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February 8, 2017 / Congau

Morality vs Ethics

Is there a difference between morality and ethics? Some say there is and construct elaborate schemes to show the distinction. That may be linguistically interesting, but philosophically it is quite redundant.

Essentially the two words mean the same dealing with whatever is right human conduct. Ethics is from Greek “ethos” which means “custom” and is the oldest and original term as it was coined by the first Greek philosophers. “Morality” is the Latin counterpart and comes from “mos, moris” which also means “custom”. The Latin term is simply a translation of the Greek one just like many other words from the Greek philosophical vocabulary were translated when the Roman world adopted Greek science.

Later when the Latin language and its derivatives spread throughout western Europe, the Latin terms would probably be more readily available for daily use while Greek would be marginalized (or forgotten until the Renaissance) for more technical use. That can explain why “morality” (and “moral”, “moralize” etc.) has a more personal ring, being closer to home so to speak, referring to or condemning individual conduct, while “ethics”, the more foreign term, sounds more formal and systematic.

But this distinction is mainly stylistic. One word or the other may be preferable in a text just like the choice between any two almost identical synonyms still matter. However, in a strictly logical language such embellishing varieties are unnecessary and confusing. Ideally philosophy (and science) should have only one word for each basic concept. A lot of unsubstantial disagreement could then have been avoided.

A language that only has one word for “morality” and “ethics” and there are probably many such languages in the world, loses nothing in precision, quite the contrary.

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