Morals are personal standards of bad vs good behavior. Ethics represent similar standards of behavior, except they are shared by a group of people or society and enforced through law and customs. Additionally, ethics may represent the study of moral philosophy, which examines the nature of virtues and choice.
What is the difference between ethics vs morals?
Learning the difference between ethics and morals doesn’t have to be complicated. The terms ethics and morals each represent a value system that determines a code of conduct, and they’re often used synonymously. But if you’re writing about the topics of ethics and morals, it’s important to know how they’re technically separate concepts.
The critical difference between morals vs ethics is that morals exist because of personal beliefs, whereas ethics develop because of an organizational set of values. Or, a different way to understand this distinction is to view ethics as a moral philosophy enforced within a group of people as a standard, axiom, law, or attitude.
Ethics are guided by an organized set of moral values
Ethics are rules of conduct that are followed by a group of people within a class, society, or culture. According to Antony Flew’s A Dictionary of Philosophy, the concept of ethics is said to suggest:
“… a set of standards by which a particular group or community decides to regulate its behavior- to distinguish what is legitimate or acceptable in pursuit of their aims from what is not” (Flew 126).
Examples of ethics include government laws, rules enforced by religion, or even household expectations, but this isn’t to say there aren’t any grey areas regarding the topic. Ethics are theoretical beliefs because they exist as a branch of philosophy to investigate principles that exist or should occur within human thought and practices (Flew 127).
A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory adds this definition of ethics by describing it as “a normative and critical discipline” that’s related to practical codes of conduct followed by individuals or political policy. Because ethics are related to the implementation of social and political philosophy, ethical principles are ultimately concerned with the ethics of power and social formation (Attfield 178).
Morals are guided by personal beliefs
Morals are codes of conduct that human beings believe on an individual level that influences their behavior. A person’s moral principles or ‘moral code’ allows them to differentiate between what they believe is right and wrong and without the influence of outside power or force.
One’s perception of morality is often influenced by spirituality or religion, which typically has an organizational set of ethics for their follower’s decision-making. Although the distinction regarding ethics vs morals of religion is confusing, the key is understanding how morals exist independently of the rules or regulations.
Unless someone believes that something is good or bad without the influence and reinforcement of power, their “moral code” exists because of ethics and not morality. For example, if the law prohibited people from giving food to people who are starving, one might do it anyway because they feel that it’s immoral to ignore needless suffering or contribute to another’s death.
What is the definition of ethics?
The word ethics describes a set or theory of moral principles, a moral philosophy, or the code of conduct followed by a person or group. The word ethics is the plural form of the noun ethic, although its plural form is a singular word that describes the discipline of moral philosophy.
“Normative ethics is a subset of moral philosophy.”
More often than not, English writers use the adjective “ethical” to describe something as moral or conforming to a code of conduct, such as the way a veterinarian practices medicine on animals. For example,
“Euthanasia is considered to be ethical in the state of New York.”
Ethos, etiquette, morality, norms, principles, standards, values.
Corruption, dishonestly, dishonor, unethical, evil, immorality.
Etymology of ethics
According to Glynnis Chantrell in The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, the word ethic first appeared in Middle English from Old French éthique to describe the study of ethics or moral philosophy. However, the term éthique is borrowed from Latin ethice, which originated from Greek (hē) ēthikē (tekhnē) to mean ‘the science of’ morals (Chantrell 185).
The base of the Greek term comes from the term ethos, which means ‘nature’ ‘disposition,’ or ‘customs.’ In modern Latin, the word ethos describes “the characteristic spirit of a culture” (Chantrell 186).
What is the definition of morals?
The word morals is the plural form of moral, which is used as an adjective or a noun to describe the virtue of behavior.
Morals as an adjective
As an adjective, the word moral is synonymous with the adjective ‘ethical’ when describing moral judgments or a system of learning right from wrong. In this case, the opposite of the word moral is immoral.
“Treating patients without health insurance is a moral thing to do.”
“Eugenics is an immoral medical practice.”
The word amoral is similar to immoral, except that it describes someone as lacking moral sense instead of one who refuses to conform to moral standards.
“The doctor’s methods are amoral.”
We also use the word moral as an adjective to describe how something teaches a lesson regarding right vs wrong and when something conforms or is capable of following a code of ethics in a story.
“The moral lesson of the story is that we should not steal.”
“The moral agent or character always does the right thing.”
One might also use the word morals as an adjective to describe something probable but lacking proof or something perceived without tangible evidence.
“The spiritual gurus make several moral claims about the afterlife.”
“She talks to trees for moral support.”
Morals as a noun
We use the word morals as a noun to describe the nature of a lesson concerning virtue, or a conclusion made from a story regarding good vs lousy behavior.
“What is the moral of the story?”
“The moral of the story is to practice patience.”
As a plural noun, the word morals specifically defines either moral teachings, moral codes of conduct, or ‘ethics’ as a science of morals.
“The students learn about morals during Bible studies.”
“The science of morals is the study of learning right from wrong.”
The word morals is also an alternative spelling of the term morale, which also means ‘moral teachings.’ However, the word morale is most commonly associated with the psychological condition or well-being of a person or group concerning their current activities.
“The viral outbreak took a toll on the morale of the nursing community.”
Customs, dogma, ethics, ethos, morality, norms, principles, standards, values.
Amorality, corruption, dishonesty, immorality, unethical.
Etymology of morals
The word moral entered the English language from late Middle English or around the 15th century. Moral stems from Latin moralis where mos or mor- means ‘custom,’ and plural mores translates to ‘morals. ’
The adjective form of moral was created by historic orator Marcus Tullius Cicero while translating the Greek term ethikos (ἠθικός). The noun form of moral first appeared in the translation of St. Gregory the Great’s Latin text, Moralia (Chantrell 332).
Are there better words to use besides ethics vs morals?
If you’re undecided on how to write ethics or morals in a sentence correctly, other English terms can help you describe similar concepts in a more vivid and specific way. Here is a list of unique word alternatives to morals or ethics, as noted within The Thinker’s Thesaurus by Peter Meltzer.
The application of ethics or morals to decide right from wrong in a cunning or deceitful way.
The philosophical study of moral duty or rules.
One who believes or acts with questionable moral senses, but often in a way that is attractive to others.
One who is hypocritically moralistic or that mimics a sense of benevolence.
One who is religiously moralistic in a strict, self-righteous manner that is often hypocritical.
The state of moral integrity or complete sincerity.
One who tries to appear moral, wise, or who is self-important in a particularly annoying manner.
The unco guild, plural noun
A Scottish term for a group of moralistic people that are hyper-critical of others.
Morals vs ethics within moral philosophy
An important distinction to make about morals vs ethics is that ethics exist as a task of moral philosophy. And since morals are lessons resolved from different subsets of moral philosophy, ethics are varied amongst human populations over time.
Overall, the business of any moral philosopher is to explain and analyze the moral codes of any principle or attitude that exist within a culture, group, or institution (Flew 126). However, the way most philosophy students learn about morals and ethics is through normative ethics.
Normative ethics seeks to explore standards of morals regarding obligation and action and its justification of the human condition (Flew 127). We can also break down normative ethics into three types of ethical theories, which include virtue ethics, situation ethics, and natural moral law.
In contrast, metaethics analyzes the objectivity and logic of morality in regards to discourse, or the way we discuss morals in society (Attfield 179). George Edward Moore, Charles Stevenson, and Richard Mervyn Hare are all 20th-century moral philosophers who believed that ethics should primarily tackle metaethical issues over normative ethics (Flew 128).
There are other types of ethics within moral philosophy, which include descriptive ethics and applied ethics. Descriptive ethics are similar to normative ethics in that they examine moral beliefs, but instead of describing morals for the way they ought to be, descriptive ethics explores how morals exist in reality.
Applied ethics or professional ethics allows communities to decide how political, social, or medical professionals ought to think and behave amongst society. For example, pre-medical students often study biomedical ethics to examine how culture and history have changed with medical practices and the best ways to navigate cultural differences. Additional forms of applied ethics include bioethics, environmental ethics, and business ethics.
A brief history of normative ethics
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are among several classic figures that tackle theories of normative ethics. Most notably, Aristotle and Plato undertook the task of arguing the connections between ethics, government policies, and culture within Greek society.
For example, Plato insisted that ‘goodness’ and ‘justice’ exist universally as ‘Forms’ and that Forms (morals) are inherent objects of human sense or knowledge. Plato additionally argued that Forms are independent of government and religion (ethics), but people may uphold such institutions to value the Forms (Attfield 178).
Aristotle did not entirely agree with Plato on most topics, but especially in regards to morality. Aristotle argued that Forms (morals) only exist in specific circumstances and that virtue (ethics) is a learned method of thinking that allows people to reason between extreme behaviors and attitudes.
In a way, much of Western philosophy is documented as a centuries-long string of letters written in response to Greek theories by Eurocentric ethicists or ministers. Aristotle’s teleological teachings are notable within the works of Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas, who believed that the “highest form of the good life now involved the contemplation of God” (Attfield 179).
Meanwhile, Plato and Greek historian Thucydides appears to inspire the teachings of Thomas Hobbes, who believed that self-preservation is a “universal motive” (moral) and that moral codes (ethics) develop from such as “the sole desirability of one’s own good” (Attfield 179).
Normative ethics also houses consequentialist theories such as utilitarianism, which are notable within the works of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism, much like epicureanism, teaches that codes of conduct exist to produce the “greatest available balance of pleasure over pain” (Attfield 179). Finally, while reaching the post-modern era, we have French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who would go on to argue that authenticity knows no morals and that “all values are created anew in acts of choice” (Attfield 179).
Despite Plato and Aristotle’s significant influence over normative ethics, they are not the only figures cited within historical debates. Other notable influences include the Stoics of the third century BCE, who inspired Immanuel Kant’s deontological theory of Categorical Imperative. According to Kant, “rightness,” or morals, are “unrelated to the consequences of action,” and that morals only exist when action occurs from obedience (Attified 179).
Moreover, the debate over moral philosophy did not begin in Greece. Eastern philosophers such as Lao Tzu, Siddartha Gautama, and Confucius are all documented to begin the conversation of normative ethics as early as 6th century BCE. In fact, Confucius and Aristotle are both grounding figures in the notion of virtue ethics, which are theories of normative ethics.
- True or false: ethical codes develop from social systems to help people navigate right from wrong in specific instances.
- A person who follows their own principles of right and wrong behavior is following a set of _____________.
a. Ethical standards
b. Moral rules
c. Codes of conducts
d. None of the above
- A social media platform’s ‘code of conduct’ outlines reporting or flagging standards where users are expected to take ____________ when necessary.
a. Ethical action
b. Moral action
c. Moral judgment
d. B and C
- If somebody is expected to ‘do the right thing’ they must base their decision off of a ________________.
a. Moral code
b. Ethical code
c. Code of conduct
d. All of the above
- Ethical decisions that designated for professional occupations are distinguished in which subset of moral philosophy?
a. Normative ethics
c. Applied ethics
d. A and C
- Attfield, Robert and Susanne Gibson. “Ethics.” A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, edited by Michael Payne, Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 178-181.
- Chantrell, Glynnis, editor. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories. Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 185-332.
- “Ethics.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
- “Ethics.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
- “Ethos.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
- “Ethics.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
- Flew, Antony, et al., editors. “Ethic.” A Dictionary of Philosophy, Third ed., Pan Books, 2002, pp. 126-128.
- “Moral.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
- “Moral.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
- “Moral.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
- “Moral, a.” OED, Oxford English Dictionary, 1989.
- Meltzer, Peter E. The Thinker’s Thesaurus: Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010, pp. 199-383.