Moral Verses Ethical Issues


The definitions of "moral" and "ethical" are very similar, and the distinctions between the two types of issues are subtle. They are, however, important, and some of the nation's biggest debates stem from a difference of opinion as to whether they are moral or ethical questions. Moral dilemmas are easier to resolve than ethical ones, because morals deal in absolutes, while ethics, when they are not standardized, do not.


  • Merriam-Webster gives several definitions for "moral," the relevant one being "conforming to a standard of right behavior." If something is moral, it is accepted as right, fair, just or otherwise appropriate. Morals can derive from religious doctrine, family upbringing, or simply a person's own beliefs about the way people ought to behave. Wherever they come from, though, morals are the code people use to determine whether something is right or wrong.


  • Merriam-Webster defines "ethical" as "conforming to accepted standards of conduct." This is very similar to the definition of "moral," but there are some subtle differences. If something is ethical, it is accepted as moral by a specific group of people or in specific circumstances. Professions such as medicine and law have established codes of ethics that determine how their practitioners should make difficult decisions. These codes are standardized and formally studied by medical and legal professionals.

The difference

  • People's morals define what is good and bad, and people choose between good and bad actions by adhering (or not) to their moral codes. Ethics, however, come into play when both options are morally acceptable. In the professional world, ethics are used to make decisions between two right choices. Professions standardize their ethical codes because the best course of action for these dilemmas can often be ambiguous. Some ethical dilemmas encountered in the business world include whether to prioritize an individual or a community, personal integrity or commitment to others, and justice or mercy.


  • When people are in irreconcilable disagreement over an issue, it may be because one party sees it as an ethical dilemma and the other as a moral dilemma. For example, a person who considers abortion to be an ethical issue sees preserving the life of the fetus and the rights of the mother both as morally right actions, while a person who considers it to be a moral issue may see terminating the pregnancy as unambiguously wrong. One is viewing the question in terms of moral absolutes and the other in terms of ethical discretion.

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