I can't find a definition of Ethics that I can understand without looking for other definitions. For example, many definitions of Ethics include "Moral Principles" and then the question is what "Moral Principles" are, etc. Since the word Ethics is quite widely used, I'm wondering if there is a simple definition that is self-contained and such that even kids can understand?

Update: My understanding is that there is no definition of ethics upon which people agree. Some define it through morality which makes the two terms "morality" and "ethics" synonymous. It would be interesting to continue the following sentence: "Ethics to morality is as (something) to (something else)."

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  • What about IEP definition:"The field of ethics (or moral philosophy) involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior"? Even kids have some idea of what right and wrong behavior is. – Conifold Jul 21 at 22:24
  • Thank you! Do you think it can be simplified to: "Ethics is concerned with what behaviors are right and what behaviors are wrong."? – Qwerty Jul 22 at 1:02
  • Ethics is not to be confused with MORALITY. Ethics is a large scale for rules of conduct for people under a specific domain. For instance you can look up and find there are different types of ethics: business ethic, military ethics, medical ethics, etc. So it is NOT true that Ethics describes right or wrong actions for everyone. Morality describes right or wrong actions for everyone. I am not obligated to follow medical ethics if I do not fall under that domain. You are not obligated to act or not act a certain way under military ethics if you are not part of the military and so on. – Logikal Jul 22 at 15:35
  • Thank you Logical! But still, could you suggest a definition that does not require further reading? – Qwerty Jul 22 at 16:35
  • "Ought" as opposed to "is." How free rational beings "ought" to behave in any given circumstance. This is a very broad definition that leaves room for various ethical systems and justifications. Note that this does not eliminate hypothetical imperatives, e.g., if you want to kill your teacher you "ought" to do it with hemlock. This is still arguably "ethical" if another maxim justifies that you really "ought" to kill that teacher before he corrupts the youth! – Nelson Alexander Jul 24 at 21:15

I feel designating ethics the study of 'right and wrong' elides practical judgements and moral ones by using superficially similar terms in totally different domains. And if you say ethics is the study of what is ethically right and wrong, that's close to tautological, rather than explanatory.

I find it useful to look to a word's origins. From Etymonline:

Ethics: from Greek ēthike philosophia "moral philosophy," fem. of ēthikos "ethical, pertaining to character," from ēthos "moral character," related to ēthos "custom".

Ethos: "habitual character and disposition; moral character; habit, custom; an accustomed place," in plural, "manners,"

I like the framing that it involves customs or manners, because I think it is important to note it is a field where there is not usually a single analysis, or unambiguous choices. Rather, sets of interacting behaviours that link personal choices and reasoning, with social outcomes. That's important to me because I look for insight into ethics from game theory, where it's not about 'right and wrong', but rather managing personal and social priorities in interactions.

When we consider what good character is, and character development, we find it natural to avoid being prescriptive, and instead look towards active directions of development. Personally I see that as a good template for ethics generally, where prescriptively stating behaviour that just shouldn't be done isn't useful (eg Kant, who says you shouldn't lie even to 'a murderer at the door').

  • Thank you! But I feel there must be some self-contained definition of Ethics. The English language should be rich enough for this :-) Again, what is the most succinct way to explain Ethics to a kid without dumbing it down? Long discussions about what Ethics is about is not a definition of Ethics. Or is it a hugely vague concept that cannot be explained without a long discussion? – Qwerty Jul 22 at 16:33
  • @Qwerty: For me, etymology is literally how you define words. You need historical context, and examples of use. That's how we learn words, that's how words work – CriglCragl Jul 22 at 22:46

Definition: ethics is a formal system of rules targeting some ethical theory.

  • Rules: Imperative statements that determine behavior: "do not lie".
  • Formal: That uses a formal language, a language with concepts defined with precision and rules that are logical.
  • System of rules: a coherent group of statements, so you don't waste your time undoing acts that another rule tells you to do.
  • Ethical theory: Ethics, per se, does not follow an specific objective (for example, you act ethically in order to be better, or whatever). The goal of ethics is determined by ethical theories (e.g. utilitarianism, aristotelianism); for example, according to utilitarianism, if you should choose between two actions, choose that which makes good to the largest number of people.

Ethics within other systems of rules:

A philosophy teacher used to say that "morals" is the informal system of rules we learn at home (e.g. always say please and thank you, it will allow you receive and give anything from others); "ethics" is a formal system of rules (e.g. being kind helps improving social interactions, which is almost the same, but in a more generic way and with a proper language, language is important in formal systems); "law" is the formal system of rules that is formally accepted by society: "religion" is an informal group of rules that target ideas from old texts; notice it is not properly a system, because ancient texts tend to include contradictions.

Why we apply ethics:

Another related idea is the idea of survival. All groups of rules seem to tend to the survival of the group, that's the main reason the group adopts some system of rules, religion, cult rules, military codes or whatever. You say hello and thanks in order to improve social interactions, which directly improves the group survival probabilities. You don't kill good people in order to improve the group survival probabilities, etc.

Notice that if society decides to kill an individual, he will be killed. That means that between the survival of the group and the survival of the individual, the survival of the group has more priority. So, systems of rules like ethics seem to target the mainly the survival of the group, not the individual.


Ethics is a system of principles that binds the interests and values of the individual and community together. Someone behaves ethically when their actions account for the welfare of others in society, or reflect well on the quality and standards of the society as a whole.

Ethics and morality are cognates: ideas deriving from the same basic concept. The main difference is that morality is generally associated with religion or other forms of received knowledge, while ethics is more philosophical: something to be realized or analyzed, not accepted from authority.


The aim of study that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour must necessarily be something that works without any hindrance to the good and smooth functioning of another community. However, we cannot say that one type of ethics promotes another type. And since it is moral philosophy, unlike other subjects it won't try to exploit anyone or anything. If you can keep all of these in mind, you can definitely formulate a definition with simple words.

So, if your definition focuses mainly on kids, try this: "Ethics is the study that aims to reduce stress in society by assessing what is right and wrong in human behaviour."

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