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

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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 Perhaps that’s because Payne’s activism is combined with a strong worth ethic, an optimistic outlook and a sense of humor. Mary Carole Mccauley,, "Howard County actor JC Payne works to diversify everything about live theater," 31 Aug. 2020 There wasn’t really a strong environmental ethic in San Diego. San Diego Union-Tribune, "Get to know Nicole Capretz, a pioneer in climate crisis policy in San Diego," 25 Aug. 2020 In contrast, the nation’s academic and medical organizations, in concert with patients and primary physicians, have quietly pursued lifesaving medicine—and developed a powerful new tool—through an ethic of cooperation and transparency. Michael S. Kinch, Scientific American, "How Politics Muddied the Waters on a Promising COVID-19 Treatment," 25 Aug. 2020 While Indian apps like Chingari and Mitron grapple with privacy policies—or lack thereof in the latter’s case—Triller has been stressing on its security ethic. Ananya Bhattacharya, Quartz India, "TikTok’s American rival Triller just stepped up its game in India," 25 Aug. 2020 Moxley, a graduate of Gonzaga University, brought a Jesuit ethic and a conscientious approach to Grixsen. oregonlive, "Grixsen Brewing of SE Portland announces closure, cites economic downturn," 17 Aug. 2020 That ethic would become central to the International Committee of the Red Cross, founded in Geneva in 1863. Tina Hillier, Smithsonian Magazine, "The Defiance of Florence Nightingale," 10 Mar. 2020 Such practices violate the modern ethic of patients’ rights — and human rights — yet pregnant women are routinely treated like another class of patient. Jennifer Block, Longreads, "The Criminalization of the American Midwife," 10 Mar. 2020 Bryant retired in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, finishing two decades with the Lakers as a prolific scorer with a sublime all-around game and a relentless competitive ethic. Stefanie Dazio, The Denver Post, "Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter killed in California helicopter crash, 7 others dead," 26 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.

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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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Time Traveler for ethic

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

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Last Updated

3 Sep 2020

Cite this Entry

“Ethic.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 24 Sep. 2020.

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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

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