What are morals and what are ethics?

Defining Ethics and Morals

Ethics and morals are both about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behaviour:

  • Ethics refer to rules provided by an external source such as codes of conduct in a workplace or profession.
  • Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong (a personal compass) based on personal beliefs.

What are the origins of the words?

The two words are often confused and used interchangeably, a confusion which can be traced back to their original meanings which were very similar.


Origins of the word

The word ethic comes from Late Latin (ethica), and Greek (ethos) meaning character and referred to customs or moral philosophies.


Origins of the word

The word morals comes from Late Latin’s (moralis) meaning custom and referred to appropriate behaviour and manners in society.

So then, what’s the difference between morality and ethics?

Watch the short video below where Dr Obiora Ike answers the philosophical question ‘what’s the difference between morality and ethics’. Prof. Obiora Ike is a Professor of Ethics and Intercultural Studies at the Godfrey Okoye University in Enugu State, Nigeria.

Comparison Chart: Ethics vs. Morals

Information for this helpful comparison chart comes from the Diffen website.

What are they? The rules of conduct recognised in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group or culture. Principles or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct. While morals also prescribe dos ad don’ts, morality is a personal compass of right and wrong.
Where do they come from? Social system – External Individual – Internal
Why do we do it? Because society says it is the right thing to do. Because we believe in something being right or wrong.
Flexibility Ethics depend on others for definition and tend to be consistent within a certain context, but can vary between contexts. Usually consistent, although can change if an individual’s beliefs change.
The grey area People following ethical principles may not have any morals. A person could violate ethical principles in order to maintain their moral integrity. A moral person may choose to follow a code of ethics as it would apply to a system even if it goes against their sense of morality.
Acceptability Ethics are governed by professional and legal guidelines within a particular time and place. Morality transcends cultural norms

What are medical ethics?

Medical ethics is the study of values and judgements as they apply to medicine in order to decide what is right (good) and what is wrong (bad). An online dictionary defines medical ethics as ‘moral principles that govern the practice of medicine’.

In 1976 Howard Brody MD wrote in his book Ethical Decisions in Medicine:

“Ethics is the study of the rational process for determining the best course of action in the case of conflicting choices.”