Is there a *technical* difference between ethics and morality?

There are millions of things on the internet about people’s personal opinion as to the difference between these two. What I want to know is, is there a technical difference that moral philosophers (or ethicists if you prefer) make between these two? And by this I mean a difference that is recognized across the field of philosophy by more or less all philosophers, not just ad hoc distinctions?

Sure. Morality is what is right or wrong, and is also used to refer to someone’s intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. Ethics is a system of rules and/or principles designed to tell you what is right and wrong. It also refers to the study of such rules and principles, the meta-discipline that tries to determine which set of rules and principles is the correct (or most correct) one.

In short, ethics is the systematization of morality.

I would disagree a little. Morality usually comes from an external course - a form of received truth (which is a technical term) that isn’t questioned. So you have religious morality - rules that are received from either the word of your God, or the religious teachings. Similarly family values, things you learn from your parents, but don’t question, may be morals. Ethics are as njtt outlines, much more systematised, and internally justified. Ethics require one to actually think, whereas morals often only require you to follow. You can have professional ethics - and almost every profession does, but you don’t have professional morals. Think about the converse, unethical versus immoral behaviour.

I’m sure others will disagree, but that is my take on a technical difference - morals are a received truth, whereas ethics are not, and require active intellectual participation in.

I’d like a cite for those answers. I was under the impression, gleaned from my undergrad philosophy professor, that there was no technical distinction. I also remember a professor in grad school telling me that the class Protestant seminaries teach as “Ethics,” Catholic seminaries tend to call “Moral Theology” (in both cases referring to the branch of philosophy usually called ethics, taught from a Christian perspective). Ethics can refer to a set of rules for an organization or a profession, but that’s separate from the the term as used in philosophy. I could be wrong, though.

I always that that morality was WHAT you did, while ethics was HOW you go about doing it.

Or you could think of it as the difference between strategic and tactical.

Your morals are quiet and invisible while your ethics are there for all to see.

In retrospect, I’m not going to pursue my initial thought so much. Whilst they have been closer to my general thinking of late, revisiting the question I lean more towards njtt’s thoughts. I think in general conversation my distinction tends to hold, and many people draw some form of distinction. However morals and ethics do get used essentially interchangeably by philosophers, although morals do tend to be used for more basic ideals - such as a sense of justice - from which it becomes possible to build an argument for ethical principles - such as equality.

This might be one of those cases where the common usage and the lay usage of a term have different meanings. For example, the word “theory” has a very different meaning to a scientist than a layman.

I read this:

“[Ethics is] is the philosophical study of morality. The word is also commonly used interchangeably with ‘morality’ to mean the subject matter of this study; and sometimes it is used more narrowly to mean the moral principles of a particular tradition, group, or individual. Christian ethics and Albert Schweitzer’s ethics are examples.”

– John Deigh in Robert Audi (ed), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 1995

Under this description, ethics and morality are often but not always related.

I can also name a few situations where a person’s professional ethics (doctors, lawyers, etc) compel them to behave in a way contrary to what most perceive as “moral…” even the professional in question. This fact alone would be evidence that ethics and morality are not inextricably linked.

I always looked it the same way that Francis Vaughan does- morals are an external, community agreed-upon set of standards of right and wrong, usually religious in nature. Typically these are used as a yardstick for external evaluation of someone’s behavior.

Ethics are more of a set of guidelines that a person follows based on their own conscience and internal yardstick of right and wrong.

For example, something that’s considered morally good may run afoul of someone’s ethical stance on something, and vice-versa.


Eating meat is morally ok by Christianity, but individual Christians may have ethical issues with it.

I lecture about Codes of Ethics that govern professional occupations and distinguish for the class between a code of ethics and individual morals. For example, my morals might want me to reach out to a student’s mom or dad out of concern that the student is missing too many classes, but my professional code of ethics (FERPA, for example) prohibits me from doing so.

It’s not a perfect definition, but does help distinguish for the student the time when they must follow their professional code even if it goes against personal morals.

The distinction I’ve heard is that ethics is what a society believes is right or wrong and morality is what an individual believes is right or wrong.

No, I don’t believe there is. Like Alan Smithee, I was told by my undergrad Philosophy professors (and FWIW my second major was Philosophy) that the two terms were used more or less interchangeably in philosophical literature and that there was no widely recognized/accepted distinction between the two within the field.

“Morality” and “ethics” do carry different connotations in everyday speech, but exactly what these connotations are seems to vary a lot depending on the context and the individual. In this very thread we’ve had one poster say this:

while another says nearly the opposite:

As far as usage outside the academic discipline of Philosophy, I partially agree with both the above quoted posters: “morality” is the term I’d associate more with a religion’s rules for how one ought to behave, and “ethics” is the term I’d associate more with a profession’s rules for how one ought to behave.

ETA: It occurs to me that if you’re discussing a situation where group values come into conflict with individual values, it’s convenient to use “morality” for one and “ethics” for the other. If the group is a religious one, contrasting the group’s “morality” with individual “ethics” may seem the natural choice, but if the group is a professional one the reverse might seem more natural.

Ethics is one of the four main branches of Philosophy, along with Metaphysics, Epistemology and Politics. It is concerned with defining right or wrong choices and actions of individuals (when applied to groups, it becomes " politics"). It is the discipline that philosophers study and define and pass down to intellectuals and students . . . and then to the public at-large, who apply it to their own lives. It is at this “practical” level that it becomes “morality.” It consists of guiding principles that make the system of Ethics practical on an ongoing basis, something that people can apply to their own decisions of their own lives.

Such as this:

Morals: Do not steal, do not lie

Ethics: You must disclose your rate policies in advance of doing any work for a customer and, if you have a “no refunds” policy, you must specifically bring this to the customer’s direct attention and not bury it in the fine print.

There is clearly a disconnect between the philosopher’s definition of the the terms and that used by the general populace. When one asks for a technical definition, it really requests a definition from the philosophers.

However, like IvoryTowerDenizen I used to teach professional ethics - I did to software engineers. Professional ethics are usually not at the fine grained level of robert_columbia’s example, but rather derive from the place of an engineer in society and the specific responsibilities that come with that. Examples include: not providing a service outside your professional competence, whistle blowing, conflicts of interest. We used to go though difficult issues, where judgement would be needed to balance the interests of the client against the interests of society and the interests of other parties. Classic examples are: Hyatt Regency Kansas City Walkway Collapse, TV Antenna collapse, Challenger disaster, Discovery disaster. A superb site is the Onlne Ethics Centre. A favourite was the Case of the killer robot, which is well worth the time to read (but is quite long.)

In this sense, professional ethics take a specific line of what ethics are - they are placed within society, and derive from there. Philosophers will start much earlier, and argue about the basic justification for ethics at all. There is a notion of universalisability of ethics. An ethical principle should be able to be cast in such a way that it applies to everybody.

I like to point out that not only can different professions have different ethics, they can actually have contradictory ethics. For instance, a lawyer defending the innocence of a client has an ethical obligation to make the best case possible for the client, and will choose to not bring up any lines of evidence that point against the client. But a scientist proposing a new hypothesis has an ethical obligation to bring up all lines of evidence relating to the hypothesis, both for and against.

I agree with the notion that ethics is more “the study of” and morality is more “the applied”… if that makes sense.

But different people can have different morals, too, so that’s no distinction. I bet I and certain atheists on this board don’t agree on whether it is moral to raise one’s children to believe in God, for example.

I personally have always thought that ethics were rules that you had to follow, while morals were what you felt you had to do. Ethics are like deductive reasoning, and morals are like inductive reasoning.

The OP asked for the technical difference between morality and ethics. I gave the answer in my first reply (post #2). The fact that many people do not know the difference, and either use the words more or less interchangeably, or make up their own distinction based on the ways they have heard other people (who may not know either) use the words, does not affect the fact that there is an actual technical distinction understood by professionals in the field.

Morality is the facts of the matter concerning what is right or wrong. (What, specifically, these facts are, or even if there are any such facts, is much disputed, but, if they exist then they constitute morality. The disputes about them are part of ethics.) Ethics is the systematization, justification (or de-justification), and investigation of morality and moral issues. It seeks to discover what the moral facts are, and to understand why they are what they are. Also, amongst other things, it attempts to deal with how one should act in circumstances where the accepted moral facts seem to be in conflict with one another.

Professional ethics is ethics as it applies to people in particular social roles, especially when aspects of those roles lead the people in question into apparent moral conflicts. Certain professions regularly lead their practitioners into particular sorts of moral conflicts, and it is especially useful for them to be given clear ethical guidelines for resolving these conflicts. Many people who are not professional moral philosophers (a.k.a. ethicists) are probably most likely to encounter systematic ethics in this connection, but it provides a rather one-sided perspective on what ethics in general is about.

Examples may help.

Morality (example of a moral rule or maxim):
Thou shalt not kill.
(Obviously this statement is only a crude approximation to a real moral fact, but it will do as a simple example. Determining what would be a more accurate expression of the fact in this vicinity, if there is one, would be an exercise, perhaps quite a complex one, in ethics.)

Ethics (examples of how three different ethical theories might justify the same moral maxim).
Thou shalt not kill, because God says so. (Various further reasons may be given for why one should obey God, ranging from “He will zap you if you don’t,” to something like “He is the highest purpose of the universe.”)
Thou shalt not kill because it violates the categorical imperative. (Kantian ethics.)
Thou shalt not kill because it is not conducive toward the greatest happiness of the greatest number. (Utilitarian ethics.)

Professional Ethics
If you are a soldier, then, in certain circumstances (to be spelled out) thou shalt kill. This is because if soldiers do not kill in those circumstances, other, greater evils, greater violations of morality (including, possibly, greater amounts of killing) are liable to ensue.

I’d say the biggest difference has to do with the contractual nature of ethics. You agree to abide by a set of ethics that is seperate and apart from individual or group concepts of morality. Ethics is about abiding by agreements, so it is unethical for a lawyer to divulge privileged information about a client because the lawyer has promised not to, even if it contradicts that lawyer’s own moral code.