eth·​ic ˈe-thik How to pronounce ethic (audio)
: a set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values
the present-day materialistic ethic
an old-fashioned work ethic
often used in plural but singular or plural in construction
an elaborate ethics
Christian ethics
ethics ˈe-thiks How to pronounce ethic (audio) plural in form but singular or plural in construction : the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group
professional ethics
: a consciousness of moral importance
forge a conservation ethic
: a guiding philosophy
ethics plural : a set of moral issues or aspects (such as rightness)
debated the ethics of human cloning
ethics plural in form but singular or plural in construction : the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation

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Ethics vs Morals: Is there a difference?

Ethics and morals are both used in the plural and are often regarded as synonyms, but there is some distinction in how they are used.

Morals often describes one's particular values concerning what is right and what is wrong:

It would go against my morals to help you cheat on the test.

He appears to view himself as a kind of culture warrior, striking out against the crumbling morals of modern society.
Jonathan Goldsbie, Now Toronto, 16 Oct. 2014

While ethics can refer broadly to moral principles, one often sees it applied to questions of correct behavior within a relatively narrow area of activity:

Our class had a debate over the ethics of genetic testing.

Anybody, it seemed, could make the music -- if they couldn't play guitar, they could push a button -- and nobody worried about the ethics of appropriating riffs.
Jennifer Foote, Newsweek, 23 July 1990

In addition, morals usually connotes an element of subjective preference, while ethics tends to suggest aspects of universal fairness and the question of whether or not an action is responsible:

Perhaps you don’t like Kim Kardashian, or her family, or her morals don’t align with yours, or you just think it’s weird that she might have had some plastic surgery, likes to apply makeup in a really complicated way and named her kid “Saint.”
Sarah Boboltz, The Huffington Post, 12 Oct. 2016

The Frenches, both professors in The Media School, focused on the ethics of making medical decisions for a child who could not express her own wishes yet…
Chris Mura, Indiana Daily Student, 18 Oct. 2016

Examples of ethic in a Sentence

Ethics is his chosen field of study.
Recent Examples on the Web Instead, in the final chapter, May professes a naive faith that all this can only be solved if careerist politicians and state officials adopt an ethic of public service. Andrew Moravcsik, Foreign Affairs, 20 Feb. 2024 The ethics of returning shopping carts Consumers bear some of the responsibility for the banged up and broken qualities of their shopping carts. Carts that are abandoned outside after shoppers load their food into their vehicles are at the mercy of extreme heat, snow, ice and road salt. Eva Rothenberg, CNN, 17 Feb. 2024 This core section continues to assess candidates’ knowledge of auditing processes, including understanding the ethics and professional responsibilities involved in an audit engagement. Bryce Welker, Miami Herald, 16 Feb. 2024 Backed by budget and authority, CAIOs can more effectively motivate the company for an intelligent future - outlining the possibilities while prudently guiding ethics and appraising job automation risks. Mark Minevich, Forbes, 15 Feb. 2024 Your own family’s ethic of independence is admirable, but a history of improvidence can’t be undone; comparisons here aren’t so much odious as pointless. Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York Times, 14 Feb. 2024 The work of being a prosecutor is apolitical by definition and by ethic. Andrea Castillo, Los Angeles Times, 12 Feb. 2024 The Problem with Making YouTube Videos of Wounded Game For many hunters opposed to drone deer recovery, there’s another problem that has nothing to do with legality or fair chase ethics at all. Hayden Sammak, Outdoor Life, 8 Feb. 2024 Claudio Novelli, who studies digital ethics and law at the University of Bologna in Italy, worries that this may discourage AI companies from participating in the E.U. market—and could stifle innovation. Chris Stokel-Walker, Scientific American, 7 Feb. 2024 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'ethic.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Middle English ethik, from Middle French ethique, from Latin ethice, from Greek ēthikē, from ēthikos

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 3

Time Traveler
The first known use of ethic was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near ethic

Cite this Entry

“Ethic.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 4 Mar. 2024.

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