Behind the words ‘ethics,’ ‘morals’

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Hearing the words, “that’s immoral” or “it’s unethical” induces contemplation. What makes it so? As perceptions shift over time, some believe we don’t hear such laments often enough — that morals have somehow degraded. Others see the same changes as ethical improvements.

Is there a difference between morals and ethics?

Most ethicists (scholars or philosophers who study ethics) consider the terms interchangeable. Both have something to do with the difference between “good and bad” or “right and wrong” — subjective judgments which vary by group norms and change with societal development. While humans across centuries and cultures have generally agreed it’s unethical to murder, it was once considered immoral, for example, for ladies to show their ankles. Puritans considered dancing immoral.

At least some of what is moral and ethical is mutable.

Encyclopedia Britannica probably gets the closest, distinguishing between morality as personal and normative, and ethics as a standard applied to groups or communities. Religious mores, while defining a group, are designed to apply to individuals; thus morality is associated with religion, especially today.

Adultery is a common example of what societies generally consider immoral. Very personal conduct, with personal consequences — the effects of adultery can drastically change individual and family lives, but have little to no effect on the surrounding community, or industry where the individual works.

Speaking of industry, modern understanding of the term “ethics” most often applies to professions and group settings. For example, the medical and legal industries include detailed rules, departments, and great efforts dedicated to what constitutes legal and medical ethics; what is right and wrong in those fields, and where to draw the constantly shifting lines as technology and laws evolve. In academics and politics ethics are discussed, debated, and applied with complexity and difficulty.

Taking today’s common uses — morals for religion or individualized judgments, and ethics for industries, professions, or other group settings — a faint line begins to form. One might say morals are the principles on which one’s judgments of right and wrong are based, whereas ethics are principles of right conduct.

Whether ethical or moral, perhaps the thought process is as important as the result — the idea that we must think carefully about what we do, and about the short- and long-term effects upon ourselves and others. When we do, and however we base those principles (be they morals, ethics, or both), keeping them in the forefront of thoughts, consciously applying them before making decisions and taking actions, would be the point of both — a reminder to have such an inner guide and to make the effort, habitually.

Hopefully in personal areas, not one imposed upon others with force, but encouraged by example. While humans tend to agree on general shapes, where the borders of morality and ethics lie always have and always will vary.

Perhaps understanding that is itself an ethic.

“Ethics are not a collection of commandments and prohibitions to abide by, but a natural inner offering that can bring happiness and satisfaction to ourselves and others.” — Dalai Lama


Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at

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