Morality vs. Ethics: What's the Difference?

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It's not uncommon to hear morality and ethics referenced in the same sentence. That said, they are two different things. While they definitely have a lot of commonalities (not to mention very similar definitions!), there are some distinct differences.

Below, we'll outline why they're different, why it matters, and how these two words play into daily life.

What Is Morality?

Morality

Morality is a person or society's idea of what is right or wrong, especially in regard to a person's behavior.

Maintaining this type of behavior allows people to live successfully in groups and society. That said, they require a personal adherence to the commitment of the greater good.

Morals have changed over time and based on location. For example, different countries can have different standards of morality. That said, researchers have determined that seven morals seem to transcend across the globe and across time:

  1. Bravery: Bravery has historically helped people determine hierarchies. People who demonstrate the ability to be brave in tough situations have historically been seen as leaders.
  2. Fairness: Think of terms like "meet in the middle" and the concept of taking turns.
  3. Defer to authority: Deferring to authority is important because it signifies that people will adhere to rules that attend to the greater good. This is necessary for a functioning society.
  4. Helping the group: Traditions exist to help us feel closer to our group. This way, you feel more supported, and a general sense of altruism is promoted.
  5. Loving your family: This is a more focused version of helping your group. It's the idea that loving and supporting your family allows you to raise people who will continue to uphold moral norms.
  6. Returning favors: This goes for society as a whole and specifies that people may avoid behaviors that aren't generally altruistic.
  7. Respecting others’ property: This goes back to settling disputes based on prior possession, which also ties in the idea of fairness.

Many of these seven morals require deferring short-term interests for the sake of the larger group. People who act purely out of self-interest can often be regarded as immoral or selfish.

What Is Ethics?

Many scholars and researchers don't differentiate between morals and ethics, and that's because they're very similar. Many definitions even explain ethics as a set of moral principles.

Ethics

The big difference when it comes to ethics is that it refers to community values more than personal values. Dictionary.com defines the term as a system of values that are "moral" as determined by a community.

In general, morals are considered guidelines that affect individuals, and ethics are considered guideposts for entire larger groups or communities. Ethics are also more culturally based than morals.

For example, the seven morals listed earlier transcend cultures, but there are certain rules, especially those in predominantly religious nations, that are determined by cultures that are not recognized around the world.

It's also common to hear the word ethics in medical communities or as the guideposts for other professions that impact larger groups. For example, the Hippocratic Oath in medicine is an example of a largely accepted ethical practice. The American Medical Association even outlines nine distinct principles that are specified in medical settings. These include putting the patient's care above all else and promoting good health within communities.

How These Terms Relate to Mental Health

Since morality and ethics can impact individuals and differ from community to community, research has aimed to integrate ethical principles into the practice of psychiatry.

That said, many people grow up adhering to a certain moral or ethical code within their families or communities. When your morals change over time, you might feel a sense of guilt and shame.

For example, many older people in the south still believe that living with a significant other before marriage is immoral. This belief is dated and mostly unrecognized by younger generations, who often see living together as an important and even necessary step in a relationship that helps them make decisions about the future. Additionally, in many cities, living costs areliving costs are too high for some people to live alone.

However, even if a younger person understands that it's not wrong to live with their partner before marriage they might still feel guilty for doing so, especially if they were taught that doing so was immoral.

When dealing with guilt or shame, it's important to assess these feelings with a therapist or someone else that you trust.

Are These Terms Relative?

Morality is certainly relative since it is determined individually from person to person. In addition, morals can be heavily influenced by families and even religious beliefs, as well as past experiences.

Ethics are relative to different communities and cultures. For example, the ethical guidelines for the medical community don't really have an impact on the people outside of that community. That said, these ethics are still important as they promote caring for the community as a whole.

Learning What These Terms Mean to You

This is important for young adults trying to figure out what values they want to carry into their own lives and future families. This can also determine how well young people create and stick to boundaries in their personal relationships.

Part of determining your individual moral code will involve overcoming feelings of guilt because it may differ from your upbringing. This doesn't mean that you're disrespecting your family, but rather that you're evolving.

Working with a therapist can help you better understand the moral code you want to adhere to and how it ties in aspects of your past and present understanding of the world.

A Word From Verywell

It's OK if your moral and ethical codes don't directly align with the things you learned as a child. Part of growing up and finding autonomy in life involves learning to think for yourself. You determine what you will and will not allow in your life, and what boundaries are acceptable for you in your relationships.

That said, don't feel bad if your ideas of right and wrong change over time. This is a good thing that shows that you are willing to learn and understand those with differing ideas and opinions.

Working with a therapist could prove to be beneficial as you sort out what you do and find to be acceptable parts of your own personal moral code.

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  1. Dictionary.com. Morality.

  2. Curry OS, Mullins DA, Whitehouse H. Is it good to cooperate? Testing the theory of morality-as-cooperation in 60 societies. Current Anthropology. 2019;60(1):47-69. doi:10.1086/701478

  3. Dictionary.com. Ethics.

  4. Crowden A. Ethically Sensitive Mental Health Care: Is there a Need for a Unique Ethics for Psychiatry? Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 2003;37(2):143-149.