It is common in ordinary usage to find a variety of terms referring to the same thing. Sometimes there are inflexions or nuances between them, other times not.

Vertically, what discriminates between these sets?

ethical | unethical  
moral | immoral  
virtue | sin

It seems obvious that there are differences in the etymology if we consider the roots of these words, however, are they referring to different concepts, or, in fact, to the same concepts? Is there some subtle discrimination between them, perhaps vertically they are representing differing levels, although, I would argue that vertically there is no grey between them? i.e. if it is ethical it is moral and it is a virtue, if it is unethical it is immoral and it is sin. The basis for this argument is, if it is not sinning then, how can it be unethical?

Is the word selection, in fact, more evidence of the world-view or position of the word user than it is in discriminating between concepts? I conceptualise, for example, that the use of ethical and unethical allows one to discuss concepts of good and bad without needing any anchoring thought to concepts of a benevolent God. I would like to say that moral refers to a consistency with the outcomes of a story used for teaching, but, I do not know the words' full history.

I have previously inquired on Philosophy.SE, however, wish to gain insight from another viewpoint. Although the dictionary shows that they are, in fact, similar there is room in the definitions I have for subtle differences.

  • Perhaps too simple, but adjectives vs nouns wouldn’t be what you are looking for?
    – Stephie
    May 3, 2018 at 9:08
  • This question is deserving of a full and comprehensive answer, which sadly I have insufficient time to research. But a good place to start would be with something like the OED or Etymoline which provides the classical roots of such words.
    – WS2
    May 3, 2018 at 9:10
  • Vira in Sanskrit means "brave." It is interesting, from an etymological perspective, how the PIE root went from "brave" to "man" [vir = man in Latin] back to something closer to "brave."
    – jpp
    May 3, 2018 at 9:37

1 Answer 1


There are a couple of different things that could be referred to here:

  1. compatibility with the claims in moral philosophy, in which philosophers think about what good is, how to achieve it, whether it exists, and so on, (see, for example, books like After Virtue, Kant's Critiques, &c.),
  2. compatibility with the “ethics” of particular professions, e.g., medical codes of conduct,
  3. compatibility with mores, that is, generally accepted custom,
  4. traits that are desirable based on some sort of system of value judgements (normally one of the above), e.g., industry, and
  5. defiance of God, and Her will.

As for usage of these words:

  1. the ethical probably falls into (1) or (2), the unethical being the opposite,¹
  2. the moral probably falls either into (1) or (3), the immoral being the opposite,²
  3. virtue probably refers to (4),³ and
  4. sin generally refers to (5), though can also refer to other generally immoral or unethical acts,⁴

all provided that, for example, (1), is read as indicating that whether something is in, for example, (3), is orthogonal to whether something falls in (1) or (2).

¹ See the OED:

a. Of or relating to moral principles, esp. as forming a system, or the branch of knowledge or study dealing with these.

b. Of an author or work: taking moral questions or ethics as a subject.

c. That conforms to moral principles or ethics; morally right; honourable; virtuous; decent; spec. conforming to the ethics of a profession, etc.

² OED again:

a. Of or relating to human character or behaviour considered as good or bad; of or relating to the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil, in relation to the actions, desires, or character of responsible human beings; ethical.

b. Of an action: having the property of being right or wrong, or good or evil; voluntary or deliberate and therefore open to ethical appraisal. Of a person, etc.: capable of moral action; able to choose between right and wrong, or good and evil.

(and so on)

†6. Of or relating to manners and customs. Obsolete.

(I recall reading somewhere that a philosopher, at some point in the 1960s, indicated that he used “moral” in this sense, though I may be wrong.)

³ See the OED; most entries seem to follow the structure I described:

a. A moral quality regarded (esp. in religious contexts) as good or desirable in a person, such as patience, kindness, etc.; a particular form of moral excellence. Cf. vice n.1 2a.

b. Each of a specified number of morally good qualities regarded (esp. in religious contexts) as of particular worth or importance, such as the four cardinal virtues (see cardinal adj. 2), the three theological virtues (see theological adj. 1), or these seven virtues collectively as opposed to the seven deadly sins.

⁴ See the OED again:

a. An act which is regarded as a transgression of the divine law and an offence against God; a violation (esp. wilful or deliberate) of some religious or moral principle.

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