Benjamin Spall

The Difference Between Ethics and Morals

Getting your head around the difference between ethics and morals can be tricky. Often viewed as interchangeable synonyms, ethics and morals are in reality two sides of the same coin.

In ancient Greek the word “ethos” (ethics) means character, whereas “mos” (morals) means custom. Unfortunately, these translations are largely unhelpful when it comes to a modern day interpretation of the guiding principles that relate to the difference between ethics and morals, right and wrong, and being a good person.

If you’ve read my article on character traits then you know that understanding what goes into making our character—that is, our underlying values, beliefs, and identity—is an area near and dear to my heart.

In this article, I’m going to dig into the differences (and similarities) between ethics and morals, ethics and law, ethics and values, and finally, ethics and social responsibility. Let’s dive in.

What is the Difference Between Ethics and Morals?

While both ethics and morality deal with distinguishing right from wrong, ethics are usually associated with a practical set of rules that are to be followed in a professional setting, such as a code of ethics in medicine, law, and business, whereas morals refer to an individual’s personal principles.

Ethics are the rules you abide by in order to remain within a community or profession. Morals are your personal values that run to the core of your very being. Depending on your profession, it’s possible for your morals regarding a certain matter to be stricter than the code of ethics for the same issue.

Morals are service roads running parallel to the ethics highway. While your personal conduct will, for the most part, be guided by the professional rules and regulations of the highway, every now and then (for better and worse) your morals will lead you back onto the service road as you are unable or unwilling to continue down the ethics highway without first questioning the direction you are going.

While having morals is generally viewed as a means to be and do good (and sometimes, to hold the “moral high ground”), if your morals fall below those of generally agreed-upon ethics, your behavior may be seen as falling out of line with what is seen as appropriate in your community or profession, and you may suffer consequences as a result.

What is the Difference Between Ethics and Law?

Ethics can be used to help dictate the law, but individual ethics most often found in an organization’s code of ethics are not law. The rule of law dictates the clear difference between ethical and legal issues, and what they mean in terms of a country’s judicial power.

The difference between ethics and law is quite stark, though as with all rules and regulations, they can (and do) overlap. Professional organisations, such as the American Bar Association, will disbar—revoke the law license of, and thus the ability to practice law—any lawyer who they believe has broken their code of ethics. Sometimes, though not always, the violation will be so great that the individual in question also breaks the law.

The difference between ethics and justice is even more stark. Sometimes, for a lawyer to work within the ethics in which they have vowed to uphold, they may not deliver justice. This can occur when a lawyer believes their client is guilty of the crime of which they are obliged to defend them. In this example, the difference between ethics and morals is clear, but in order to perform your duty as a defense lawyer you must defend your client despite your reservations.

That said, ethics are generally not the law, and in most professions if you feel that you have a moral obligation to speak up about ethical or legal violations in the workplace, you should. In these situations, it’s up to you to speak out to your boss or another superior within your organization so as to make them aware of the situation.

What is the Difference Between Ethics and Values?

The difference between ethics and values is much the same as the difference between ethics and moral values. Ethics are the code in which an organization or community expects you to live by. Your values are what you believe to be true above all else; they represent your fundamental beliefs.

While your values, sometimes called your core values, can change over time as you learn more information about the subjects in which they represent, they cannot change overnight.

When looking at the difference between ethics and values, a good example to look toward is the issue of slavery. Throughout the nineteenth century slavery was an ethical issue, but for many on the side of secession, including Abraham Lincoln, it was a deeply moral issue above all else.

During his lifetime Lincoln penned numerous speeches in which he addressed the morality of slavery directly, basing his moral feeling on his deeply-held values. In his Cooper Union Address, Lincoln called out the positive moral behaviors of a number of men, including Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, as having expressed moral leanings in the direction of not allowing states to decide for themselves if they were to become slave states or not:

“If we should look into their acts and declarations on those other phases, as the foreign slave trade, and the morality and policy of slavery generally, it would appear to us that on the direct question of federal control of slavery in federal territories, the sixteen, if they had acted at all, would probably have acted just as the twenty-three did. Among that sixteen were several of the most noted anti-slavery men of those times, [including] Dr. Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris.”

Our sixteenth president knew the difference between ethics and morals, as well as how his own core values and principles fit into this system. Lincoln’s morals provided the guiding light behind his values; as they should for all of us.

What is the Difference Between Ethics and Social Responsibility?

The main difference between ethics and social responsibility is that while a code of ethics is a collection of rules that dictate what you can and can’t do or say within a professional organization, your social responsibility tends to be more fluid and open to interpretation.

Have you heard the phrase social justice warrior? Though sometimes used as a pejorative term, a social justice warrior is someone who strongly promotes socially progressive views in a manner which often causes them to find fans and followers on one side of the political aisle, while finding scorn and threats on the other side.

While the promotion of social justice issues isn’t the only difference between ethics and social responsibility, there are many similarities between them. If you live in a society in which you believe the ethics of the society don’t match up with your own, such as a country which decries the advancement of women, or criminalizes homosexuality, you may see it as your social responsibility to speak out. In this example, the difference between ethics and morals is clear; your morals do not match up with the code of ethics in which you are being asked to live, so your sense of social responsibility takes over.

Now you know the difference between ethics and morals, take some time to think about your own morals, values, and the codes of ethics in which you live and work by on a daily basis. Should the end justify the means at all times, or should we be more thoughtful in how we conduct ourselves?

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Benjamin Spall is the co-author of My Morning Routine (Portfolio/Penguin). He has written for outlets including the New York Times, New York Observer, Quartz, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, CNBC, and more.

How to Reference this Article

Spall, B. (2019, September 9). The Difference Between Ethics and Morals. Retrieved from