The Language Perfectionist: The Moral of the Story

In my reading, I’ve recently encountered many sentences like these:

  • “‘The moral and ethical tone of any organization is set at the top,’ said Michael G. Cherkasky, chairman of the panel….”
  • “There are strong moral and ethical reasons for why low-income Americans should not be forced to grapple with pressing civil legal matters…”
  • “There is, therefore, no historical evidence to support the idea that moral and ethical precepts originate with — or are dependent on — religion.”

You might wonder, as I did, if the phrase moral and ethical is redundant, or if the two words have distinct meanings.

To resolve the question, let’s consult Bryan A. Garner, one of my favorite language authorities. In Garner’s Modern American Usage, he says: “Although… a distinction might be observed in Philosophy 101, the terms overlap in common usage, both bearing the sense ‘principles or habits regarding right and wrong.'”

Apparently, many people think the expression makes sense. An online search for moral and ethical, in quotation marks, generates an astounding 41 million matches. Why is it so common? Probably because writers and speakers want to emphasize a point, as with such redundant expressions as pick and choose and rant and rave.

All things considered, then, it’s wise to avoid using the phrase moral and ethical. If you choose one word or the other, you won’t be accused of a breach of ethics!

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]
  • Elaine

    True, “moral and ethical” has assumed cliche status, but I’m inclined to find a distinction between the two.

    For example: Your doctor is also a personal acquaintance or extended-family member. He is concerned about your health (and the fact that you live alone and could be in trouble if you had an episode) and mentions this in general terms to another relative.

    Ethical? Certainly not; he’s probably violated HIPAA and a whole bunch of other rules and could get his license yanked.

    Moral? If he’s not mouthing off for personal gain and is just exercising normal human caring, that to me is moral, especially if his intent is to “first do no harm.”

    Plenty of professions have strict rules about conduct (teaching is another that comes to mind) and practitioners need to be constantly on guard against breaching them — but sometimes the emotional (moral) considerations arise and are found to be in conflict with the rules. They need to be kept in balance and weighed on a regular basis.

  • Don,

    In academic usage, “morals” has been the purview of the sacred (i.e., theology), and arguably circumscribes secular “ethics”. Thus using “ethics and morals” in the same sentence may be quite appropriate depending on context. Summarizing, morals equates to sacred as ethics equates to profane. Analogously, we can apply the same division to musical genres [sacred (e.g., Palestrina) vs. profane/non-sacred (e.g., Eminem)].Both Palestrina and Eminem can be categorized as music but they definitely differ.


    Fergus Devereaux