Ethics vs. morals

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]

11 thoughts on “Ethics vs. morals”

    • I believe the author intended to mean that “ethics” is singular in the context of discussing the philosophical field. It is plural when you are talking about the principles themselves. That’s how I would explain it, anyway. :)

      • Yes, I mostly agree, but just for the sake of extreme clarity…


I believe that the author meant “ethics” is a singular word when used to describe the field of study; it is similar to “politics” or “economics” which are singular terms used to refer to an entire area of study, even though they end in “s.” 

        But in the case above, where the author used the phrase “ethics are the science of morals, and morals are the practice of ethics,” I think the usage actually is incorrect, for exactly the reason that it IS referring to the singular field of study. However, in this example the author is referring to a preexisting aphorism in order to discuss it, so she is correct in using the original form of the saying even if the original is wrong. Sometimes authors will use a slightly incorrect grammatical form if it contributes to a higher purpose, such as the humor, memorability, style, rhythm or flow of the sentence. This is especially true when writing witty sayings, aphorisms, and the like. Think of it as poetic license.

        On the other hand, the word “ethic” as a singular word doesn’t mean a singular principle. The word “ethic” means a set of principles that work as a unit towards a common goal, such as “the Puritan work ethic,” or a “live for the moment” ethic. So an ethic is a specific set of principles, and ethics is the more abstract field of study that examines such sets of principles. Both ethic and ethics are singular words in these examples.

        Occasionally, one might refer to more than one specific ethic, but not the entire field of study. This is the case where ethics would properly be used as a plural word. For example, one might say “The Puritan and Buddhist work ethics surprisingly have a lot in common.” In this case ethics is a plural word, and so you say “have a lot in common,” not “has a lot in common.”

  1. This analyse is not mistaken, although words may have the same roots in language that doesn’t mean the meaning of each word cannot change over time. Language evolves like everything else in human society as time goes on.

    • Yes, language evolves and words change meaning. Language is confusing! But aren’t we glad we have it?!

  2. I think one principle difference between ethics and morals is their respective sources. Where do ethics come from? Where do morals come from? And what’s driving each one?


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