Ethics vs. Morals

Ethics and morals relate to “right” and “wrong” conduct. While they are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different: ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong.

Comparison chart



What are they? The rules of conduct recognized 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 and don'ts, morality is ultimately a personal compass of right and wrong.
Where do they come from? Social system - External Individual - Internal
Why we do it? Because society says it is the right thing to do. Because we believe in something being right or wrong.
Flexibility Ethics are dependent on others for definition. They 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 "Gray" A person strictly following Ethical Principles may not have any Morals at all. Likewise, one could violate Ethical Principles within a given system of rules in order to maintain Moral integrity. A Moral Person although perhaps bound by a higher covenant, may choose to follow a code of ethics as it would apply to a system. "Make it fit"
Origin Greek word "ethos" meaning"character" Latin word "mos" meaning "custom"
Acceptability Ethics are governed by professional and legal guidelines within a particular time and place Morality transcends cultural norms

Contents: Ethics vs Morals

Source of Principles

Ethics are external standards that are provided by institutions, groups, or culture to which an individual belongs. For example, lawyers, policemen, and doctors all have to follow an ethical code laid down by their profession, regardless of their own feelings or preferences. Ethics can also be considered a social system or a framework for acceptable behavior.

Morals are also influenced by culture or society, but they are personal principles created and upheld by individuals themselves.

Consistency and Flexibility

Ethics are very consistent within a certain context, but can vary greatly between contexts. For example, the ethics of the medical profession in the 21st century are generally consistent and do not change from hospital to hospital, but they are different from the ethics of the 21st century legal profession.

An individual’s moral code is usually unchanging and consistent across all contexts, but it is also possible for certain events to radically change an individual's personal beliefs and values.

Conflicts Between Ethics and Morals

One professional example of ethics conflicting with morals is the work of a defense attorney. A lawyer’s morals may tell her that murder is reprehensible and that murderers should be punished, but her ethics as a professional lawyer, require her to defend her client to the best of her abilities, even if she knows that the client is guilty.

Another example can be found in the medical field. In most parts of the world, a doctor may not euthanize a patient, even at the patient's request, as per ethical standards for health professionals. However, the same doctor may personally believe in a patient's right to die, as per the doctor's own morality.


Much of the confusion between these two words can be traced back to their origins. For example, the word "ethic" comes from Old French (etique), Late Latin (ethica), and Greek (ethos) and referred to customs or moral philosophies. "Morals" comes from Late Latin's moralis, which referred to appropriate behavior and manners in society. So, the two have very similar, if not synonymous, meanings originally.

Morality and ethics of the individual have been philosophically studied for well over a thousand years. The idea of ethics being principles that are set and applied to a group (not necessarily focused on the individual) is relatively new, though, primarily dating back to the 1600s. The distinction between ethics and morals is particularly important for philosophical ethicists.

Videos Explaining the Differences

The following video explains how ethics are objective, while morals are subjective.


Share this comparison:

If you read this far, you should follow us:

"Ethics vs Morals." Diffen LLC, n.d. Web. 24 May 2015. < >

Related Comparisons Follow Diffen
Top 5 Comparisons
Make Diffen Smarter.

Log in to edit comparisons or create new comparisons in your area of expertise!

Sign up »

Comments: Ethics vs Morals

Anonymous comments (5)

October 23, 2013, 2:02pm

The Greek and Latin origins seem to indicate that the definitions are reversed. However, I think that the definitions are correct for how the terms are used. For example, Olympic athletes have a code of ethics to which they must adhere; and people are often given the advice to "follow their moral compass"

— 72.✗.✗.224

May 30, 2013, 11:41pm

I think the distinction drawn here is backwards. If you listen to how these words are used idiomatically, moral tends to relate to codified societal beliefs that are received on an unquestioned basis (the 1960's use of the term "moral majority" for instance.) On the other hand ethics implies a philosophical and hence reasoned set of values that the individual thinks through (going back to Aristotle's Ethics).

— 173.✗.✗.75

June 25, 2012, 6:43pm

WOW!!! Neat website... I love it! :D

— 70.✗.✗.68

November 15, 2013, 8:17pm

Part of being an educated person is that you know how to find the field that studies the thing you are interested in. Philosophy is the field that studies ethics. Philosophers use the terms "ethical" and "moral" more or less interchangeably, and tend not to use the term "morals".

The content here is of very very poor quality, and looks like it was simply made up by someone.
If you want to learn about this, a good starting point is the Stanford Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. That is a very high quality source, with several entries on ethics.

— 75.✗.✗.251

June 10, 2014, 7:33pm

Many people - even many philosophers - think that morality and ethics are the same thing. But they are not. Morality is primarily about making the correct choices, while ethics is about proper reasoning.

— 66.✗.✗.24


Up next

Malpractice vs. Negligence