eth·​ic | \ ˈe-thik How to pronounce ethic (audio) \

Definition of ethic

1 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
2a : 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 ethicsChristian ethics
b ethics plural in form but singular or plural in construction : the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group professional ethics
c : a guiding philosophy
d : a consciousness of moral importance forge a conservation ethic
3 ethics plural : a set of moral issues or aspects (such as rightness) debated the ethics of human cloning

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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 Communicative work-ethic, accountability must, too. Dave Hyde,, "Hyde: From zero to Zito — Panthers’ changes started at the top | Commentary," 17 Apr. 2021 With that ethic embedded in his genes, the kid began working at 11 years old. Roy S. Johnson |, al, "Jefferson County Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Hicks: ‘We’ve got to keep momentum going’," 11 Apr. 2021 That ethic helped fuel the second championship two years later, on a team led by Whiting. Ann Killion, San Francisco Chronicle, "In Tara they trusted: Stanford's 1990 NCAA-championship team began a dynasty," 25 Mar. 2021 Chicago centers on belonging instead of oppression—being from Chicago is more of an ethic than a requirement. Pearse Anderson, Wired, "Fans Are Rallying Around Blaseball, America’s Favorite Splort," 16 Mar. 2021 The ethic is admirable: Without creative self-scrutiny, without examining how theatrical forms and collaborative methods might unwittingly shore up the status quo, there can be no progress or liberation. Los Angeles Times, "Review: Revolution, interrupted. Guillermo Calderón’s potent ‘Return of the Dragon’," 9 Apr. 2021 Comprehensive insurance coverage must become the standard ethic of care and a moral priority in efforts to reduce the impact of maternal mortality and morbidity and improve health and wellness during the postpartum period. Jamila K. Taylor, Scientific American, "We Must Extend Postpartum Medicaid Coverage," 11 Mar. 2021 This ethic drove the rationale for such landmark programs of the New Deal as public works jobs, the GI Bill, the Wagner Act, Social Security, and the Fair Labor Standards Act (which created the first national minimum wage and overtime pay rule). Michael Kazin, The New Republic, "How the Democratic Party Can Create a Majoritarian Coalition," 11 Feb. 2021 The decision to spotlight Black businesses reflects Douglas' ethic for responsibly engaging with communities while traveling, especially during trips tied to learning about people at society's margins. NBC News, "A guide to the sites of the civil rights era encourages travelers to engage with Black history," 15 Mar. 2021

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'ethic.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of ethic

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for ethic

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

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Time Traveler for ethic

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

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Statistics for ethic

Last Updated

7 May 2021

Cite this Entry

“Ethic.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 9 May. 2021.

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More Definitions for ethic



English Language Learners Definition of ethic

: rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad
: an area of study that deals with ideas about what is good and bad behavior : a branch of philosophy dealing with what is morally right or wrong
: a belief that something is very important

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More from Merriam-Webster on ethic

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for ethic

Nglish: Translation of ethic for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of ethic for Arabic Speakers

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