Most people use the terms morals and ethics synonymously to help explain the differences between right and wrong. However, ethics and morals definitions are slightly more complicated than that.
These terms help explain guiding principles, personal values, and societal standards of what is acceptable and what is not. Although ethic and moral definitions may overlap slightly in some scenarios, they are philosophically different from one another.
Let’s take a closer look at how to use these two words so you can better understand their use in your own writing.
What Is the Difference Between Morals and Ethics?
Morals are the principles on which one’s judgments of right and wrong are based. Ethics are principles of right conduct. 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. At the same time, ethics are more practical, conceived as shared principles promoting fairness in social and business interactions.
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: ethics is the science of morals, and morals are the practice of ethics.
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 either situation.
Morals Definition and Use
Morals deal with personal values and guiding principles. They are more personal to an individual compared to ethics and stem from a person’s choices and actions concerning what they feel is wrong or right.
A person’s morals are often influenced by their upbringing, religion, family traditions, and personal experiences.
Ethics Definition and Use
Ethics deals with the guidelines of right and wrong societal standards. These are codes of conduct and acceptable forms of behavior based on cultural or societal norms. Many of these are based on professional or legal contexts.
A Side-by-Side Comparison of Morals and Ethics
Definition: Rules of conduct or societal norms with respect to a group or culture.
Etymology: The Greek word “ethos” means “customs” and relates to the moral philosophies of a time or people.
Origin: Society, rules, or laws of a culture or people.
Definition: Habits or behaviors with respect to what an individual believes is right or wrong.
Etymology: The Latin word “moralis” means “manners” and refers to the appropriate behaviors in society.
Origin: The individual, internal belief system
Morals and Ethics Used in Sentences
In practical usage, the word morals usually applies to principles of right and wrong in personal behavior—for example:
- Many voters, including those who do not share the same morals, say they trust their elected officials to understand their perspectives for tangible reasons.
- The society scandal sheet in the local newspaper made snide remarks about her morals, reporting she had been indulging in stimulant use.
And ethics usually applies to professional and business practices—for example:
- Lea County should strengthen its ethics regulations and call out local government officials who are only in politics for personal gain.
- Professional organizations have begun to revise ethics codes to acknowledge that romantic relationships are unavoidable in some situations, especially in small office communities.
Although there are some areas of gray concerning the differences between ethics and morals, they have two distinct definitions. Morals are based on an individual’s beliefs that are shaped by environmental factors as well as personal experiences. Ethics are conducts or behaviors shaped by cultural expectations.