Ethics vs. Morals – What’s the Difference?

In today’s world, which often seems lawless and relativistic, the difference between ethics and morals might seem like splitting hairs, especially since no one seems concerned with either of them.

Nonetheless, you can be the last bastion of upright conduct in a corrupt society, and a great writer by knowing the difference between them and using them correctly.

What is the Difference Between Ethics and Morals?

In this article, I will compare ethics vs. morals. I will use each of these words in at least one example sentence, so you can see them in context.

Plus, I will show you a useful memory tool that will help you decide whether you are actually talking about ethics or morals, or both.

When to Use Ethics

Definition of morals definition of ethics definitionWhat does ethics mean? Ethics is a plural noun. It refers to rules concerning upright behavior. Many organizations publish guidelines or codes of conduct that outline their professional ethics.

Here are a few examples,

  • I wrote a paper on animal ethics, in which I argued that the slaughter of livestock for food on an industrial scale was indefensible.
  • Maria read her company’s ethics guidelines and signed a contract signaling her agreement to abide by them for the length of her employment.
  • The CEO’s ethics violations filled several pages, and he sank lower into his chair as they were read aloud before the board members.
  • It was an idea that raised ethical questions that continue to challenge the organ-transplantation system. –The Wall Street Journal

H. G. Fowler famously wrote, “Ethics is the science of morals, and morals are the practice of ethics.”

In other words, the discipline of ethics is where you go to study moral principles. Ethics is where you gain knowledge about moral principles, about right and wrong.

Morals, themselves, are the practice of this knowledge.

When to Use Morals

Define morals and define ethicsWhat does morals mean? Morals is also a plural noun. Morals refer to principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character. A person’s morals are informed by the broader rules of ethics.

For instance, a person’s moral belief that theft is wrong might stem from the ethical principle of respect for the private property of others.

Here are a few examples of morals in a sentence:

  • “My morals prohibit me from murdering people I don’t like,” said Tim.
  • Children develop their own morals in tandem with a growing awareness of social norms and values as they enter adolescence.
  • “Jim’s morals are in the toilet,” complained Sandy.
  • Jessica is thrilled, but her mother, a devout Catholic with a prim disapproval of Tinseltown’s loose morals, fears for her daughter’s soul. –The Washington Post

Morals are the way that people exercise their ethics.

Trick to Remember the Difference

ethics versus moralsIn practice, most people use morals and ethics interchangeably, so in everyday conversation, you don’t really need to distinguish between these terms. Insisting on their careful use could even come across as pedantic.

For professional and academic writing, though, especially if you are writing a paper for a philosophy class, you will need to know the difference between morals and ethics. Morals are individual beliefs and values, and they are informed by the broad principles of ethics.

One easy way to remember morals vs. ethics is that morals apply to me, while ethics apply to everyone. A philosophy guru might take issue with these assertions, since those people take issue with almost everything, but at least this mnemonic will help you remember the difference between the words themselves.

Summary

Is it ethics or morals? Ethics and morals refer to attitudes about right and wrong.

  • Ethics are broad principles.
  • Morals reflect individual values and beliefs.

You can keep them straight by remembering that ethics apply to everyone, while morals apply to me.

Remember, you can check this site any time you have questions about confusing words or other difficult writing topics. If you get stuck choosing morals or ethics, you can always refer back to this page.