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 constructionan 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

Keep scrolling for more

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 Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University, said that, more than any other modern Attorney General, Barr has enabled the President to use the department for his own purposes. David Rohde, The New Yorker, "From the Justice Department to the Intelligence Community, Donald Trump and William Barr Have Won," 14 May 2020 The most aggressive actions included bombarding researchers with freedom of information requests, lodging complaints with university ethics committees, and falsely accusing individual scientists of being paid by drug and insurance companies. Jennifer Ouellette, Ars Technica, "Fired scientist back to peddling anti-vaxx COVID-19 conspiracy theories," 8 May 2020 The book dives deep into hunter’s successes here stateside, including the development and legislation of a strong fairchase ethic, and the birth of the American model of conservation. Outdoor Life, "Four books every hunter should read," 20 Apr. 2020 Asking to dismiss ethics charge In its complaint, the State Bar accused Martinez of making comments toward a court reporter who worked at the Maricopa County Superior Court. Lauren Castle, azcentral, "Juan Martinez continues misconduct fight with State Bar of Arizona," 25 Feb. 2020 According to Ellen Yaroshefsky, a professor of legal ethics at Hofstra University, money is the most common reason. Richard A. Webster, Washington Post, "A 42-year inmate’s choice: Exoneration fight or ‘deal with the devil’ for freedom," 21 Feb. 2020 The Denver Post’s Justin Wingerter was the first to report a couple of oddities about the state’s spending on the lawyer representing former Gov. John Hickenlooper against ethics charges. Cindi Andrews, The Denver Post, "Inching toward transparency in Colorado; Hancock’s personnel decisions aren’t up for scrutiny," 21 Nov. 2019 On March 27, Emanuel, who is chairman of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said on Morning Joe that at the current rate of spread, there would likely be 100 million Americans infected by the coronavirus in a month. David Harsanyi, National Review, "Joe Biden’s Dr. Death," 28 Apr. 2020 The emails show that Jeremiah Quarles accepted the AT&T tickets on behalf of the couple, which auditors highlighted as an ethics violation. Miles Moffeit, Dallas News, "DeSoto officials mired in fraud scandal also took AT&T freebies to attend dinners, audit shows," 31 Jan. 2020

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.

See More

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about ethic

Time Traveler for ethic

Time Traveler

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

See more words from the same century

Statistics for ethic

Last Updated

24 May 2020

Cite this Entry

“Ethic.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 4 Jun. 2020.

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for ethic


How to pronounce ethic (audio)

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

Keep scrolling for more

Comments on ethic

What made you want to look up ethic? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


See Definitions and Examples »

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

May 2020 Words of the Day Quiz

  • a blooming wisteria tree
  • Which is a synonym of exiguous?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

Bee Cubed

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!