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 ethicsChristian 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

Example Sentences

Ethics is his chosen field of study.
Recent Examples on the Web It’s tied into the Protestant work-ethic and this myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, by working hard in ways that are valid to the government and to the people that run the economy. Jordan A. Rothacker, SPIN, 31 Dec. 2022 There is, after all, an ethic not only of giving but also of receiving. Rabbi Avi Weiss, Sun Sentinel, 14 Nov. 2022 This sort of aligns with a Tolkien ethic, that nothing is inherently evil but becomes corrupted the more is detached from the Divine and turned toward power and dominance. Christopher Ceccolini, SPIN, 13 Oct. 2022 This is anathema to the Apple design ethic which abstracts away the complexities involved with doing the things someone is trying to do. Ron Shevlin, Forbes, 16 Aug. 2022 So that's kind of where the punk ethic seeped into the blues and the funk styling. Alessandro Corona, The Enquirer, 9 Dec. 2022 Despite their Hollywood-lead status, both possess the workman-like ethic of character actors, keeping up the startling pace of three to five films a year on average for the past decade. Erik Morse, Vogue, 3 Dec. 2022 It’s this ethic that’s kept him at the head of the Hollywood pack for more than two decades now. Ben Court, Men's Health, 16 Nov. 2022 Some insisted that Christianity’s ethic of love required the immediate abolition of slavery. John Fabian Witt, Washington Post, 24 Oct. 2022 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.

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 7 Feb. 2023.

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