“Moral and Ethical”

It doesn’t take a lot of internet sleuthing to find the phrase “moral and ethical” as an adjective phrase. Here are three examples from just the past week, emphasis my own:

Carter, who said he backed Bernie Sanders ahead of Hillary Clinton to take on Trump as the Democratic Party’s nominee, has criticized Trump strongly in the past, telling the Democratic National Convention last year that Trump “seems to reject the most important moral and ethical principles on which our nation was founded.” 1

At the end of a cat’s life, when restoration of comfort and function is unattainable and the patient appears to be suffering or suffering is imminent, it is our moral and ethical responsibility to focus the owner’s attention on the patient’s quality of life.2

Adults tend to become lazy with their thinking, backing into moral and ethical wrongdoing without noticing fully what they’re doing. 3

Including both the words “moral” and “ethical” implies that there is a distinction between these terms. Otherwise, we would see the inclusion of both as repetitive. But so often this combination appears without any indication of what the distinction is supposed to be. This is a problem because there are many different distinctions people make by using these two words.

If we want our writing to be clear, then we need to be explicit about what distinction we have in mind when we use “moral and ethical”. Here are some distinctions writers have made using these two words.

Discipline Versus Subject Matter

One possible way to distinguish these two words is that one is a discipline while the other is thesubject matter. So ethicists concern themselves with what is moral. Morality is “out there” to speak metaphorically, and ethicists want to get it right.

It should be noted that this doesn’t look like the distinction being made in the passages above, so let’s take a look at some other possibilities.

Role-Dependent Versus Role-Independent

Some people treat morals are dependent on individuals while ethics are dependent on groups. Ethical principles are those codified by some group, like doctors, lawyers, or corporations while morals are based on one’s personal moral compass.

But this distinction as specified is problematic. When we talk about a person’s moral compass, we often mean simply what they believe to be moral. So each person is going to have a slightly different moral compass depending on their beliefs. But just because someone believe an action is moral doesn’t mean that it is moral. Someone’s moral compass could tell them it is impermissible to buy gum on a Tuesday, but it isn’t morally wrong to buy gum on a Tuesday.

The distinction has a similar problem when it comes to ethics because being ethical goes beyond just adhering to principles formulated by some group. We can imagine silly doctors concocting a code of conduct which included stealing food from patients and forcing them to watch only the Weather Channel. This doesn’t make it ethical for a doctor to do these things!

Instead, I think a better way of understanding this distinction is in terms of roles. In virtue of being a doctor, one ought to act in certain ways. Different roles come with different obligations. Doctors are obligated to not harm their patients while lawyers are obligated to explain a client’s legal situation clearly to them

Morality, then, would concern what we ought to do independent of our roles. So I ought not steal a lollipop from the passing toddler regardless of whether I am a doctor, lawyer, clown, or car salesman.

Bernard William’s Distinction

The last distinction drawn between morals and ethics was drawn by Bernard Williams. He uses “morals” to describe what we ought to do in terms of duties and rules. This contrasts with ethics, which is more concerned with virtuous behavior.

Let’s go into more detail:

  1. Morality is characterized as fairly abstract. It involves claims about what is moral (duh), right, obligatory, and permissible. Ethics, on the other hand, uses “thick” evaluative terms like kind, creepy, honest, and sneaky.
  2. Morality involves explicit rules: Do not lie, do not steal, etc. Ethics is more about the actions flowing from a virtuous character and cannot be broken down into explicit rules.
  3. Morality is often based on really general features of human beings. This is most explicit in Kant, who thought that moral rules depended on our status as rational agents. Ethics rather is based on more concrete facts about us and the society we live in.
  4. Morality is often contrasted with well-being. The moral action will often lead us to a less pleasurable life. Ethics on the other hand is based on what contributes to our well-being.

This is only a bare summary. There is a lot going on in William’s distinction between ethics and morality that I can’t go into here. I would recommend checking out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Bernard Williams and ”Bernard William’s Rejection of Morality” by James Griffin.


It would be wrong to say that one of these distinctions between “morality” and “ethics” is the correct distinction to be drawn. Rather, the point is that these are very different distinctions, and the clear use of language requires that we make it clear which of these distinctions we want to invoke. If any of these distinctions aren’t important to your argument, than don’t say “moral and ethical”; just say “moral” or “ethical”.

Are there distinctions between morality and ethics that I didn’t cover? Mention it in the comments below!

  1. Damien Sharkov, “Jimmy Carter Wants to Step in Between Trump and ‘Unpredicatable’ Kim Jong Un,” Newsweek, October 23, 2017. http://www.newsweek.com/jimmy-carter-wants-step-between-trump-unpredictable-kim-jong-un-690380
  2. William Ray Folger, “Feline Euthanasia: Part 1 – Ethics, Aesculpian Authority, and Moral Stress,” American Veternarian, October 24, 2017. http://www.americanveterinarian.com/journals/amvet/2017/october2017/feline-euthanasia-part-1–ethics-aesculapian-authority-and-moral-stress
  3. Teodora Zareva, “4 Tips to Help You Make Better, More Ethical Decisions,” Big Think, October 21, 2017. http://bigthink.com/design-for-good/4-tips-to-help-you-make-better-more-ethical-decisions