Difference Between Ethics and Morals

Right and wrong conduct comes to mind when one hears of ethics and morals, but whilst the two terms are occasionally used synonymously, they are quite distinctive. Ethics are rules set by  external sources whilst morals are intrinsic principles of a person concerning right and wrong. Ethics in broader terms is more of a social system for tolerable behavior that is set by culture, groups or workplaces for members to follow.

Although culture influences morality as well, morals are established and sustained by the individual. A great deal of the misunderstanding between ethics and moral is caused by their similar origin. Whilst ethics can be traced back to the Greek word (ethos) which denoted moral philosophies or customs, morals originated from the Latin word (moralis), which described right conduct and manners in the public. Hence, the two terms had quite similar meaning originally.


In terms of flexibility, ethics are found to be consistent in a given environment but may vary considerably between environments. For instance, 21st century work ethics within the medical profession are largely consistent from one hospital to another yet it varies from the ethics guiding the legal field in the same period.

Moral principles rarely change even in different context. However, it is probable for an individual to change personal values or beliefs following certain events. As expected, ethics and moral conflict in many situations especially during professional duties. A lawyer defending a criminal is a good example where ethics sometimes conflict with moral codes. The ethics of the legal field requires an attorney to defend a client to the best of his ability, even when he is aware of the client’s guilt, but his morals can tell him that the criminal deserves to be punished. Differentiating ethics and morals is principally important to philosophical ethicists.


Comparison Board

What are they? Rules of conduct adopted by a specific group or culture. Principles of right or wrong conduct.
Where do they come from? External – Social system Internal -Individual
Why do we do it? Societal Influence Personal inclination
Flexibility Ethics tend to be consistent, but may vary from one place to another. Morals are generally unwavering as long as beliefs remain unchanged.
Origin Greek word “ethos” (character) Latin word “mos” (custom)
Aceeptability Ethics are guided by legal and professional codes within a given context. Morality goes beyond societal norms.


Venn Diagram

1 thought on “Difference Between Ethics and Morals”

  1. This post is incorrect. Morals inform people about what distinguishes right from wrong for a specific situation before they encounter that specific situation. Consequently, morals are a preexisting code in every context that has been pre-considered by the people who established a moral to deal with the situation. Thus we have several sets of people: Those who create the morals, those who don’t, those who obey morals, and those who don’t. Interestingly, those who create the morals don’t necessarily follow them any better than anyone else. Morals might be anchored in personal belief, or, in a vast knowledge of external dictates as to what distinguishes right from wrong. Although a person might take an action that coincidentally coincides with the dictates of a particular morality, such conduct is amoral unless their action was guided by their specific, even if imprecise, knowledge of a moral. A set of morals constitute the whole of any particular morality, from zero morals to innumerable morals. The more morals that make up such a set determines how moralistic any person or collection of people are. Being moralistic is scalar. Belief in a morality, i.e., agreement with a morality, or even multiple moralities, whether the morals developed within a person, institution, sub-culture, or the whole of any society, does not guarantee compliance, even by the most ardent believers in such morals. Belief in morals and compliance to morals often fail to intersect reliably, even when rigorously evangelized, taught, or codified into law. Morality can also refer to the degree to which anyone, or anything, conforms to a set of morals. Morality, just like being moralistic; is scalar. Therefore it is possible to be very moralistic but not very moral, or extremely moral but not very moralistic. And everything in between those extremes. However, the key feature of morals is that they are pre-decided. Morals inform people how to act in a specific situation before they encounter that situation, and, the very fact that any morals concern themselves with that situations means that someone believes that such a situation can be handled rightly or wrongly, and has decided what is right.

    Ethics are not morals and the use of these words as synonyms for each other wastes the valuable distinction in what they should mean. Ethics are a philosophical endeavor related to the development of morals. Humanity is confronted by 3 major questions. 1. What is it? (It being a placeholder for anything and everything we encounter.) 2. How do we know what we know, and how do we know that we know that we know? and finally, 3. Given what we know, what should we do? Each of these questions are divided into a branch of philosophy.

    1. What is it? is the question posed by metaphysics.
    2. How do we know what we know …? is the question posed by epistemology.
    3. Given what we know, what should we do? is the question posed by ethics.

    So as you can see, what distinguishes ethics from morals is that ethics is a philosophical endeavor, whereas morals are not the effort but the outcome of that effort. Ethics is a thought process concerned with determining right from wrong. whereas morals are the end of thought. Morality demands no thought on the matter at hand, only obedience, whether that obedience is blind, or motivated out of concurrence with the reasoning used to established the moral in the first place. Except in cases where the person who invented the moral is the one following their own rule, in which case it is unlikely to be challenged by themselves on philosophical grounds. In any case, in so much that morals are the result of ethics, the quality of morals varies with the ethics that produced those morals. However, the success of morals to deliver on their promise, the promise of being right, is tested in their use. Ironically, humans routinely ignore the empirical results of flawed moralities that they follow fanatically. One need only assess the amount of ironic man-made misery from such moral catastrophes such as the decimation of native populations supported (or at least not opposed) by the Catholic Church. The point here is not to bash people and institutions who congratulate themselves for being morally superior, but rather to note with dismay that extreme confidence in one’s own moral rightness seems to allow, and even encourage, exceeding amounts of evil, i.e., that which morality should not have allowed to happen or exist.

    What is vitally important to understand is that morality is unavoidably authoritarian, even when it is polite, consistently yields desirable results, does not seem to impose itself unreasonably, and appears to be infallible. Moreover, morality can be extremely unethical and extremely wrong. Just think of all the things that are deemed morally reprehensible now, but which were accepted as being perfectly moral in the past, such as slavery and genocide.

    In order to be a perfectly moral person, such a person must never disobey a moral, even if they determine that the moral they obey is a violation of what they know is right. Morality is no guarantee of being good. In fact, be moral can be wrong. Conceptually, there is no intersection between right and wrong, but there is most definitely an intersection between morality, what is right, and what is wrong, and between immorality, what is right, and what is wrong.

    Perhaps the most salient difference between ethics and morals is that morality will always contend that it is right, whereas ethics will always wonder if it is right, or if it is wrong. Obviously morality evolves, and when it changes, those who disagree say that morality has waned, whereas those who agree say that morality has progressed. Changes to morality will always be spun as good or bad in this way, but what matters when it comes to how morality waxes and wanes is whether or not humans can exert greater and better control over morality so that morality can be constantly improved as a tool spare us from violating what is right. As you can see, this leads back to metaphysics. We can’t very well determine what should be moral if we don’t know what is right in the first place. We are doomed, or perhaps blessed, to remain in a constant feedback loop where ethics always leads us straight back to metaphysics.

    Lastly, the nature of reality is such that no matter what towering heights of morality can be erected, ethics will always be necessary because conflicts will always emerge where morality contradicts itself, providing equal moral reasoning to take opposite actions. Only ethics has any hope of resolving such moral dilemmas.


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