ethic

noun
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

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

No criminal charges were filed against DeWine, but the disciplinary counsel said the email was an ethics violation and possibly violated state law. Kevin Grasha, Cincinnati.com, "Attorney: Prosecuting Tracie Hunter, but not Pat DeWine, ‘smacks of unfairness’," 31 July 2019 In 2017, the National Academies of Science and Medicine brought together ethics experts and scientists to decide, in part, whether and how to allow changes to the human germline — changes to DNA that would be passed on to future generations. Anna Groves, Discover Magazine, "Human Gene Editing is Controversial. Shoukhrat Mitalipov Isn't Deterred," 15 Apr. 2019 Mike Martello, a government ethics expert who was a city attorney in California for 30 years, said it’s possible McKibben violated that state law, Government Code Section 1090. David Debolt, The Mercury News, "Alameda DA’s office opens investigation into controversial Oakland coliseum naming deal," 11 Sep. 2019 The Pentagon is looking to hire an ethics expert who can help the Defense Department navigate some of A.I.’s most pressing ethical concerns, trade publication Defense Systems reported. Jonathan Vanian, Fortune, "Where A.I.’s Next Big Breakthrough May Come From: Eye on A.I.," 10 Sep. 2019 Still, ethics experts acknowledged the challenge of disentangling lobbying, activism and normal speech. Vivian Wang, New York Times, "Abuse Victim’s 3 Billboards Called for Stronger Laws. Then the State Showed Up.," 31 July 2019 Mueller, a longtime Republican, was cleared by the Justice Department’s ethics experts to lead the Russia investigation. Seth Borenstein, The Denver Post, "Trump administration fact check: Environment, VA, Russia and jobs," 13 July 2019 The Constitution prohibits the president from receiving gifts or payments from foreign politicians and his failure to divest from his business could make the sale an issue, ethics experts said, according to the Post. Fox News, "Trump-owned Beverly Hills property was sold to entity linked to Indonesian billionaire, report says," 14 June 2019 However, soon the question of ethics is raised and the lives of the doctors and their patient are forever changed. Houston Chronicle, "Outside the Megaplex: Here are the Houston arthouse movies showing Sept. 13-19," 12 Sep. 2019

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

Statistics for ethic

Last Updated

12 Oct 2019

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for ethic

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

See more words from the same century

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for ethic

ethic

noun

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

More from Merriam-Webster on ethic

Nglish: Translation of ethic for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of ethic for Arabic Speakers

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).

WORD OF THE DAY

to wander slowly or to speak indistinctly

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Where in the World? A Quiz

  • peter bruegel tower of babel painting
  • What language does pajama come from?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

TAKE THE QUIZ
Add Diction

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

TAKE THE QUIZ
Love words? Need even more definitions?

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