The cluster of words ethical, ethics, and ethic all first appear in English in late 16c or early 17c, as borrowings ultimately from Greek largely via Latin. They are much more recent additions to the lexicon of English than moral and morality, which are late 14c borrowings from Latin via French. The adjective ethical closely follows the noun ethics in its meaning development, although it is the uses of the adjective in contemporary English that are most revealing of some important developments in culture and society (hence ethical is more salient in appearing to function as a keyword).
The terms ethical and ethics soon distinguish themselves as more than simply learned synonyms for moral and morality. The earliest meaning of ethics is ‘a study of or treatise on moral principles’ (?a1425), reflecting the title (in Greek and Latin) of Aristotle’s Ethica. This use gives rise to an important core meaning: the academic study of morality, or, to put it another way, morality as a topic for systematic analysis. This meaning is reflected in some of the most frequent collocations of ethical in contemporary English: ethical system, ethical principles, ethical standards, ethical code. All of these reflect a conception of morality as something that can be studied and defined, and although they reflect meanings of ethical and ethics that have been in existence for centuries, all have increased markedly in relative frequency since late 19c. To understand this, we must look at three sense developments shown by the noun ethics, as identified by OED:
‘The moral principles or system associated with a particular leader, thinker, school of thought, or area of enquiry, or with a particular historical period’ (1649)
‘The moral principles or values held or shown by an individual person.’ (1749)
‘The codes of conduct or moral principles recognized in a particular profession, sphere of activity, relationship, or other context or aspect of human life.’ (1789)
The first two senses relate to a moral system as manifested by an individual, or in other words individual morality envisaged as a describable, definable system. This emphasis has important implications for how collocations such as ethical principles, ethical standards, or ethical code can be applied to an individual’s conduct. The third sense development is crucially important for conceptualization of the ethical sphere as morality subjected to technical definition and description, within the restricted scope of a particular organization or field of activity.
If collocations shown by ethical and moral are compared in a corpus of contemporary English, those which are most characteristic for ethical are ethical approval, ethical guideline, and ethical lapse (while those for moral are moral courage, moral outrage, moral superiority, moral clarity). Such collocations highlight the semantic components of measurability and (perceived) objectivity, components which come most obviously to the fore in contemporary uses of ethical in corporate social bodies: organizations, whether commercial or non-commercial, governmental or non-governmental, will have an ethical code or ethics code, with defined ethical standards and ethical guidelines. Individual conduct will be measured against such defined standards of morality.
In this particular use, the ethical is the benchmark of what is acceptable conduct in a particular sphere: what is or is not moral may be considered an area where individuals may agree to disagree (and in which academic investigations of ethics may or may not be invoked); but, within an organization, what is ethical must be agreed if the regulatory mechanisms of that organization are to apply. Definitions of what is ethical may well differ between organizations or roles: what is considered ethical conduct may differ for e.g. a member of parliament, an investment banker, a university lecturer, or a surgeon. Within each field of activity, individuals are expected to display ethical conduct that will reflect sound ethical judgement, or they may seek ethical approval for a planned action or project. Where someone is perceived to have fallen short of expected standards of conduct ethical concerns may be raised. Difficult cases may be judged against the organization’s ethical code by an ethics committee, the decisions of which may have implications for an individual’s future position within an organization or within a profession.
In spite of its association with what is measurable and subject to regulation, the word ethical is nonetheless still capable, for many people, of encoding highly positive, aspirational connotations. In Britain New Labour’s ethical foreign policy was greeted with cynicism by political opponents and was overtaken by events in a very short period of time. But the choice of name was careful: the policy was presented as something moral in a way that could be measured and held to account. Much more successful and enduring has been the late 20c coinage ethical investment, embraced by many who feel out of sympathy with mainstream financial capitalism as a way of engaging with financial investment while retaining a concern for environmental or social issues. Such ethical investment is also embraced by parts of the world of banking, as a way of offering financial products in a way that is acceptable to a market otherwise distrustful of the corporate world. The connotations of the word ethical are important in the success of this coinage: the label ethical investment suggests a product that will meet, in a measurable way, the age-old aspiration for a form of capitalism that is compatible with morality.