What's the difference between ethics and morals?

More specifically, what differentiates (if any):

  • a moral code vs. a code of ethics
  • ethically versus morally (e.g. "Morally, I can't (justify it), but ethically, I can.")
  • 1
    for what it's worth, I don't find any of the distinctions offered to be significant. In most of the contexts spelled out below, 'moral' and 'ethical' could replace each other without changing the meaning. (I think the distinctions raised are artificial). But that's just one persons POV.
    – Mitch
    Mar 28, 2011 at 13:58
  • @Mitch: I think some of these distinctions are relatively modern ones invented by committees in corporations and institutions, conflicting with traditional usage in philosophy, where they are mostly synonymous. Note that Latin "mos" was taken as a literal translation of Greek "ethos" in Roman philosophy: "mos" then immediately gained the exact same connotations "ethos" had acquired over the centuries, even though these connotations were neither native to "ethos" in daily speech ("character, habit") nor to "mos" ("manner, habitual rule, habit") prior to their use in philosophy. Mar 28, 2011 at 14:23

4 Answers 4


As the New Oxford American Dictionary puts it:

You can be an ethical person without necessarily being a moral one, since ethical implies conformity with a code of fair and honest behavior, particularly in business or in a profession (an ethical legislator who didn't believe in cutting deals), while moral refers to generally accepted standards of goodness and rightness in character and conduct—especially sexual conduct (the moral values she'd learned from her mother).


Morals refer to an individual's beliefs about right & wrong, while ethics relate to those of a group. The example I'm most used to seeing is that while a lawyer likely regards murder as morally wrong, he's still ethically bound to do his best to defend the accused murderer. The morals are his own feelings, the ethics are from the professional group he belongs to.

  • 1
    Any reference to "Christian Morals" or "Collective Morality" would disagree with morals being individually based.
    – mfg
    Aug 20, 2010 at 11:10

In the philosophical sense, as I understand it, morals are the standards by which an individual or group determines what is and what is not correct or proper behavior and how one decides how to act, and ethics is the study of moral problems to determine how one should act, not how one does or thinks one should act.

Paraphrased from here.


A moral code is what one holds for oneself and at a high esteem, whereas the code of ethics is what is enforced upon a group for its general goodness.

The fact, one doesn't kill anyone can be his moral code whereas the non-compete agreements, that blocks an employee from working for a competition for a reasonable period of time, can a part of company's work ethic.

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