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Ethics vs morals and morality

November 3rd 2006 05:36
What's the distinction?


John Deigh
John Deigh
"[Ethics is] is the philosophical study of morality. The word is also commonly used interchangeably with 'morality' to mean the subject matter of this study; and sometimes it is used more narrowly to mean the moral principles of a particular tradition, group, or individual. Christian ethics and Albert Schweitzer's ethics are examples."

-- John Deigh in Robert Audi (ed), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 1995


My own comment:

Often the word "moral" purports to describe something as if there were a fact of the matter. As if "murder is wrong" were the same sort of claim as "snow is white".

In this sort of usage, the ethical needn't be the factual. It might be unethical (that is, a breach of a particular code) for doctors to sleep with their patients; but it's possible that there are circumstances where no one would call it immoral.


"What is ethics? The word itself is sometimes used to refer to the set of rules, principles, or ways of thinking that guide, or claim authority to guide, the actions of a particular group; and sometimes it stands for the systematic study of reasoning about how we ought to act. In the first of these senses, we may ask about the sexual ethics of the people of the Trobriand Islands, or speak about the way in which medical ethics in The Netherlands has come to accept voluntary euthanasia. In the second sense, 'ethics' is the name of a field of study, and often of a subject taught in university departments of philosophy...

Some writers use the term 'morality' for the first, descriptive, sense in which I am using 'ethics'. They would talk of the morality of the Trobriand islanders when they want to describe what the islanders take to be right
Peter Singer
Peter Singer
or wrong. They would reserve 'ethics' (or sometimes 'moral philosophy') for the field of study or the subject taught in departments of philosophy. I have not adopted this usage. Both 'ethics' and 'morality' have their roots in a word for 'customs', the former being a derivative of the Greek term from which we get 'ethos', and the latter from the Latin root that gives us 'mores', a word still used sometimes to describe the customs of a people. 'Morality' brings with it a particular, and sometimes inappropriate, resonance today. It suggests a stern set of duties that require us to subordinate our natural desires -- and our sexual desires get particular emphasis here -- in order to obey the moral law. A failure to fulfil our duty brings with it a heavy sense of guilt. Very often, morality is assumed to have a religious basis. These connotations of 'morality' are features of a particular conception of ethics, one linked to the Jewish and Christian traditions, rather than an inherent feature of any ethical system.

Ethics has no necessary connection with any particular religion, nor with religion in general."

-- Peter Singer (ed), Ethics, 1994


The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) seems to show that, from the earliest times, the words had very similar meanings.

"Ethic" as a noun has the senses "The science of morals" and "A scheme of moral science", and these are treated as parts (a) and (b) of a single meaning. The earliest citation is from 1387.

"Ethics" (in the plural) divides into a number of meanings. The sense of "The science of morals; the department of study concerned with the principles of human duty" dates from 1602. The sense of "The moral principles or system of a particular leader or school of thought" dates from 1651.

"Morality" in the sense of "The doctrine or system concerned with conduct or duty; moral science" dates from 1449. In the sense of "Moral conduct; usually, good moral conduct; behaviour conformed to the moral law; moral virtue" it dates to 1609.

And finally, "morals" in the sense of "Moral habits or conduct; habits of life in regard to right and wrong conduct" dates to 1613. And the sense of "Moral science; moral doctrine; ethics" is said now to be rare, but dates at least as far back as 1651.


The image for John Deigh came from his profile at the University of Texas. The image for Peter Singer came from his webpage.
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31 Comments. [ Add A Comment ]

Comment by Damo

November 3rd 2006 09:49
Good Post.
I sense that you enjoy this subject matter.

In the western world it is easy to trace many of our morals back to its Judo/Christian origins. Even the Arab world share similar moral origins with the Ten Commandments being its basis. The Eastern world has Hindu, Buddist, Taoist and other religions as their influence on morality. In the case of Buddtha there is the eight fold path to enlightenment which share many similarities with the ten commandments. However there are differences and interpretations that change the way they are applied.

In regards to non-religious morality we have two main influences: Marxism and Nihilism. Marxism could be described as seeking to good without a religious reference point(Opium of the Masses etc...) Nihilism basically says that all bets are off with morality and lets start again. (We have killed God and must so become gods....) Certainly if you are a Marxist or an Nihilist you will believe that your method of determining morality is superior. Objectively, is it?

This is where I think Peter Singer consistantly dances around the point. By claiming morality is mostly the remnant of sexual repression he is ignoring morals that have nothing to do with sex.(Such as: stealing and murder.) When he claims religious bias in morality he fails to declare his own bias for a Nihilistic approach to morality. His own ideology is the basis of his morality and ethical conclusions. How objective is this approach?

I have no problem with ethics as it has been around as long as morality. I have no problems with morals. I do have problems with certain morals and certain ethics. Yet this always begs the question: Whose Morality or Whose Ethics? Find me an objective ethic and I'll find its ideological Bias. Find me an objective moral and I'll find its biased origins.

Comment by Adrian

November 3rd 2006 13:22
Hey Damo,

I like talking ethics in general, but this particular post is probably a bit dry -- just quotations, just dictionary stuff, just semantics.

Agree with you that moral systems often have an ideological bias. For instance, Nietzsche claims that Christianity is a "slave morality", designed to subvert aristocratic values and give power to the masses. And even if one designs a morality quite innocently of agenda, one is never outside one's own skin, never outside one's own very particular time and place and culture.

Two main things to disagree with (and nihilism is something I want to talk about another time).

Firstly, to be fair to Singer, I get the feeling that you misunderstand his point. I mean, he's talking about the word "morality" and its connotations. I don't think he claims that morality is mostly the remnant of sexual repression, or that there is always a religious bias to it.

Secondly, I think it's a big claim to say that non-religious morality influences divide into Marxism and Nihilism.

Okay, this goes back to definitions of the words again, and I still don't entirely grasp how you distinguish them. But if morality is understood as "beliefs about right and wrong", I think there's multiple non-religious sources.

For instance, there are a variety of non-religious systems, including Kantian ethics, utilitarianism, environmental ethics, contract ethics, and non-Western ethics. And I'd argue that all of these have, to some extent, seeped into popular morality. I'd argue, in fact, that Marxism has had a minimal influence, being more a political doctrine about equality than a set of ethical guidelines about how we should treat one another or what the good life is.

But perhaps more importantly, I'd argue that popular beliefs about right and wrong come from popular culture. They pre-dated religions, and they'll survive the death of religions. To put it tautologically, the normal person is influenced in their beliefs by everything that influences them -- by conversations they have, TV they watch, books they read, holidays they take.

Comment by spain01

November 4th 2006 04:03
Some Moore

Let me recommend the following site

Which is Baldwin's discussion about the importance of the great work Principia Ethica of G. E. Moore which is now 103 years old. This forms an excellent basis to begin consideration of questions of ethics.

It will be very interesting if this post can be encouraged to have the prominance it deserves and further discourse between contributors would be useful for this purpose.

The interesting thing about Moore and the various authors you have quoted is the prominance given to tradtiional belief. The plasticity of this can be seen when reading the Roman author Livy. The Romans had a set of principles and beliefs, or ethics which we would today find in every sense abhorant and yet was the foundation for the Western World.

Comment by spain01

November 4th 2006 04:07
Let me add a comment about the issue of doctors sleeping with their patients. This is a good issue to consider because penalizing this behaviour does damage to the notion of consent i.e. I can consent at one moment and then not at another. Those who argue against it have to postulate that adult patients when they enter some kind of therapy somehow lose the ability to consent by some mystical process and become like children. They become “vulnerable” one of the most abused words in the English language.

Comment by Adrian

November 4th 2006 13:56
Hey spain01,

Thank you for your kind words.

Not much to say in response I'm afraid.

I don't think this post deserves any prominence . It's only dictionary and quotation stuff... But perhaps you see some ethical issue raised that needs to be discussed. Say, an issue like the objectivity of ethics, or the foundation or origin of ethics. Or, the grounds for deciding particular ethical issues (like doctors sleeping with patients) or for working out a code of conduct.

If so, perhaps it would be better if another post and discussion were squarely directed to this issue (though, frankly, I'm cynical that there'd be much discussion).

Re Moore's book, I'm ashamed to say I've only read tiny extracts of it and know next to nothing about it.

Re doctors, sex, and consent -- I personally don't have much of a problem with a general guideline that the behaviour is "inappropriate". There are, after all, all sorts of potential problems of coercion, conflict of interest, and power imbalance. (I think it a good thing that judges are required to recuse themselves on the slightest suspicion of bias.)

But I have no clear ideas about how a general guideline about doctor-client sex could be made flexible to fit particular scenarios...

Comment by Damo

November 5th 2006 01:05

I have to admit that Nietzsche is one of my least favorite thinkers, so my bias is obviously against him. However I cannot ignor his influence in the twentieth centuary and upon modern ethical debates.

My impression of Peter Singers attitude toward morallity came from his interview on Denton. He ask him what the difference is between Ethics and Morals. Singers' answer is now a matter history. If you didn't see the interview I guess I can't verify my claim.

I am comfortable to claim that Maxism created its own set morals. It was essentially an egalitarian materialist ideology that operated upon the notion of equality. Why was equality better that inequality if not for moral reasons? Taking it further the Maxist moral code judges everything in political terms. Politically Correctness was the core of its policy long before it became a trendy western term. Progressives were the saints of communism but Reactionaries were the devils. Despite the fact that Communism has crumbled I cannot ignor its influence in current ethical debates. Particularly the concept of the 'needs of the many verses the needs of the few'.

I have to agree that popular culture often creates popular morality and ethics. "Who is to say what right and wrong these days now that we have invented..." Yet there are other forms of morality than popular morality. Just because everyone is doing the wrong thing doesn't mean that it isn't wrong. If rape becomes socially acceptable by a majority in the community does it make it right? What of slavery, prejudice, aparthied? Are there any objective morals and ethics.

Finally the question of whether there are objective morals that exist beyond popular culture is very controversial. If I am to claim that there is any objective morals I must also claim that there are objective truths.

Comment by Adrian

November 5th 2006 07:03
Hey Damo, thanks for the comment!

Very little to say in reply. Will postpone nihilism and objective morals for another time.

But I do think that needs-of-the-many thinking was around long before Marxism; and, personally, I find it very hard, in many circumstances, not to use it. You know -- when a general makes decisions in a war, or a hospital administrator allocates resources...

I'm a supporter of individual rights, as you know from some of my posts on liberty (fucking in public, freedom to believe in rape, etc); but I would add a consequences-based limitation to these rights.

Comment by Lilla

November 7th 2006 01:55

I'm late to this one due to comittments but find ethics really interesting....

I have read many of the works cited here, but also Toffler's Third Wave would have bearing here as Ethics are based on societies and societies are based on epochs. Epochs of course are made up of tiny little fragments of things like evolution, independant thought and often, revolution...and/or circumstance

My point...western ethics seem to me to be houses built on shifting sands...

One thing we could learn from the Trobriand islanders is that they have low taboos on sex and big ones on murder.... something that makes sense to me...

as to rape...?

As a female I would never condone such behaviour as ethical in any system or society. Even Dolphins (who do have such anti-social problems also) exile the offending male from the group...

*Time to ponder...*

Comment by Lilla

November 7th 2006 04:26
So my point is this,

by lowering the taboo on sex (as you previously suggest somewhere), would that lower the incidence of rape, or would it encourage it...?

I feel that within a multi-cultural society like Australia... this is perhaps the biggest ethical consideration of all, wouldn't you?

Ha, very good,


Comment by Adrian

November 7th 2006 05:15
Hey Lilla, the rape post was this one.

Don't know whether it's the biggest ethical problem (what about environmental issues, migration, foreign aid...).

About whether sexual and nudity taboos would increase or decrease rape, I honestly don't know.

My very vague impression is that a few studies argue a correlation between access to porn/sex shops and lower sexual assault rates (almost as if society were a pressure pot, and sexual energy the build-up of steam, and the more you dispense through non-violent channels, the less likely the whole thing will blow).

Whether this correlation is a causation is more difficult to say. (And I also think there have been studies that contradict the correlation, and studies where no correlation was found.)

But there are other grounds on which to lower such taboos, even if they result in increased crime rates. Framed a different way, this is the Danish cartoons debate. The fact was, that the cartoons led to violence and death. But should they have been barred on that account?

Comment by Lilla

November 12th 2006 05:01

Absolutely not... I enjoyed them as the joke they were...

Humour: 1. State of mind, mood; inclination... 2. The faculty of perceiving the ludicrous; jocose imagination etc etc

The faculty of perceiving the ludicrous suggests to me whilst all jokes may contain the elements of truth, they also contain that truth as repesented beyond the boundary of the truth itself = the ludicrous. Truth made funny.

They do have bombs under their ....turbans (?)....that part was true... as were the rest... perhaps its the faculty part that's missing in the whole affair.

Having said that, I'm not about innocent people dying, but then I'm not God and even evil has to work for good... doesn't it?

What about the portrayals of the west in the Iranian tabloids... anyone researched them..?


Comment by cocosmooth

July 21st 2008 11:58
I'm no academic expert in the distinction between ethics and morals.

I took a few ethics papers in university, got excellent grades, then graduated, found a good professional job and that's about it.

However, I have found the meta tools of philosophy and its branches (political philosophy, jurisprudence, ethics, etc.) more than useful in cutting to the essentials and achieving clarity, in the professional and business world.

I think the discussion in this post has gotten "wooley".

This post is about the "distinction between ethics and morals".

Not the detail of either, or their various branches, but the essential definition and difference (or similarity) between both.

My view is that ethics the heart of ethics is "reason" and the heart of morality is "faith", and/or perhaps "feeling/emotion".

Of course both ethics and morlity overlap - like the ripples of two stones tossed in a body of water. And there are forces of ideology at play. But in my view those are the essential disctinctions that are worth dissecting further.

Comment by Timothy Powell

August 26th 2008 02:05
i agree with that guy. All societies have morals ask most people and they don't know or care why but they 'feel' them. Ethics on the other hand i believe has arisen as a result of curoius people who wish to 'rationalise' their moral sentiments this could also be viewed as systemisation of our understanding of morality. P.s i have some issues with Singers version of consequentialism, personally his conclusions about what we are ethically required to do are depressing. I like theories that leave space for supererogation (that is going abouve and beyond what is ethically required of an agent) something that Singer leaves no space for. Has anyone read Anarchy, State and Utopia by Robert Nozick? Good book investigates the fragile relationship between individual rights versus the rights of the state.

Comment by SeekerReading

September 14th 2008 15:07
As with anything else this subject must evolve.

Commingling morals and ethics is no longer needed.

In a world where so many cultures may interact so easily morals are thrown around causing contention.

Morals nowadays are given to you.
If you are one to evolve past your moral paradigm and standards of what is right or wrong that were arbitrarily given to you, you may find yourself as an ethical person.
Morals are other's rules to follow... and a start in learning how to survive in a group of humans. Eventually a moral gets outdated, absurd, and useless (except for study). We must leave the nest.

Ethics are your own and valid. Once you are able to fly on your own, existentialistic and Kantian ideas fair the best... if you have control of your emotions.

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April 27th 2009 10:18
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Comment by MenKazakpyn

April 27th 2009 10:20
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Comment by Ian Titter

July 11th 2009 07:20
In my opinion an Ethic is an objective principle concerning good actions as opposed to evil ones, which supports human survival, while Morality (and Morals) are subjective values that support society.

From this we see that Ethics are fundamental and almost fixed. They can be developed, extended, re-interpreted and further evolved but are not an optional extra. An Ethic is a global and universal principle.

The term "situational ethics" is a misnomer as it refers, not to ethics, but to personal morality or excuses for self-serving behavior. The phrase "All's fair in Love and War" is in this category. If we regard "fairness" as ethical then the statement is false. Expediency is no justification.

Morality is much more variable. It differs not only over time but between generations at the same time and between cultures. Headhunters and cannibals have existed down through the ages and they operated within a moral framework. The "honor killings" in the Middle East are condoned to a great extent by local custom. Morals are local and specific to the culture, (although they may me shared to an extent that seems universal, they are not. If truly universal, they are probably ethics.

Ethics are binary. Something is ethical or unethical. Morality is trinary. Behavior can be moral, immoral or amoral.

Ethics matter in the long term. Morality is limited to the short term.

We can therefore sort behavior into various categories by looking at the underlying foundations. If it is based on positive principles that support human existence, it is ethical behavior, If it is a value mutable over time and subject to change, whether by law or fashion or customary adaption to circumstances, it is morality. The reverse also holds true.

The "Zero Aggression Principle" that Libertarians favor is therefore an ethic as opposed to the concept of "Same Sex Marriage" which is variable depending on where you are in the world. Because it depends on the culture you inhabit this is therefore a matter of morality.

Now, while I think the two terms have distinct meanings I often see them used interchangeably or I see the word "morals" used where I think "ethics" is more applicable and vice versa. I suspect that if we displayed a greater awareness of the distinction between ethics and morals and applied ourselves to being ethical instead of moral the world might be a better place.

Comment by JW

April 11th 2010 04:28
haha, Ian, you are suggesting that the "Zero Aggression Principle" is an ethic because it "objectively" "supports human existence"! Absurd. Who can know for sure what truly supports human existence, much less be objective about it? Unless you believe in specific revelation from the divine, your objective/subjective dichotomy makes no sense.
I like the idea that morality is some kind of larger framework "lying is wrong" but ethics fills in the specifics for a certain context. "yeah, but what do I do if I'm hiding Jews and Nazis come knocking at the door?"

Comment by The Fenian Fox

April 28th 2010 15:26
Ethics: Choice between two good things or two bad things. Requires finer grained value judgments.

Example: Do you lie to protect a friend?
loyalty vs. honesty

Morality: choice between what is right and what is wrong (and you can define the right and wrong if you want to).

Do you steal from your work place?

Actually, I was looking for a published reference that states the distinction I just outlined and would welcome any help.

Comment by Anonymous

May 6th 2010 21:50
you won't find one becuase you are wrong. Read what nietchze said about morality!! There is no right and wrong only group dynamics the will of the group is good the will of outsiders is evil. Ethics is humans vainly trying to use a "system" to justify our actions when really we behave the same as all social animals. I personally cannot understand why there is so much debate on this i can only conclude that everyone else (including myself) is wrapped up in said vanity. If you don't get the irony in the previous statement you are stupid

Comment by Anonymous

May 6th 2010 21:50
you won't find one becuase you are wrong. Read what nietchze said about morality!! There is no right and wrong only group dynamics the will of the group is good the will of outsiders is evil. Ethics is humans vainly trying to use a "system" to justify our actions when really we behave the same as all social animals. I personally cannot understand why there is so much debate on this i can only conclude that everyone else (including myself) is wrapped up in said vanity. If you don't get the irony in the previous statement you are stupid

Comment by Anonymous

June 16th 2010 01:33
it all centres around whether you believe there is absolute truth.

If there is not - there is no purpose, no meaning, no reality, no right, no wrong, everything is subjective, opinion, dust.

We either look to God to tell us, or we become God and decide for ourselves.

If there is no God - there is little consequence, but if there is - and you have denied God for your own ambitions - what is the consequence of that.

Comment by Anonymous

October 14th 2010 15:11
These two words are not the same. Ethics is the study of morals. Every human has a moral code that determines right action. Without such a code, decisions would be impossible. Therefore, morality and morals have existed for a million years. Ethics began with Aristotle. Ethics is the subject, morality is the object. These two concepts are not the same. The citations from the OED make this perfectly clear. Even philosophy websites are hard at work confusing the english language.

Comment by Anonymous

December 15th 2010 14:36
herp derp derp derp

Comment by Anonymous

December 24th 2010 23:28
There is no moral absent an ethic. Current morality can dictate ethic or change existing ones. Either way their both individual. Morals are more easily dynamic, ethics line up for a longer term. Solid ethics were normal before you, during you and long after you. You'll only find out how solid you own were long after you're not here anymore. It either matters or doesn't matter.

Comment by Molly

June 3rd 2011 20:02
Morals change within societies, ethics seen to be always wrong, like murder, violating one's soul.

Comment by Adrian ishop

October 5th 2011 12:23
For moral principles to be important they need to be clarified.

The Moral Compass

Never instigate the use of coercive force.

Accept responsibility for personal actions and the consequences of those actions.

Practice a duty of care.

Affirm the individual’s right to self-determination.

Put the truth first.

Never use a person as merely an unconsenting means to an end, even if the end benefits others.

Be honest.

Honour agreements.

Treat others as you want to be treated yourself.

Leave a positive legacy to future generations.

For more information on the Moral Compass go to The Moral Compass website.

Comment by RMH

October 18th 2011 19:48
You are lost in the varieties of Ethics.
However, philosophically ethics transcends humanity governing the inter action between living organisms and is distinct from morality. It can easily be referenced to Natural Law, the inherent right to possession and control over ones immediate environment without the interloping and conversion of first right. At the base level it is the ability to dominate, (unethical), or not dominate, (ethical). Domination of another human at adulthood is unethical. Violation of another’s body in an act opposed by codification is immoral.

Comment by paul noeldner

December 13th 2011 02:11
I agree ethics is not the same as morals or values, and a lot of unproductive confusion resul can be the result. For ideological bullies it is arguably their goal . You might enjoy my thesis which makes a fairly clear distinction between public ethics and personal and group values, i'd be interested in your comments

Comment by Anonymous

January 17th 2012 19:25
“I emphasize here and throughout the book the distinction between ethics, which is the study of how to live well, and morality, which is the study of how we must treat other people.”
R. Dworkin, Justice for Hedgehogs (2011), p. 13.

Comment by Spookpadda

February 20th 2012 22:13
There are some great posts here on a tortuous topic. Given the gulf between the origins of the words and their current usage the Greek roots or quotations from the 17th century don't take us very far.

Cocosmooth, I agree. The concept of morality has become so intertwined with faith as to be inseparable. How could it be otherwise given that we received these filtered through the interpretations of medieval Catholic theologians.

Singer's summary, "morality is a system of prohibitions" - generally from religion but not simply about sex, rings true (from his interview with Andrew Denton, here:
Really Long Link Singer's concept of ethics deals with the broader reasoning out how we should live. For me this means that morality is concerned with good versus bad, or evil, and the concept of sin. Ethics is how we determine right versus wrong acts.

Damo, I'm not sure whether there can be a truly objective system of ethics but Adrain ishop's Moral Compass list is a pretty good stab at a universal set based around the Golden Rule - the likely consequences if everyone behaved like you. Beyond that, Herodotus' conclusion holds, context is important, custom is king.

As Adrian pointed out it is tendentious to characterize non-religeous ethics as a dualism of Marxism or Nihilism. The Moral Compass list reflects humanistic values, which stem from reason and though they permeate religions, also pre-date them (with much inconsistency in application due to differing interpretations of who deserves to be treated as an equal, human, as ourselves).

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