Morality vs ethics: a silly distinction we can do without

Morality vs ethics: a silly distinction we can do without
Everyday Philosophy


If philosophers are doing our job, we should be helping to make people’s thinking clearer. We should be cutting away guff and making concepts precise, so that discussions are more productive and it’s easier to find the truth. Today I want to do my bit in the war against confusion and propose one small change: let’s get rid of the distinction between ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’.

A while ago, the Iona Institute’s David Quinn was on Dr Ciara Kelly’s Newstalk programme talking about sex education. Dr Kelly argued that religion should play no role in sex education (even in religious schools). One of her arguments was that sex “wasn’t a moral issue”. Quinn was a bit baffled. Surely, he and Dr Kelly could agree that consent, respect and care were features of good sex and the absence of any of them in a sexual encounter would make that encounter wrong (to varying degrees).

Dr Kelly completely agreed: but she didn’t think that meant that morality had anything to do with sex. She preferred to talk in terms of ‘ethics’.

I come across this a lot. People get uncomfortable when you start talking about morality, but mention ethics and they visibly brighten.


The trouble is that the two concepts – ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ – are basically the same concept. There are some fine-grained, finicky distinctions – you can have ‘codes of ethics’ but saying ‘a code of morality’ would be a bit weird.

But philosophically speaking, they almost always mean exactly the same thing. Moral philosophers are also known as ‘ethicists’. Courses in moral philosophy are usually referred to as ‘ethics courses’. To say something is “morally wrong” means things like “you ought not to do it” or “it will make you a worse person”. To call something ‘ethically impermissible’ means the same.

So why is it so common to distinguish the two? (Google “morality vs ethics” and you get 42 million results worth of hot takes). For my money, it’s mostly about signalling. ‘Morality’ is a word more associated with religion and all the stereotypes that go with it than ‘ethics’ is: morality is coded in people’s minds as something like “ethics, but with an unpleasant flavour of judgmentalism, sex-hating, and censoriousness”.

People also have a vague sense that as good liberals they shouldn’t try to impose their ‘personal morality’ on others, and this inchoate sense applies not just to law but increasingly to discussion and arguments.

Fortunately, no one actually believes that this means you should stop advocating for what you think is right, and opposing what you think is wrong. It’s a point made banal by repetition, but if you’re a liberal who supports tolerance and believes it’s not just a matter of taste, then you’re making a claim about what’s good and bad, right and wrong.

What, then, to do? You don’t want to come across as one of those disreputable religious people, but neither do you want to say that murder, fraud, or arson are matters of indifference – or, indeed, that there are no impermissible sexual actions.

Thankfully, ‘ethics’ rides to your rescue. Unlike ‘morality’, the primary associations of the word ‘ethics’ are with things like ‘philosophy’, ‘integrity’, ‘free thought’. Maybe some ancient Greeks being enlightened or President Michael D. Higgins giving a speech.

Positioning yourself as someone unconcerned with morality but who really cares about ethics allows you to jettison all the unpleasant associations without actually changing the meaning of your words. Better, it signals that you’re sophisticated, tolerant, cosmopolitan. You probably care a lot about ‘best practice.’ You can say things like “we’ve got rid of Catholicism but we haven’t figured out what to replace it with yet”, and when greeted with murmurs of approval you can bring up ethics.

I’m being a bit mean here, and for what it’s worth I don’t think people do this consciously: it’s just that people in certain milieus notice the wrinkled noses when they say ‘morality’ and the approving nods that greet talk of ‘ethics’ and adjust their behaviour accordingly. It’s actually a good thing that people care about ethics: it means that their concern with what’s right and wrong, with what we ought to do, hasn’t atrophied but has just been redefined. If you want to build a bridge to people who’ve fallen into this habit of thought, you can just switch to talking about ethics instead of morality.

Nevertheless, the distinction between morality and ethics is stupid and should go away. It makes communication harder, giving people the impression that when you talk about morality you’re automatically appealing to religious authority or hidebound superstition when really you’re saying exactly what they’re saying when they talk about ethics. And it makes people dumber: social rewards for respectability rather than clarity of thought tends to do that. So let’s do our best to ditch the distinction: it’s the right thing to do.