I'm somewhat confused by the way this word is used:

Sometimes it appears as though it's a name for a specific form or system of morality - ie Victorian morals; at other times it's conceived in relation to a specifically Christian faith - and this might tie in with the first.

At other times - at least by me - it's used as a synonym for the moral component of a weltanschauung (worldview); which isn't restricted to simply 'primitive' tribes - one might usefully discuss Lucretius' Weltanschauung (his cosmological doctrine) and excavate from there a sense too, of what constitutes ethics for him; and also, too - for Nietzsche - despite being an immoralist, he is essentially (not being a N scholar) a moralist in the mode of Socrates - being concerned with morals - like Adam Smith - and not, say with mind or substance - like Descartes; or with matter like the Milesians, or nature like Naess.

Given that words have many meanings; and meanings can drift; why is the word moral so contentious; and is it as contentious as say the word ethics?

And does this mean that one ought to favour the word ethics over the word morals? Is there at least a degree of consensus in philosophy in what term to use?

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    Because I do not have the time to give a sourced answer: Ethics are about a good way to live from a subjective standpoint of an individual, while morals are about good ways to live together in societies - ethics intrapersonal, morals interpersonal. Ethics eudaimonia - morals social welfare. That is the way I would use it. That ist why for Kant, as humans are social beings, morals are a precondition for eudaimonia.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 30, 2015 at 21:01
  • A good illustration of the difference between ethics and morale, albeit limited to common use in language, is the mafioso interrogated by the police : if he refuses to talk and follows the omerta, he is following the mafia ethics but acting immorally by protecting wrongdoers. On the other hand if he talks he violates the ethics but acts morally.
    – armand
    Apr 25, 2019 at 7:40
  • @armand Funny, I would have used the terms the other way round, because the idea of morals I picked up is that it's bound to the tribe while ethics is more general or "anthropological" in aspiration.
    – ariola
    Apr 16 at 19:25
  • @ariola I was thinking about expressions like "lawyer ethics", "medical ethics". On the other hand we never hear talking about specific morals for lawyers or medical doctors. But admittedly I'm no native english speaker.
    – armand
    Apr 17 at 0:56

4 Answers 4


The word "morality" is used in several distinct ways in philosophical literature. One feature of this is time period of authorship. The English word "morality" is a cognate of the Latin word moralis which Cicero used to translate the Greek ethikos. Thus, on a certain level, the pair should have the same meaning. Sometimes, this does occur.

There are other cognate terms as well, mores and ethos refer to the practices of a particular culture or people.

In Hegel, the terms Moralität and Sittlichkeit refer to the goal of a universal morality (potentially identified with Kant) and the values that grow out of a particular people. Moralität commits the sin of being unmediated insofar as it creates an ought outside of the domain of Spirit. (see here). For Hegel, the key image is Antigone -- with the challenge of the requirements of the state as set against the Sitten of the family. For Hegel, the solution is a morality that is also ethics.

Contemporary philosophers do not necessarily follow Hegel. In much contemporary work, "moral philosophy" is an equivalent to "ethics" which is understood to be the discipline in which we study questions of action and right or wrong (sometimes called "axiology" but this is a word I see little written in actual philosophy papers).

Whence "morality"? Morality also seems to take on a popular meaning as the morality of society. Thus, the link to Christian in some uses. But in all honesty, I think this is kind of boogeyman usage, where we need a whipping boy to distinguish genuinely thought through moral philosophy from common practice.

An implicit claim in the use of the word "morality" is linked to the Hegelian usage above in that the term "morality" often implies a universal viewpoint whereas "ethics" does not carry this implication.

For instance, Roger Ames would write Confucian Role Ethics rather than Confucian Role Morality.

Similarly, we call it professional ethics rather than professional morality.

But we have the text Prospects for a Common Morality.

Thus, I would say in contemporary philosophy that "ethics" is generally a safer word choice than "morality."

While the above is broadly based on my experience with the literature, here are a few references to help with respect to Kant and Hegel on these terms:

Jon Stewart Kierkegaard's Relation to Hegel Reconsidered (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 311. He cites Alfred Elsigan "Zum Begriff der Moralität in Hegels Rechtsphilosophie," Wiener Jahrbuch für Philosophie 1972, p. 88 and Hegel's own *Philosophy of Right.


For Nietzsche (and Deleuze, Foucault, etc) the choice of the word ethics over morality ends up being very important, connoting an experimental art of living over a transcendental law to which subjects would submit.

It may be worth noting the apparent opposition between the ethical and the moral papers over a complex difference. In Nietzsche, for instance, it is not false to say that the war against morality is undertaken ultimately on behalf of morality.

This is not a paradox but rather a parallax -- a mobile and complex differentiation between a healthy and a sick mode of feeling, thinking, living. The point is that everything happens in between, in a creative leakage or regenerative connection -- escaping established powers, covertly opening a free horizon of intensive experimentation (with affective thresholds, styles of life, images of thought, etc.)

Related Questions

In passing, this sort of concern has come up on the stack a number of times (formulated with slight variations); I thought I would gather a few instances here for comparison:

What is the difference between ethics and morals?

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

  • I note that @vimraior's answer to the first linked question is particularly good and I wonder if he might attempt to answer this too, given he has indicated a divergent understanding to mine as expressed here as well as in an answer to the second question (which he is responding to -- and presumably grounded in a different set of thinkers/texts, which it would be interesting to compare)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Oct 30, 2015 at 15:24
  • There's enough resonance between all these questions that a canonical Q&A might be in order
    – Joseph Weissman
    Oct 30, 2015 at 15:26
  • I would like to provide an answer for this one as well... though it may not happen for a few days.
    – virmaior
    Oct 30, 2015 at 15:27

I think the simplest answer is that an ethic is a person's or group's essential code. It is not dynamic or changeable, but (more or less) exists as a metaphysical design they live according to. Morals are the interpretation of the ethic. And it can, and does, change with time and place. For example: a person may have a work ethic, to work hard to support his family. The moral part will define whether it is ok to steal, and define the concept of stealing. This last part may change with time and place.

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    This answer seems informed by common usage in contemporary American English, but I don't see the terms being used in this fashion in academic philosophy.
    – virmaior
    Nov 9, 2015 at 0:26

The following is my somewhat impressionistic sense of how I've seen the two terms used, especially in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. My impression is that this (which is mostly analytic) overwhelmingly uses the word "ethics" to refer to fundamental values and value-systems, especially as they can be established through philosophical reasoning. I think such exclusive usage is somewhat unfortunate, as it does seem to me there are important distinctions to be made between the two. A Venn Diagram of their general usage (hence meaning) would, I think, show a considerable overlap or commonality of interchangeable meaning. However, it seems to me there are important (and more interesting) distinctions to be made between the two terms (the non-overlapping part of their Venn diagram).

I would like to see the term "morality" more confined to our intuitive and fundamental sense of value -- something that really cannot be codified beyond associating it with a kind of "do unto others" approach to behavior. Thus there would (in my scheme) be no such thing as a "moral code". Codification is left to ethics, as in an ethical "system" -- basically a set of (more or less explicit) "rules" for governing behavior. Thus morality would refer to our (more or less) intuitive sense of "rightness" when it comes to how we behave towards others where ethics tends to be more of a set of external (largely cultural and even codified) expectations for public behavior.

The following Web site has an extensive comparison of the two terms based (more or less) on the senses that I've described above: https://www.diffen.com/difference/Ethics_vs_Morals

  • If you have contrasting examples of how they are used in Anglo-American philosophy this might help with the distinction the OP is trying to make. I find the terms confusing as well. Apr 25, 2019 at 1:50
  • Kant in "The Metaphysics of Morals" does make a distinction between the two terms: "Physics will thus have its empirical but also a rational part; and ethics likewise; although here the empirical part in particular could be called practical anthropology, but the rational part could properly be called morals." Honestly, philosophies focused on ethics/morality are the part of the subject I find least interesting. I consider myself an "analytical idealist" (not hopefully a contradiction in terms!) I tend to think idealism "takes care of" moral/ethical issues without necessarily focusing on them. Apr 26, 2019 at 23:10
  • As a follow-up, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has good entry under "The Definition of Morality" that addresses this whole issue. Speaking of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy “ 'Ethics' is sometimes taken to refer to a guide to behavior wider in scope than morality, and that an individual adopts as his or her own guide to life, as long as it is a guide that the individual views as a proper guide for others.' " (Though frankly, this is somewhat opposite to my own take on the subject obviously.) Apr 26, 2019 at 23:27

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