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 His unique case has led to important changes in medical ethics and protocols regarding the handling of patients teetering between life and death. Elsa Keslassy, Variety, 20 Nov. 2023 Jones saw him, and many of the other boys who had witnessed the murder, often, but a strong no-snitching ethic prevented any of them from talking to investigators. Nicholas Dawidoff, The New Yorker, 18 Nov. 2023 On Friday, a resolution was introduced by the chairman of the House ethics committee to expel New York representative George Santos from Congress after a recent report demonstrated that Santos had used campaign funds for personal purchases. Emma Specter, Vogue, 17 Nov. 2023 As a senior ethics official at the National Security Council, Yevgeny Vindman brought the report to his superiors. Teo Armus, Washington Post, 15 Nov. 2023 The committee has been investigating the court’s ethics and passed an ethics code, though all 10 Republicans on the panel voted against it. Mark Sherman, The Christian Science Monitor, 13 Nov. 2023 The ethics controversies also touched Justice Samuel Alito who was accused of accepting and failing to report private jet travel and a stay at an Alaskan fishing lodge. Devin Dwyer, ABC News, 13 Nov. 2023 Washington — The Supreme Court issued a code of conduct signed by all nine justices on Monday, laying out formal rules after months of intense scrutiny of the court's ethics practices. Melissa Quinn, CBS News, 13 Nov. 2023 The ethics commission so far this year has issued three separate fines. Jeff McDonald, San Diego Union-Tribune, 7 Nov. 2023 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 Dec. 2023.

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