I am currently writing an essay on artificial moral agents, and I need to explain the difference between ethics and morals. However, I am finding it really hard to find a good book or research paper which contains a citable definition.

Could someone point me in the right direction?


2 Answers 2


You won't be able to find a citable one very easily as the distinction is not uniformly used... It's best just to be perfectly clear as to what you mean by the terms.

Philosophers I am aware of who distinguish the two:

Hegel does draw a distinction in his considerations of Sittlichkeit (often translated to "ethical life") and Moralität (translated for obvious reasons as ethics) in the Phenomenology of Spirit

Kant draws a somewhat similar one in either the Lecture on Ethics or Metaphysics of Morals (not to be confused with the Groundwork)... But some 20th century philosophers have used these in the opposite ways.

Anscombe in her Modern Moral Philosophy builds on where morality is understood somewhat pejoratively as a synonym for moral theory and ethics is understood positively as Aristotelian. N.b., Aristotle has no word "morality" or "morals".

The two English terms differ in origin in that "ethics" is a Greek-derived term and "morality" is a Latin-derived term. For something citable, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/

For better questions than the one being:

Discerning among ethics, morality, principles, virtues, and etiquette

What, if anything, is the difference between ethics and moral philosophy?

Though in the second one I would say Joseph despite being a moderator here is wrong about how the terms are sometimes used.

Seriously, you just need to define what you mean by each for your readers or else it will be unclear.


  • Anscombe, G.E.M. "Modern Moral Philosophy"
  • Hegel, G.W.F.. Elements of the Philosophy of Right (see also Natural Law, Phenomenology of Spirit
  • Ivanhoe, Philip . "The Shade of Confucius" in Polishing the Mirror: Essays in Honor of Henry Rosemont (2007, p. 35).
  • Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
  • Williams, Bernard Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985)

I want to offer reliable sources (as asked for) for both the equity as well as commonly understood differences between ethics and morals. Please keep in mind that some authors do define their usage completely different.

Your first task in philosophy is always to understand the usage of the terminology in the particular text you read. Or, respectively, carefully making your own understandings explicit by delivering definitions.

Ethics = morals

First, the distinction between ethics and morals is to some extend artificial and did, to my knowledge, not occur before the Enlightenment. As Virmaior rightfully stated, they were in the beginning just two words with the very same meaning, where moral(s) has simply been the latin translation of greek ethics:

The term ethics derives from the Ancient Greek word ἠθικός ethikos, which is derived from the word ἦθος ethos (habit, "custom"). Source

[moral] literally "pertaining to manners," coined by Cicero ("De Fato," II.i) to translate Greek ethikos (see ethics) from Latin mos (genitive moris) "one's disposition," in plural, "mores, customs, manners, morals," a word of uncertain origin. Source

As you can see, both simply meant ‘customs’, or (social) ‘habits’. Therefore, there are good reasons to state in the introduction to Copp, David (Ed.) (2007). The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.:

It is worth saying at the outset, moreover, that in this volume, “morality” and “ethics” are used interchangeably. (p.4)

Ethics and morals as distinct

Nevertheless, the very same introduction seems to suggest three different meanings or 'layers of reflection' of ethics/morals at the same time. The first one seems to me, though not explicitly stated, ethics in a narrower sense of simply living a (good) life or living according to (social) customs/habits. It is implicitly stated in the description of its 'meta-level', the (philosophy of) morals:

Moral philosophy addresses the many abstract ethical and philosophical issues that arise when we attempt to make such decisions [i.e. regarding controversial social issues] in a reflective and responsible way. (p.4)

I read it as follows: a) There may occur ‘controversial social issues’. b) These issues may raise or reveal issues in the social customs/habits, i.e. in ethics. c) When these issues are addressed ‘in a reflective and responsible way’ (probably: abstract/general considerations?), we speak about morals, i.e. a field in that ethics is reflected upon.

Now, we can reflect on morals, i.e. our way of reflecting upon social issues, as well:

It requires making a claim about moral claims or about morality. This explains why the issues in this category are called “second-order” or “metaethical.” (p.5)

As the Oxford Handbooks are always a good start, I would go with it.

Aside: Kant on this distinction

Kant introduces a clear distinction (as also stated by Virmaior) in his Metaphysics of Morals:

In ancient times “ethics” signifıed the doctrine of morals [Sittenlehre, can also be translated to doctrine of customs]; (philosophia moralis) in general, which was also called the doctrine of duties. Later on it seemed better to reserve the name “ethics” for one part of moral philosophy, namely for the doctrine of those duties that do not come under external laws (it was thought appropriate to call this, in German, the doctrine of virtue [Tugendlehre]). Accordingly, the system of the doctrine of duties in general is now divided into the system of the doctrine of Right (ius), which deals with duties that can be given by external laws, and the system of the doctrine of virtue (ethica), which treats of duties that cannot be so given; and this division may stand. (Ak. 6:379.3-12)

That means that for Kant, morals are about the system of all duties, whereas ethics are about the sub-category of duties that cannot be codified and enforced via laws.

This can be neatly intertwined with the considerations offered above, as laws for Kant are in the first place general rules in the strict sense (i.e. do not allow for exceptions). This means they include general/abstract considerations on socially relevant habits/customs, as they define and influence them.

  • The approach between Ethics and Moral is interesting, since many consider it synonymous or are directly intertwined. Jellinek's Theory of Ethical Minimum was launched: Law represents only the minimum of mandatory Moral so that society can survive; Alexy's Complementarity Theory: Morality serves as a corrective parameter of Law; And Thomasius's: The Law takes care of human action after being externalized; morality concerns what takes place on the plane of conscience. They are relevant names in the jurisdiction as a study. Jul 19, 2021 at 17:53
  • @LockyPauk: Which approach do you mean in particular? (had to edit the remarks on Kant since they've been factually wrong)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 20, 2021 at 8:44

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