Compare and contrast "morality" and "ethics."

Quick answer:

The terms "morality" and "ethics" are often seen as interchangeable, and the two are frequently in agreement. However, "morality" refers principally to personal ideas and feelings about normative behavior, while "ethics" are a more structured, often collectively agreed code of conduct. This is why professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, operate according to codes of ethics, which might sometimes conflict with their personal moral views.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The terms "morality" and "ethics" are often used interchangeably, and there are circumstances in which they mean and dictate the same thing. This is to say that most actions which are moral will also be ethical.

One common distinction made between the two terms, however, is that morality is personal and general, whereas ethics are specific, and often defined by a particular group. Most professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, have collectively determined codes of ethics to uphold the standards of the profession. These ethical codes will normally accord with morality but may not always do so. One example often mentioned in the law is that lawyers defend guilty clients. Codes of professional ethics are clear that lawyers cannot lie about what their clients tell them. If the client says, "I am guilty, but I want you to say I'm innocent," the lawyer is ethically obliged not to follow this instruction. However, if the lawyer is morally certain that her client is guilty but the client does not actually admit this, she is ethically obliged to defend the client.

This example shows that ethics are a more technical philosophical code than morality. The two are likely to conflict when your feelings or intuitions about an issue do not accord with a prescribed code of ethics. For instance, if you are a university professor, you might have to abide by a code of ethics which specifies that you must not enter into romantic relationships with your students. If you were then asked out on a date by a student who is about the same age as you, you might have no moral problem with accepting, while still recognizing that this conduct would be unethical. To use your position of power to pressure a student into a relationship, however, would be both unethical and immoral.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Morality is a set of principles which guide our behavior within a particular community. We think of moral questions as framed by religious doctrinal beliefs, but that is not always the case. Morality in the modern world is influenced by the culture of a society and is not as quickly defined as it was in the pre-modern twentieth century, where religion dominated philosophical considerations. Morality and ethics have become conflated, making a distinction between the two more difficult.

Ethics is behavior confined to a specific category. For example, ethical behavior on the athletic field may have some application outside of a competitive activity but has no weight or use in the business arena. Ethics are defined by the organization and not necessarily by the broader community. Each organization defines ethical behavior in terms they decide. If a practice is unethical, it is not necessarily immoral. That is the primary distinction between ethics and morality.

In a philosophical sense, we define our individuality by the moral standards set by a community. A person may accept or reject the moral standard and choose to live by a different moral standard from the community. As to an ethical standard, if we are part of an organization, we are required to accept the ethical standard of the organization we belong to. An individual, if they wish to remain part of the organization, surrenders the freedom to choose to reject the ethical standard of the organization. In a sense, an individual can have a moral code and still abide by an ethical code without conflict.

For example, some corporations make political donations to lobby support with legislators for positions that enhance the profitability of the organization. For moral reasons, an individual in the organization may not agree with the stances of the political candidate the contributions benefit. The ethical code of the organization making the contributions is not violated when, for moral reasons outside of the workplace, the individual registers their protest against the candidate by making a donation to the candidate's opponent.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Morality refers to a person's innate sense of right and wrong, while ethics refers to an external set of principles, such as a code of conduct or city laws. They are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing.

Your morals are a set of beliefs that you, as an individual, use to judge what's right and wrong. They are subjective and often based on religion or simply a feeling. The concept of ethics is more practical; it is aimed at promoting fairness in business and social deals.

Ethics is the codified morals, if you will, of a group, society, or governed authority (e.g., a state, a nation). Morals and ethics can contradict: you might think it immoral to execute a criminal, yet your country approves the death penalty. You might disapprove of gay marriage, yet find it legalized in your state.

People in most societies can likely agree on some basic ethics: Don't murder, don't steal, treat others the way you'd like to be treated, and so forth. These are based on the morality of the majority. It is wrong to murder, to steal, and to mistreat people. But other morals are trickier to reach consensus on, which is why ethics varies from nation to nation. I once had a business student in a foreign country proclaim that the system in his government was so corrupt that "if you don't cheat, you're a fool." For him, cheating might have been immoral, but it wasn't unethical.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial