club owners aren’t doing the show for free, but by getting rid of the cover charge, they can take the moral high ground when not paying comics and keeping all the money for themselves. In other words, becoming moral through ethical and immoral means. Machiavelli would be proud!

The bottom line is that it’s up to each of us as comics to decide, not only our own worth, but our own ethics as well. And thank goodness for that! Imagine if there were laws in place like, “Thou shalt never cancel a gig,” and, “Thou shalt always place the audience’s enjoyment over your own.” Man, we’d be in trouble.