Ethics vs Morals

The terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ are used interchangeably and this is where problems can arise. Much of the confusion between these two words can be traced back to their origins. The word ‘ethic”’ comes from Old French (etique), Late Latin (ethica), and Greek (ethos) meaning character that is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology. ‘Morals’ pertaining to character or temperament (good or bad), comes from Latin’s moralis, “proper behaviour of a person in society,” literally “pertaining to manners,” 


Ethics are external standards that are provided by institutions, groups, or culture to which an individual belongs. For example, lawyers, policemen, and doctors all have to follow an ethical code laid down by their profession, regardless of their own feelings or preferences. Ethics can also be considered a social system or a framework for acceptable behaviour.


Morals are principles that seemingly owe their origin to religion distinguishes between right and wrong and requiring individual to adhere to a higher covenant imposed externally and living according to that understanding. While morality is ultimately a personal compass of right and wrong, a Moral Person bound by a higher covenant, may choose to follow a code of ethics as it would apply to a system. Morality transcends cultural norms

Both Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1894 CE), a German philosopher who is considered the central figure of modern philosophy, and Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), an early Greek philosopher together with Socrates and Plato, laid much of the groundwork for western philosophy, were famous for their approach to ethics. Kant believed ethics were based on duty and obligation, while Aristotle based his ideas on virtue.

Ethics and Morals

A person can have professional ethics, but one seldom hear about professional morals. Yet following the financial crisis that brought about the near collapse of the world economy in 2008-2009 by the inappropriate conduct, recklessness and lack of accountability of individuals in the leading investment banks, they were calls for moral reforms in the banking industry and a moral commitment to responsible action. While appropriate financial conduct has been addressed by regulatory authorities, they have never made serious efforts to define a ‘moral’ code in banking and finance.

Ethics tend to be codified into a formal system or set of rules which are explicitly adopted by a group of people or institutions. Ethics are thus internally defined and adopted, whilst morals tend to be externally codified, as in religion with reference to the covenant of a higher authority.

In short, there is a valuable difference between ethics and morals. The basis for ethics must be morals, not the other way around. Unless there is a strong and consistent moral base, founded on something substantial, ethics will be subject to convenience, vested interests and fudge factors. The underpinning for decent human conduct must be a consistent and easily understood code of morality.


The Chambers English Dictionary (1998 edition) highlights important distinctions between ethics and morals:

Ethics: The science of morals is hat branch of philosophy which is concerned with human character and conduct: a system of morals, rules of behaviour: a treatise on morals.

The Chambers English Dictionary (1998 edition) highlights important distinctions between ethics and morals:

Moral: Of or relating to character or conduct considered as good or evil: ethical: conformed to or directed towards right, virtuous: capable of knowing right and wrong: subject to the moral law.