The Grammarphobia Blog

Ethics vs. morals

Q: Many people use “morals” and “ethics” interchangeably, but I think the former refers to values imposed by the community while the latter refers to a personal sense of right and wrong. What do you think?

A: You believe a person’s morals come from outside—they’re determined by the surrounding community—while ethics come from within and are determined by one’s character.

We have roughly the same impression about these nouns and their adjectives, “moral” and “ethical.”

And so, more or less, do the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

In an explanatory note, American Heritage says “moral” applies to “personal character and behavior: ‘Our moral sense dictates a clearcut preference for these societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights’ (Jimmy Carter).”

The word “ethical,” the explanation continues, “stresses idealistic standards of right and wrong: ‘Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants’ (Omar Bradley).”

Merriam-Webster’s explains that “moral” implies “conformity to established sanctioned codes or accepted notions of right and wrong (‘the basic moral values of a community’).”

The dictionary says “ethical” may suggest “the involvement of more difficult or subtle questions of rightness, fairness, or equity (‘committed to the highest ethical principles’).”

This difference, however, isn’t so apparent in the etymologies of the two words. In fact, their linguistic ancestors were nearly identical.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the classical Latin word moralis (moral) was formed by Cicero as a rendering of the ancient Greek word ethikos (ethical).

Cicero apparently took as his model the Latin mores (habits, morals), which was already in use as the Latin equivalent of the Greek ethe (customs, manners, habits).

Similarly, when “moral” and “ethical” first came into English, they meant much the same thing.

The adjective “moral” (which predates the noun “morals”) was first recorded in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (circa 1387-95).

It originally meant, in the words of the OED, “of or relating to human character or behaviour 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.”

We still use “moral” in that way, but we also use it in a less abstract sense when applied to an action or a person, a meaning that emerged in the late 16th century.

When applied to an action, the OED says, it means “having the property of being right or wrong, or good or evil; voluntary or deliberate and therefore open to ethical appraisal.”

And when applied to a person, it means “capable of moral action; able to choose between right and wrong, or good and evil.”

Also, we sometimes use “moral” to mean “virtuous with regard to sexual conduct,” a meaning the OED says was first recorded in 1803.

The noun “ethics” (originally used in the singular, “ethic”), entered English at about the same time as “moral,” in the late 1300s. At first, it meant a scheme of moral science or the study of moral science.

The adjective “ethical” came along in the early 1600s and meant “of or pertaining to morality or the science of ethics.”

A later meaning emerged in the 19th century: “in accordance with the principles of ethics; morally right; honourable; virtuous; decent; spec. conforming to the ethics of a profession, etc.”

So by the 19th century, the distinction between “moral” and “ethical” was established, although there was still a lot of overlapping.

Of the two, “moral” has taken on more senses over the years. We had a posting some time ago about one of them—the use of “moral” in the expression “moral support.”

It occurs to us that the difference between “moral” and “ethical” is more pronounced in their negative forms: “immoral” and “unethical.”

As applied to a person, “immoral” conveys possible meanings (like impure, dissolute, licentious) that aren’t found in “unethical.”

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