Moral vs. Ethical

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has asked for a discussion of the adjectives moral and ethical:

I have been writing professionally for 40 years and I still cannot get these straight. There seems to be more than a casual or preferential distinction.

One difference between the adjectives moral and ethical is that moral has been in the language longer. A similarity is that moral is a translation of the ancient Greek word ethikos from which the adjective ethical derives.

Both words refer to human character and behavior.

Moral entered English in the 14th century from Old French moral: “pertaining to character or temperament.” It derives from the noun moralis, from the Latin noun mos in its genitive form (moris): “one’s disposition.” The adjective ethical entered English in the 16th century with the meaning “pertaining to morality.”

Note: The plural of mos gives us the word mores: “the shared habits, manners, and customs of a community or social group.”

Greek philosopher Aristotle used ethikos as the title of a treatise on the branch of knowledge dealing with moral principles. Clearly, the two words, moral and ethical, are closely related in meaning.

In the 14th century, moral meant “morally good, conforming to moral rules.” Moral stories taught moral behavior. Everything Chaucer’s Oxford student said was “filled with moral virtue.”

The first definition of the adjective moral in the OED gives ethical as a synonym:

moral (adjective): of or relating to human character or behavior considered as good or bad; of or relating to the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil, in relation to the actions, desires, or character of responsible human beings; ethical.

Both words, moral and ethical, describe human behavior in reference to right and wrong. Modern usage assigns moral to behavior dictated by internal standards and ethical to behavior dictated by external standards.

Sometimes the two types of behavior coincide. For example, taking a child away from abusive parents is both moral and ethical. Sending a child back to abusive parents for legal reasons is ethical, but not moral.

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6 Responses to “Moral vs. Ethical”

  • John

    Maeve, I think that your second-last paragraph gets the exact difference in meaning between the two words. Perhaps, what the reader was looking for.

  • Deepti

    I use moral to imply ‘in accordance with principles defined for right and wrong’ in general, and ethical to imply ‘in accordance with principles defined for right and wrong behavior/ practices by a company/ group’. This is what I understood the difference is. Looking forward to any thoughts…

  • Tom

    This distinction is at the center of the 1999 film, Election. It’s currently streaming on Netflix.

  • Connie

    I’ve always thought that where one may have good or bad morals, with ethics, you either have them or you don’t. Now I’m a bit confused. Mostly, though, I apply morals to my own spiritual principles and ethics to more general and secular things.

  • Precise Edit

    Hmmm.
    I have equated morality with correctness defined by spiritual beliefs and ethics with correctness defined by social values. But this is a tricky one.

  • Christos

    Perhaps you should have said: “…One difference between the adjectives moral and ethical is that moral has been in the ENGLISH language longer…”; as clearly Aristotle used “Ethikos”, before Cicero used “Moralis”…

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