Morals are the principles on which one’s judgments of right and wrong are based. Ethics are principles of right conduct. So the two nouns are closely related and are often interchangeable. The main difference is that morals are more abstract, subjective, and often personal or religion-based, while ethics are more practical, conceived as shared principles promoting fairness in social and business interactions. For example, a politician’s sex scandal may involve a moral lapse (a subjective judgment), while a politician taking money from a company he is supposed to regulate is an ethical problem. But of course, both ethics and morals may have a part in both situations.
Ethics (the word takes a plural form but is treated as singular) is also a field of philosophical study. There aren’t many college courses on morals (though ethics courses inevitably involve discussions of morals), whereas classes in ethics are required for many degrees, especially in law, business, and medicine.
Meanwhile, the difference between ethics and morals is often formulated this way: that ethics are the science of morals, and morals are the practice of ethics. But that’s a little too neat and doesn’t cover all the ways in which the words are used.
Please think of this post as only a summary of the concepts. Anyone who has studied these issues closely might have much more to say about what they mean and how they differ.
In practical usage, the word morals usually applies to principles of right and wrong in personal behavior—for example:
Many voters, including some who do not share the Salafis’ puritanical morals, say they trust the sheiks to understand their perspectives for tangible reasons. [New York Times]
The society scandal sheet Town Topics made snide remarks about her moralsand reported that she had been “indulging freely in stimulants” at Newport. [Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, Kathleen Dalton]
And ethics usually applies to professional and business practices—for example:
Prince George’s County should strengthen its ethics regulations and get tough on government officials who try to make backroom deals. [Washington Post]
Professional organizations began to revise their ethics codes to acknowledge that nonsexual dual relationships were unavoidable in some situations, especially in small communities. [Issues and Ethics in the Helping Profession]
TV actress Maureen Lipman launched a scathing attack on the ethics of Channel 4’sJewish Mum of the Year series during a heated debate on Monday night. [Ham & High]