Ethics vs. Morals

By Mark Nichol

No, there’s no cage match between the two terms, but there is a distinction: Although the words can be considered synonyms, morals are beliefs based on practices or teachings regarding how people conduct themselves in personal relationships and in society, while ethics refers to a set or system of principles, or a philosophy or theory behind them. (Principles, however, is itself is a synonym for morals.) One lives according to one’s morals but adheres to one’s ethics while doing so. Morals are the tools by which one lives, and ethics constitute the manual that codifies them.

Moral is most familiar to most people in the sense of “lesson,” as in the moral of the story in a fable or a parable, or as an adjective, as in “Moral Majority” or “moral quandary.” The quality of having qualities consistent with high ethics is referred to as morality, and to teach morals is to moralize (though this term has a negative connotation suggesting self-righteousness). To demoralize is not to do the opposite of moralizing; it denotes erosion not of morals but of morale.

Morale, though it looks related to moral, might seem unconnected, but it is actually a synonym for morals, though that sense is rarely applied. Even in its more common meaning, referring to one’s psychological state regarding one’s condition or a group’s esprit de corps (translation: “spirit of the body”), it fundamentally means an adherence to a belief system: A person’s morale is based on the degree to which the moral standards evinced in their external environment are consistent with their ideals.

Two other words related to ethics and morals are ethos and mores. Ethos refers to a system of moral behavior, and mores denotes moral customs — the same intellectual and practical distinction present in the two primary terms.

A synonym for morals is scruples, although the etymology, interestingly, approaches the issue from the other direction: The Latin precursor, scrupulus, means “anxiety” or “pang of conscience,” but the literal meaning is “small, sharp, stone”; a scruple, in effect, is something that unpleasantly reminds you to be pleasant.

And what’s the difference between amoral and immoral? It’s significant: Immoral (“not moral”) implies a conscious decision to act against societal norms, whereas amoral (“without morals”) suggests that the person in question operates without any regard to them at all.

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15 Responses to “Ethics vs. Morals”

  • Stefano

    Superb characterization of these two terms.

  • Cathy

    I like this article. These types of discussions help when building the character traits of my protagonists. Thank you for sharing your research with us.

  • Anna

    DWT makes my resolution to learn something new every day an easy task. This post was especially enlightening. Thank you!

  • Phil

    I too find that DWT is an invaluable addition to my day, but this time i think it might have skimmed where it could have gone a little deeper. The term “Morals” in contemporary usage often has a much more religious connotation than ethics. Simply convert the word to a practitioner and you will see it more clearly. A moralist would be a type of preacher while an ethicist would be someone who is simply engaged in a decision making process, perhaps morally bound, but perhaps not.

    An illustration: A defense attorney might observe a technical error on the part of the prosecutor in a case. The defense attorney is bound by his professional code of ethics to exploit that error to the benefit of his client. His personal morals might be repelled at the thought that this client, whom he personally knows to be guilty, will not bear the consequences of his crime. The ethicist will tell him that he makes the right decision in seeking what is best for his client. The moralist will tell him that he has sinned.

  • Ian

    Interesting, and yet, I didn’t get ” the answer” I was looking for.
    I tend to, or prefer to use the word ethics when following principles based on philosophy or general human values; and to use morals when based on religious norms or believes.
    Is there anybody there who could guide me on this?

  • Minna

    You got morals right, but ethics is slightly off. Both are codified on a set of values, either of the group (morals) or the individual (ethics) if you go back to the Greek traditions of it. Ethics: doing what is right to achieve what is good—or at least that’s what Socrates says, considering he died according to that belief. Another way to look at it is this: Your ethics are not my ethics because we have different values, but we both have similar morals because we belong to a larger society.

  • Donal

    That was an outstanding post. I really enjoyed reading it – thanks!

  • Mark Nichol

    Phil:

    I appreciate your comments, and I like the courtroom analogy and the distinct judgments of the ethicist and the moralist.

    The reason I only skimmed the surface of this issue is because I do not have the wherewithal to spend more than a minimum of time researching and composing these posts. They are intended, regardless of topic, not as trenchant, imperative pronouncements but as instigators of further exploration.

  • venqax

    Maybe some are thinking of the specific area of professional ethics. Theses are the rules of a profession that members of a professional body are bound to observe, sometimes in contradiction to their personal morals. I know this happens with lawyers all the time. Many times the professional ethics of the legal field directly prevent you from doing the “right” thing morally. This presents a problem for all the lawyers in the world who have morals. I think they’re named Tim and Edward.

  • Alexandre Piccolo

    Interesting post, Mark.
    The last two words’ definitions just recalled me of an old example I listened from one of my professors: a child walking naked on the street is often seen as ‘amoral’ (s/he is not aware of the moral standards), while an adult naked on the (same) street should be called ‘immoral’ (s/he is aware of the standards [modern/Western…] and is going against it).
    BTW, your text only uses this word (standard) once while dealing with this topic – and that’s a nice accomplishment.

  • habib

    is it correct to say ” the correction of the quiz number one”? or should we use “the corrections”?

  • Mark Nichol

    Habib:

    I would write “the correction of quiz number one” (emphasizing the overall process of revision) or “the corrections to quiz number one” (emphasizing the individual revisions).

  • Robert

    My personal take on the distinction between “ethics” and “morals” is that ethics are standards that can be defined objectively (as “self evident”) with reason/logic and morals are standards that are handed down (or more accurately inferred) from some higher power.

    “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” is a moral imperative. “Thou shalt not kill.” is a moral imperative in the context of the ten commandments, but one can also argue it as an ethical standard independently of religious context.

    As alluded, defending a child molester that was caught red-handed can be an professional ethical imperative for a defense attorney that personally finds the idea morally reprehensible, however it is clearly for the greater good that all accused persons are entitled to a defense.

  • Ryan

    Very good Mark.

    The best I’ve found on this topic so far. There are some shockers out there.

    You seem to have the distinction pretty right at least.

    Well done.
    Ryan.

  • Random kid who’s a good writer (I mean, look at that site he’s on!)

    Before I comment, let me say, I am so glad there are so many intellectual people on this site. There is no crude, obscene lexis that keep me from having an intelligent conversation with most of you, seeing as you are presumably writers.

    First off, Mark, you sound very intelligent but the key to writing a successful draft suitable for the general understanding is to not pry with such complicated words. No one wants to look up every word you use. It is very annoying. I am have a high IQ yet I’m baffled by some of the words you implied in this draft. Other than that, this was very informing and quite the eye opener. Thank you for extending my repartee. Stop trying to sound like a smart alec.

    Thanks,

    Hugs & Kisses,

    God bless,

    Love Blade (Alias)

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