Maybe you’ve heard these terms and wondered what the difference is. A lot of people think of them as being the same thing. While they’re closely related concepts, moral refers mainly to guiding principles, and ethical refers to specific rules and actions. A moral precept is an idea or opinion that’s driven by a desire to be good. An ethical code is a set of rules that defines allowable actions or correct behavior. The concepts are similar, but there are some subtle differences to stay aware of.
A person’s idea of morals tends to be shaped by their surrounding environment (and sometimes their belief system). Moral values shape a person’s ideas about right and wrong. They often provide the guiding ideas behind ethical systems. A moral person wants to do the right thing, and a moral impulse usually means best intentions.
Ethics are distinct from morals in that they’re much more practical. An ethical code doesn’t have to be moral. It’s just a set of rules for people to follow. Several professional organizations (like the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association) have created specific ethical codes for their respective fields. In other words, an ethical code has nothing to do with cosmic righteousness or a set of beliefs. It’s a set of rules that are drafted by trade groups to ensure members stay out of trouble, and act in a way that brings credit to the profession.
It’s important to know that what’s ethical isn’t always what’s moral, and vice versa. Omerta, for example, is a code of silence that developed among members of the Mafia. It was used to protect criminals from the police. This follows the rules of ethically correct behavior for the organization, but can also be viewed as wrong from a moral standpoint.
A moral action can also be unethical. A lawyer who tells the court that his client is guilty may be acting out of a moral desire to see justice done, but this is deeply unethical because it violates the attorney-client privilege.