The words ethics and morality tend to be used interchangeably in common discourse. For most discussions glossing over the ethics vs morality distinction is harmless. However, it is worth remembering that they are not quite the same thing.
Morality is the origin
I think of morality as an internal stance and ethics as an externally codified body of rules that one adheres to. At the individual level, the internal stance should map directly to external actions — personal ethics. For example, how fairness (moral principle) is actioned, could be stipulated by a series of rules for different circumstances that the person sets for themselves.
Once we expand beyond the individual things get trickier. Group ethics (accepted rules of behaviour) may, or may not, agree with an individual’s own morality and personal ethics. Remember, even assassins’ guilds had codes of conduct! You would not subscribe to these unless you were an assassin.
Also, an internal stance (morality) itself cannot exist in a vacuum and would inevitably be influenced by group ethics of the time. So, both morality and ethics can and do change over time.
A word on etymology
Considering their etymologies, the word ethics comes from the Greek word ethos, meaning “character or habits”. And, the word morality comes from the Latin, mos, meaning “manner or custom”. So, the internal stance vs external codification difference does not automatically arise from etymology. It is more about usage and application.
Beyond ethics vs morality
I suppose you will get a100 different versions of the ethics vs morality question if you ask a 100 people. This is just how I see things. I prefer not to get bogged down in debating definitions endlessly and just agree on what exactly you are talking about in any given discussion.
What matters is the clarity of conceptual mapping for the purpose at hand because you can easily call a thing X and Y, or Y and X. You can quickly settle on a conceptual mapping as long as the discussion is being had in good faith. Remember too that is one thing to understand the definition of words, it quite another thing to really look within and understand yourself.
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.