Morals and Ethics

Have you ever wondered what is ethics and is there any difference between ethics and morals? The short answer is: yes, there are important differences between the two, they are not synonymous with each other, although they are often used interchangeably in everyday discourse.

Both morals and ethics endeavor to answer the variety of questions related to how to lead a good and virtuous life, how to treat other living beings, and how to base decisions on the right values. Both have normative content, prescribing how we should behave in various contexts.  


Morals include systems of values and beliefs that shape behaviour of an individual or a community and are usually derived from what is generally accepted practice. It ranges from personal conviction, values transmitted via formal and informal education, to values and beliefs about right and wrong that we share with members of our community based on tradition. Different historical periods and social groups have different morals.

For example, if I am a vegetarian because I believe that it is wrong to eat animals, this is a matter of my personal moral system of values. If my parents taught me that lying is wrong, and I adopt this as my value through education, this is also part of my morals that I share with my parents as well as with other members of my community.         


On the other hand, ethics is a philosophical discipline that analyzes morals from a theoretical perspective. Simply put, ethics studies morals, seeking to establish the basic and most universal principles of human moral behaviour and form a coherent and rational system out of these beliefs.

The main branches of ethics include virtue ethics, deontological and utilitarian ethics. Virtue ethics originated in ancient Greece and deals with the question of what are the basic human virtues. Kant is usually taken as the founder of deontological ethics, which deals with the question of duty and obligation in morals. Finally, utilitarian ethics developed by Bentham and Mill suggests that there is a link between what is considered good and what brings more happiness to the greater number of people.  

There is also applied ethics, e.g. in medicine, law, etc, seeking to apply general ethical principles to certain fields of human practice. Ethics is a theory, developed by experts who derive norms of behaviour from well-thought-out arguments and definitions.


To sum up, the most important distinction between ethics and morals consists in the fact that ethics offers a theoretical background for our moral judgements, and is based on rational arguments, whereas morals usually refers to a particular system of beliefs regarding right and wrong that is not theoretical, but rather inherited and spontaneously formed in the course of living within a particular community.

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