Legal Dictionary


Definition of morality


    From Anglo-Norman moralité, Middle French moralité, from Late Latin moralitas (“manner, characteristic, character”), from Latin mōrālis (“relating to manners or morals”), from mos (“manner, custom”).


  • (UK) IPA: /məˈɹalɪti/


morality (countable and uncountable; plural moralities)

  1. (uncountable) Recognition of the distinction between good and evil or between right and wrong; respect for and obedience to the rules of right conduct; the mental disposition or characteristic of behaving in a manner intended to produce morally good results.
  2. (countable) A set of social rules, customs, traditions, beliefs, or practices which specify proper, acceptable forms of conduct.
  3. (countable) A set of personal guiding principles for conduct or a general notion of how to behave, whether respectable or not.
  4. (countable, archaic) A lesson or pronouncement which contains advice about proper behavior.
  5. (uncountable, rare) Moral philosophy, the branch of philosophy which studies the grounds and nature of rightness, wrongness, good, and evil.
  6. (countable, rare) A particular theory concerning the grounds and nature of rightness, wrongness, good, and evil.

Usage notes

  • Although the terms morality and ethics may sometimes be used interchangeably, philosophical ethicists often distinguish them, using morality and its related terms to refer to actual, real-world beliefs and practices concerning proper conduct, and using ethics to refer to theories and conceptual studies relating to good and evil and right and wrong. In this vein, the American philosopher Brand Blanshard wrote concerning his friend, the eminent British ethicist G. E. Moore: "We often discussed ethics, but seldom morals. . . . He was a master in ethical theory, but did not conceive himself as specially qualified to pass opinions on politics or social issues."


  • (recognition of / obedience to the rules of right conduct): decency, rectitude, righteousness, uprightness, virtuousness
  • (personal guiding principles): morals
  • (set of customs, traditions, rules of conduct): conventions, morals, mores
  • (lesson or pronouncement which contains advice): homily
  • (branch of philosophy): ethics, moral philosophy
  • (particular theory concerning the grounds and nature of rightness, wrongness, etc.): ethics, moral philosophy

Further reading

Morality (from the Latin moralitas "manner, character, proper behavior") is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good (or right) and bad (or wrong). A moral code is a system of morality (for example, according to a particular philosophy, religion, culture, etc.) and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code. The adjective moral is synonymous with "good" or "right." Immorality is the active opposition to morality (i.e. good or right), while amorality is variously defined as an unawareness of, indifference toward, or disbelief in any set of moral standards or principles.


- Morality and Ethics

Ethics (also known as moral philosophy) is that branch of philosophy which addresses questions about morality. The word 'ethics' is "commonly used interchangeably with 'morality' ... and sometimes it is used more narrowly to mean the moral principles of a particular tradition, group, or individual." Likewise, certain types of ethical theories, especially deontological ethics, sometimes distinguish between 'ethics' and 'morals': "Although the morality of people and their ethics amounts to the same thing, there is a usage that restricts morality to systems such as that of Kant, based on notions such as duty, obligation, and principles of conduct, reserving ethics for the more Aristotelian approach to practical reasoning, based on the notion of a virtue, and generally avoiding the separation of 'moral' considerations from other practical considerations."

- Descriptive and Normative

  • In its descriptive sense, "morality" refers to personal or cultural values, codes of conduct or social mores. It does not connote objective claims of right or wrong, but only refers to that which is considered right or wrong. Descriptive ethics is the branch of philosophy which studies morality in this sense.
  • In its normative sense, "morality" refers to whatever (if anything) is actually right or wrong, which may be independent of the values or mores held by any particular peoples or cultures. Normative ethics is the branch of philosophy which studies morality in this sense.

- Realism and anti-realism

Philosophical theories on the nature and origins of morality (that is, theories of meta-ethics) are broadly divided into two classes:

  • Moral realism is the class of theories which hold that there are true moral statements that report objective moral facts. For example, while they might concede that forces of social conformity significantly shape individuals' "moral" decisions, they deny that those cultural norms and customs define morally right behavior. This may be the philosophical view propounded by ethical naturalists, however not all moral realists accept that position (e.g. ethical non-naturalists).
  • Moral anti-realism, on the other hand, holds that moral statements either fail or do not even attempt to report objective moral facts. Instead, they hold that moral claims are derived either from an unsupported belief that there are objective moral facts (error theory, a form of moral nihilism); the speakers' sentiments (emotivism, a form of moral relativism); or any one of the norms prevalent in society (ethical subjectivism, another form of moral relativism).

Theories which claim that morality is derived from reasoning about implied imperatives (universal prescriptivism), the edicts of a god (divine command theory), or the hypothetical decrees of a perfectly rational being (ideal observer theory), are considered anti-realist in the robust sense used here, but are considered realist in the sense synonymous with moral universalism.

Moral codes

Codified morality is generally distinguished from custom, another way for a community to define appropriate activity, by the former's derivation from natural or universal principles. Some religious communities see the Divine as providing these principles through revelation, sometimes in great detail. Such codes may be called laws, as in the Law of Moses, or community morality may be defined through commentary on the texts of revelation, as in Islamic law. Such codes are distinguished from legal or judicial right, including civil rights, which are based on the accumulated traditions, decrees and legislation of a political authority, though these latter often invoke the authority of the moral law.

Morality can also be seen as the collection of beliefs as to what constitutes a good life. Since throughout most of human history, religions have provided both visions and regulations for an ideal life, morality is often confused with religious precepts. In secular communities, lifestyle choices, which represent an individual's conception of the good life, are often discussed in terms of morality. Individuals sometimes feel that making an appropriate lifestyle choice invokes a true morality, and that accepted codes of conduct within their chosen community are fundamentally moral, even when such codes deviate from more general social principles.

Moral codes are often complex definitions of moral and immoral that are based upon well-defined value systems. Although some people might think that a moral code is simple, rarely is there anything simple about one's values, ethics, etc. or, for that matter, the judgment of those of others. The difficulty lies in the fact that morals are often part of a religion and more often than not about culture codes. Sometimes, moral codes give way to legal codes, which couple penalties or corrective actions with particular practices. Note that while many legal codes are merely built on a foundation of religious and/or cultural moral codes, often they are one and the same.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


1.     lex situs
2.     lex causae
3.     community service
4.     lex loci celebrationis
5.     lex loci delicti commissi
6.     lex domicilii
7.     adjudication order
8.     AORO
9.     Miranda warning
10.     lex patriae