Well, fellow Word Nerds, what’s the difference between morals and ethics? Nothing like a meaty topic early in the morning, so here we go!



Before taking a tour through Old French and Middle English, moral came from the Latin mos/moris meaning “custom.” (We also get our word more’ from this root.)


Ethics comes from Middle English, etik, “the science of ethics,” but spent some time in Old French (ethique) and Latin (ethica) after originating in the Greek ethos, “moral custom.” Once again, the Romans copy the Greeks.




The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969)

(Considers the words to be synonyms)


Morals: “Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character; pertaining to the discernment of good and evil.”


Ethic: “A principle of right or good conduct, or a body of such principles” Ethics=the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by the individual in his relationship of others; the philosophy of morals.”


In its section on synonyms, American Heritage says: “Moral pertains to personal behavior measured by prevailing standards of rectitude. Ethical approaches behavior from a philosophical standpoint; it stresses more objectively defined, but essentially idealistic, standards of right and wrong, such as those applicable to the practices of lawyers, doctors, and businessmen.”



Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary



Morals: “Relating to the practice, manners or conduct of men as social beings in relation to each other, and with reference to right and wrong. The word moral is applicable to actions that are good or evil, virtuous or vicious, and has reference to the law of God as the standard by which their character is to be determined. The word however may be applied to actions which affect only, or primarily and principally, a person’s own happiness. Keep at the least within the compass of moral actions, which have in them vice or virtue.”


Ethics: “The doctrines of morality or social manners; the science of moral philosophy, which teaches men their duty and the reasons of it. 1. A system of moral principles; a system of rules for regulating the actions and manners of men in society.”



My Thoughts


First of all, I notice that moral is used in the definition of ethics, and that it’s actually a very simple distinction between the words. Ethics is kind of a systematization, a study, a philosophy, of morality. It’s also interesting that American Heritage  places ethics in the realm of lawyers, doctors and businessmen, though it doesn’t do so completely. It’s as though morals are individual for discernment of right and wrong, while ethics are generalized to a group for study or systematization.


Both dictionaries also seem to say that ethics is the philosophical study of how morals are worked out practically. Look at the words used in the definitions: For ethics, the dictionaries use “doctrines” “science” “system” “principle” “study”: philosophical, general words.  For morals, thewords “practice” “action” “judgment” “discernment” are used: practical, daily-use words. My New College Latin and English Dictionary defines mos/moris as “custom, usage, practice,” which corroborates my point, neverminding that my husband was taught the opposite in law school!


(Ethos in the Latin dictionary is defined as “ethics,” in case you’re wondering. No help at all! J)


As usual, Noah Webster takes pains to include God in his definitions, while latter dictionaries do not. (SNARK ALERT: We wouldn’t want children to look up moral in the dictionary and think of God would we?) He even specifies that the standard for determining morality is the law of God, while American Heritage says the standard for judging morality is the “prevailing standards of rectitude.” But here’s the thing, and it really touches on faith and worldview: God’s law cannot change, while “prevailing standards of rectitude” can and do change. Sometimes daily.


The Romans apparently also used mos/moris for “caprice, mood, fashion, style,” probably because they lived in a “prevailing standards of rectitude” kind of world like we do.


Look at our nation’s history on abortion: Abortion’s wrong. Abortion’s okay. Abortion’s up to the individual. Abortion’s morality is determined state by state. As a nation, we’ve been on all those sides of the abortion issue, yet they are mutually exclusive from one another. One of them is right, and the rest are wrong.


BONUS POLITICAL SPIEL: As a Christian, I just have to say that abortion is simply wrong. After all:  “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Ps. 139 God’s law!\


Reading the dictionary can certainly be a contemplative thing!


WORD NERD CHALLENGE: I know you have some thoughts on this subject! Comment away! What were you taught in school about the differences between ethics and morality?