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

Definition of ethic

1a : 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\ 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
c : a consciousness of moral importance forge a conservation ethic
d : a guiding philosophy
2 ethics plural : a set of moral issues or aspects (such as rightness) debated the ethics of human cloning
3 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

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 Yet even in Waters’ filthy world, there may be something approaching an ethic. Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times, 23 May 2022 The Zionist collectivist ethic, defined partly in opposition to the temptations of the individualist West, still held sway in early-seventies Israel, and the conveniences of the American suburbs were nonexistent. Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker, 16 May 2022 That ethic began with his parents, who worked tirelessly for their family and pushed the young Khaled to strive hard and dream big. A.d. Amorosi, Variety, 10 Apr. 2022 Simmons embraced an ethic of old-school bootstrapperism that has barely aged a day in gyms across America. Lauren Michele Jackson, The New Yorker, 7 Apr. 2022 Megan’s great-grandmother—her Big Mama—exemplified the ethic of community care that has come to define Megan’s ethos. Zandria Robinson, Glamour, 2 Nov. 2021 An ethic of shared responsibility, willing the good of the other and not just consent, would make that burden more evenly distributed. Jeva Lange, The Week, 22 Mar. 2022 The love ethic of race and place, familiarity and origin, makes women defend men, and workers cover for their managers and cross lines more consequential but less concrete than the picket. Vinson Cunningham, The New Yorker, 31 Jan. 2022 Top roping outdoors is useful in areas where the rock quality does not allow for adequate leader protection, where bolting is not part of the local ethic, or where top-ropes can be set off of trees. Chris Brinlee Jr., Outside Online, 16 Mar. 2016 See More

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.

First Known Use of ethic

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 3

History and Etymology for ethic

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

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

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Last Updated

23 Jun 2022

Cite this Entry

“Ethic.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 3 Jul. 2022.

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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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