eth·ic | \ˈe-thik \

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

This is at least the 11th investigation Pruitt faces, from both within the EPA and congressional committees, over various alleged lapses in ethics. Benjamin Hart, Daily Intelligencer, "Scott Pruitt Faces Yet Another Investigation," 27 Apr. 2018 Two mayors want to strengthen their cities’ lobbying rules, saying Broward County’s ethics laws don’t go far enough. Meryl Kornfield,, "Mayors push to strengthen lobbying laws in Broward," 9 July 2018 Litigation funding has been met with resistance from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others who say it flouts attorney ethics laws and increases frivolous litigation. Sara Randazzo, WSJ, "The New Hot Law Job: Litigation Finance," 5 July 2018 As Forbes points out, this is a strong indication that the ethics laws for political leaders have failed to catch up to the complicated financial ties of absurdly wealthy figures like Trump and Ross. Luke Darby, GQ, "Trump’s Commerce Secretary Sold His Stock in a Putin-Tied Company After Reporters Began Asking About It," 18 June 2018 Whether or not that payment was a violation of campaign finance or ethics laws is still in question. Andrew Clark, Indianapolis Star, "Porn star Stormy Daniels to appear at Indianapolis strip club," 5 June 2018 Needless to say, this is beyond sketchy: Federal ethics laws bar public officials from using their position or staff for private gain. Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, "Pruitt Used Position And Staff To Pursue a Chick-Fil-A Franchise For His Wife," 5 June 2018 Federal ethics laws prohibit Administrator Pruitt from using his official position for personal gain and from requesting and accepting services from a subordinate employee that are not part of that employee’s official duties. Jennifer A Dlouhy,, "Pruitt Tried to Buy Used Mattress From Trump Hotel Last Year," 4 June 2018 The gift was not reported as required by California ethics laws, until after The Times raised questions. Paige St. John,, "Stalls, stops and breakdowns: Problems plague push for electric buses," 20 May 2018

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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Phrases Related to ethic

code of ethics

Statistics for ethic

Last Updated

12 Oct 2018

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Time Traveler for ethic

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

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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

ethics : 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

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