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Ethics, Morals, and Values - What is the Difference?

July 17, 2020 6 min read

Ethics, Morals, and Values - What is the Difference?

Ethics, Morals, and Values - What is the Difference?

For me, a good starting point when making a comparison of this type is to review the definition of each word.  It’s a good starting point, but there is often a considerable amount of interpretation needed, so it’s a beginning and not an end.  Any dictionary is as good as another for the basic definitions.

Ethics: Moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.

Morals: A person’s standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.

Values: A person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgement of what is important in life.

As I might have guessed, the definitions don’t offer much clarity.  It would appear that morals and values are essentially the same, with the defining factor being subjective to the person in question.  The standards and principles that a person uses to determine their own behavior seems subjective and is likely to change depending on the situation.  After all, as humans, we have some sense of self-preservation and with our ability to think logically we can often justify our behavior to align with what we might think is acceptable to our peer groups.  In the definition of values, the words “one’s judgement” seems clear a value is subjective, and each person must decide for himself, or herself, what behaviors are important in life and acceptable. 

The definition of “ethics” includes the word “morals” within the very definition, thus making a differentiation between the three even more difficult.  Perhaps there is no significant difference between the three, except to appease our own conscience as we make decisions affecting others.  Maybe our peer groups have the biggest impact on, and determine, our ethics, morals, and values.  If there is some subjectivity, and behaviors and beliefs can change over time, what happens when our behaviors and actions don’t align with long-held moral beliefs?

It may be important at this point to add the term Cognitive Dissonance into the discussion. 

Cognitive Dissonance: The state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

I think it would be unreasonable to take the position that a person’s thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes won’t change over time.  We are continually learning and being presented with new information.  Situations and circumstances change, and many external factors contribute to our thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that are beyond our control. 

There may be times when we must decide to act and behave in a way that does not align with our moral values.  For example, a person could have a strong moral opposition to murder, but what if one person killed another person as a result of protecting a child from some danger?  I can think of several circumstances when I might behave in way that is contradictory to a moral value I hold, and I can think of ways to justify my behavior so that my actions align with my beliefs. 

Considering how peer groups may have an impact on our ethics, morals, and values reminded me of a recent monologue by Trevor Noah.  As he speaks about the recent protests against racial injustice, he uses the term “Social Contract.” 

Social Contract Theory: A person's moral obligations are dependent upon a perceived contract or agreement for behavior among all persons living within the society.

This is not a new theory and can be found in use as far back as Socrates.  If our morals and values are based, in part, on a perceived contract of the acceptable behavior of our society, and a majority of the society stops abiding by these rules, what happens?  Do we adopt a new set of morals, or do we merely justify the behaviors which are no longer aligned with the rules of the societal contract? 

My interpretation of the monologue by Trevor is that we shouldn’t dismiss the efforts of protestors because they are behaving in opposition to a societal contract because they are protesting the very fact that the contract has not been upheld by others.  It’s almost a 20-minute monologue and his mention of the theory of a societal contract doesn’t occur until around the 8:30 mark, but it’s worth a listen. 

The monologue by Trevor can be found on YouTube at:

I will, however, note that when I listen to the opinions of others, I always question their motive.  As a celebrity and entertainer, Trevor’s motive may be to increase his following, generate attention for himself, and increase his “value” as an entertainer.  Whenever I hear something interesting, regardless of the source, I like to research the topic further and look for several different information sources, often with counter or opposing points of view.  Once I feel I have sufficient information I can then decide for myself what I believe.


A common phrase within the hiking community is “leave no trace,” meaning that a person enjoying the outdoors should leave no trace of use and impact the environment as little as possible.  Is “leaving no trace” after camping or hiking a principle of hiking ethics/morals/values? 

Remember, if it is an ethic, it is also a moral, because the definition of ethics includes morals; and as I noted above, morals and values are essentially the same.  Or is it a moral of the greater hiking community (a societal contract) and a person who adopts this principle as a moral, does so because the person wants to be accepted into the group?  How does cognitive dissonance affect a person’s moral belief in “Leave No Trace”? 

Besides the most obvious (at least to me) of dealing with human waste, you know… poop and toilet paper, you might be hiking along and find an interesting rock or want to hang a hammock in the trees.  Each one of these seems like it would only make a small impact on the environment and the limited impact could be justified in most situations.  To minimize impact you could bury waste, use protective wraps for a hammock, and take only the smallest and most interesting rock; or, you could pack out your waste, don’t use a hammock, and leave all of the rocks in place resulting in almost no impact to the environment. 

That little uncomfortable feeling of wanting to follow the principles of the Leave No Trace ethic, belonging to the hiking group holding that same moral value, and justifying your behavior when slightly misaligned with the group’s moral values, is cognitive dissonance in action.  When a person’s actions disagree with their beliefs, a person will modify their ethics, morals, and values to coincide with their actions until beliefs align with actions.

As social creatures we want to belong within a group and throughout history and our evolution it was important to our very survival to belong to a group.  We were safer in groups during our early years from both predators and competing groups.  I suspect it would have been hard for a person to belong to a group if that person did not share the beliefs of everyone within the group.  Historically there might have been limited opportunities to move into a different group if an individual no longer shared the common beliefs of the group because choices were limited based on the need for survival.  

Just think of the survival rate of the early settlers leaving England for America because they no longer agreed with the morals, values, and ethics of the established social contract in England.  Fortunately, we are no longer limited to any particular group, so if our beliefs change, we can easily find a new group that will share and support our beliefs, even if our beliefs change many times over a lifetime.  Leaving your established group used to be dangerous, now it only takes a few clicks on Facebook and you are part of a new group with common beliefs.

As I was researching and reading, I found the following written by an MBA, PhD in relation to the business world “A person who knows the difference between right and wrong and chooses right is moral. A person whose morality is reflected in his willingness to do the right thing – even if it is hard or dangerous – is ethical.  Ethics are moral values in action.”  I find this problematic because it is subjective to the person, or group, on what is “right” and “wrong.”  What is “right or wrong” to one person may not be similarly “right or wrong” to another.  In the business world, right and wrong are likely defined by the person signing your paycheck and is defined as “company policy.”

Considering all of this, could the definition of ethics be “the willingness of a person to follow the laws of the country in which a person is a resident or citizen, even if it requires dissenting from a person’s peer group”?  Could morals be defined as “the subjective beliefs of what is acceptable behavior of the members of a peer group”?  For some groups it may be morally acceptable to deviate from the laws of the country in which a person resides, if those laws do not align with the beliefs of the group.

I don’t think I have resolved the definitions of, or determined the differences between ethics, morals, and values. Regardless of what I cannot resolve, I simply hope people choose to live within the following precepts:

- Be kind and act in ways that help rather than harm.
- Be thankful and do not take what is not given.
- Be content and honest within relationships.
- Be truthful and avoid false or mis-representational speech.
- Be mindful and avoid things that cloud your thoughts.

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