How the Term ‘Ethics’ Has Evolved

May 11, 2015

These days, the term “ethics” is employed in a range of ways that is often confusing and can be totally incompatible. In part this occurs because people hold different views on moral authority, valuing and criticism. But there is another reason, and that is because many do in fact understand the meaning of the term less clearly than imagined since what “ethics” means has changed over time. How one uses the term is much affected by what one reads, and those familiar with literature referring to “ethics” from one age are influenced to think it means something different from those more influenced by literature referring to “ethics” from other ages. The linguistic reality is that the term “ethics” is now employed to cover far more than when Aristotle wrote on “ethics” to instruct his son Nicomachus, or even when William Wilberforce sought to reform what he called British “manners.” And Christians know that while the Bible contains God’s moral revelation, the biblical text uses phrases like “paths of righteousness” or “ways of the LORD”—not the term “ethics”—when referring to it. This paper will examine how what “ethics” means in moral discourse has grown and changed over time and will argue that differences dividing teachers of Christian ethics often comes from employing what “ethics” meant at some earlier time in history and then assuming others now using the same term must be addressing the same thing when they may not be doing so at all.

Human beings have been concerned with right and wrong and with worthy living since before recorded history. But our word ethics originated with three Greek words, ēthikos (characteristic, customary, habitual), ēthos (character, custom, habit, habitat), and ethos (custom, habit, habitat), that came to be linked with this ancient interest. What these words meant changed over time even among the Greeks, and after the term ethics was adopted by English speakers what it meant continued to evolve so that it covers more now than it did earlier.

Our word “ethics” began with the Greek word ēthikos, which is an adjective coming from the noun ēthos,[1] which in turn is a slightly more emphatic form of the noun ethos. Except for the difference between adjectives and nouns, all three words had approximately the same original meaning and thus share the same interesting history.[2] Before Aristotle, these words had no philosophical or theological significance and only referred to customary conduct or contexts (habits and habitats). And yet, even at this early stage, they treated internal disposition and external behavior as all one thing because the ancients thought these were inseparable realities. These words addressed “a way of living” that because this involved sustaining values were thought to distinguish one sort of creature from others. Paul captures this early pre-philosophical meaning of “ethics” when quoting an old Greek proverb that says, “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor 15:33). Here the word ēthē translated “morals” refers to intuitive habits a creature naturally lives by, not to dogma, philosophy, or even an established set of rules.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was the first in history to connect ēthikos, ēthos and ethos with trying to understand right living. He was not the first to examine good and evil or to contemplate living well, but he was the first to connect these words with doing that. The ancient Hebrews and early Greeks both were interested in these topics, but they used different words. Plato (ca. 427-347 BC) dealt extensively with moral reasoning in The Republic but used the word dikaiosunē (dikaiosuvnh, rightness, justice), not ēthikos.[3] And the ancient Hebrews dealt extensively with good and evil, right and wrong, and living a worthy life, but used words like: (1) derek (way, manner, custom) as in Deut 10:12, 2 Sam 22:31, Ps 86:11, Prov 3:6, Prov 16:25, Isa 55:8, and Hos 14:9; (2) huqot (twOq2xu, custom, practice, manner) as in Lev 18:30, Lev 20:23, and 2 Kgs 17:8; and (3) ‘orah’ ( path, way of life) as in Ps 27:11, Ps 119:9, Prov 2:8, Prov 4:14, and Isa 26:8). The point is that what ethics now refers to concerns something people were addressing long before Aristotle connected using the word with what it was they were addressing. It is wrong therefore to suggest that the subject to which “ethics” refers all began with Aristotle as if no one thought or cared about right and wrong or worthy living before he came along.[4]

When it comes to understanding the words ēthikos, ēthos and ethos from which our word “ethics” comes, it is illuminating to note that before they were used for examining right and wrong, and even before they were connected with human conduct, they had to do with the “haunts” or “abodes” of wild animals living in their natural surroundings or “habitats.”[5] They first had to do with the customary habits and habitats of animals, and then later were used for a “way of life” sustaining the well-being of men. At this early stage, these words did not yet include the idea of having one proper way of judging right and wrong that applied to everyone, but they did from the start include the idea of standards to which life should conform. Their meaning built on the deep significance customary habits and habitats have for keeping life ordered, secure and coherent. They had to do with life as it should be. And even though “what should be” varied from one thing to another, they assumed a “larger scheme of things” in reference to which one could assess the way animals and people ought to live. What was customary for lions was different from fish, and both were different from people. But no living creature simply made this all up for themselves.

What Aristotle (384-322 BC) did was to take the words ēthikos, ēthos and ethos, which until he came along only referred to the natural habits and habitats of animals and people, and to begin using them for the study of morally worthy living. Animals live by instinct, but Aristotle saw that when it came to human beings customary habits needed to be justified. They had to be based on more than selfish ambition or blind prejudice. There had to be a good reason that made some behaviors right and others wrong. Aristotle decided the explanation for this was to be found in qualities of character underlying the ways people behave, and he used ēthikos, ēthos and ethos for examining what these qualities were. For Aristotle, “ethics” only meant examining personal character, the study of virtue and vice, and did not include examining the goods of common living (politics), of practical experience (wisdom), of divine revelation (theology), of aligning life with natural purposes (natural law), or of social discipline (human law). “Ethics” for Aristotle only had to do with studying traits of individual character, and other words were needed for the rest.

Aristotle lived four centuries before the New Testament, and his ideas were familiar to all educated people in the 1st century Roman world. But the new meaning Aristotle gave to ēthikos still was so narrowly applied the term never appears in the New Testament, and the words ēthos and ethos were used by New Testament writers only in their pre-Aristotelian non-philosophical sense of custom or habit.[6] Where writers of the New Testament do refer to what “ethics” means today, they used the word anastrophē (manner of life, way of conduct, values by which people live).[7]

After Aristotle, the term ethics was for a long time used only for human-centered speculation about worthy living, and even then only concerned analyzing individual character (virtues). This limited what the word “ethics” meant all the way into the 19th century, when the British philosopher Henry Sidgwick (AD 1838-1900), in his early writing, still limited “ethics” to examining attributes of character. But over his career Sidgwick started using the term in a way that also included studying right and wrong beyond individual character, and what Sidgwick did influenced others. Since the way Sidgwick used the term changed over his career, what he says in one place does not always agree with what he says in another. For example he first says, “I have taken pains to keep Ethics as separate as I conveniently could from Theology and Metaphysics, and also from Politics,”[8] but then later he says, “Ethics is sometimes considered as an investigation of the true Moral laws or rational precepts of Conduct; (and) sometimes as an inquiry into the nature of the Ultimate End of reasonable human action.”[9] In the first place he follows Aristotle by limiting “ethics” to studying nothing more than individual character (virtue), but in the second he expands what “ethics” means to include examining right and wrong actions and goals as well.

By the end of his career, Sidgwick had enlarged the word “ethics” to mean speculating about right and wrong, not only in relation to character but in relation to actions and goals, and not only as it concerns individuals but communities and groups as well (politics). And yet, while Sidgwick expanded the meaning of “ethics” to cover more than before, the word at that time still only concerned what is human (not divine), speculative (not dogmatic), mundane (not transcendent), formal (not substantive), theoretical (not practical), and rational (not relational, existential, or personal). It was restricted to man-generated, man-centered philosophical speculation and did not include moral revelation from God. It also did not include real standards of right and wrong by which people should live and only involved speculating what these standards might be. Realizing this explains why William Wilberforce (AD 1759-1833), when speaking of his aim to reform the ethics of English culture, used the word “manners” instead of “ethics.”[10] Wilberforce sought to reform the way people were behaving, setting goals and making value judgments, but he lived at a time when the word “ethics” meant less than it does now.[11] For Wilberforce, “manners” covered all aspects of right and wrong including what actually governs the real world, and the word “ethics” did not yet cover that.

Expansion of what the word “ethics” means to include all aspects of moral understanding and practice did not occur until the middle of the 20th century when Karl Barth (AD 1886-1968) and others stressed how God not only has revealed much about right and wrong in the real world, but judges us by standards of good and bad that have applied all along. The Bible contains God’s Moral Law and theologians have been studying what it says for centuries.[12] So if “ethics” has to do with real standards to which human beings must actually conform to live worthy lives, then “ethics” in this sense had to include moral theology.

In fact, Barth realized that “ethics” was coming to be used for everything and anything to do with the understanding and practice of right and wrong, and if so that means what God reveals and applies is the only real “ethics.”[13] If “ethics” concerns real right and wrong and not just speculating, then God’s moral revelation is not just part of “ethics” but turns out to be the whole thing.[14] Of course this meant Barth was saying the whole tradition of man-centered philosophizing since Aristotle and the early Greeks was all nothing more than fallible human guess work. In fact, he saw that if “ethics” has to do with real right and wrong, then all human philosophizing about “ethics” is either unreal (because fabricated), distorted (because man-centered), incomplete (because unable to reach transcendence), or idolatrous (if it presumes a false transcendence to define what is universally true about the meaning and purpose of life, or subordinates God to human beings by using man-generated categories to evaluate divine revelation).[15]

Not everyone has agreed with Barth on this, but even secular philosophers now use the word “ethics” in the much larger sense (compared to previous usage) of having to do with everything connected with the understanding and application of right and wrong—not only virtues, and not only just adding politics and economics, but adding theology and religious understanding and practice as well. These days “ethics” means everything involved with understanding why beliefs about right or wrong should be considered valid or invalid, of what moral authority consists and where it comes from, and how value judgments should be made and put into practice. All ethical views presuppose a source of valuing authority be it God, reason or feeling. But, while philosophical ethics never goes beyond speculating as to the nature of moral valuing as conceived and developed by human intellect, theological ethics exposits what God reveals to be right or wrong and applies God’s real norms and principles to real life.

In tracing how the meaning of “ethics” has changed and grown over time, we must take care at the same time to deny that the reality to which the term “ethics” refers is anything new. Real right and wrong and human interest in its understanding and practice are both as old as history itself. And although the way people use the word has changed, the reality to which the word now refers has been there all along. The word “ethics” now means something much bigger than it did previously, but character and conduct have always mattered, living a worthy life has always mattered, and the reality of right and wrong was real even when people used other words for it. So while the meaning of the word “ethics” did not earlier include all it does today, the reality to which the term now refers existed at Creation, applied in the Garden of Eden, and relates to the regency of God since time began.

So how does, or how should, this affect interaction among fellow ETS members working in the field of Christian ethics? First, it suggests exercising a degree of humble caution when engaging a colleague found to be viewing “ethics” in a manner with which we disagree. The difference could be a matter of semantics more than doctrine. A colleague who insists that theology must be distinguished from “ethics” may not be denying the moral relevance of God’s Word, and a colleague who questions the relevance of philosophy in a seminary course on Christian “ethics” may not be disputing the ability of human reason to discern moral norms in nature beyond what God says in the Bible. In other words, we should not assume that a colleague is guilt of biblical infidelity or intellectual fraud when we could merely be using different words for affirming the same thing.

Second, it suggests that some of what we who specialize in Christian ethics have said or written may be colored by anachronistic thinking and be in need of correcting. I am thinking here especially of how easy it is to read the Nicomachaean Ethics of Aristotle and then to apply it as is to contemporary analysis that assumes “ethics” refers to a way of structuring everything to do with moral right and wrong. But since Aristotle did not use the term in that manner, we cannot fairly say he was a progenitor of Virtue Ethics which treats all moral right and wrong in terms of personal character. To be sure, Aristotle discussed personal character and called it “ethics.” But that did not include his Politics and so we cannot classify him as being a “virtue ethicist” in the contemporary sense without using “ethics” anachronistically.

Lastly, I think awareness of how the meaning of “ethics” has evolved can be used to bridge speculative differences sometimes dividing those who teach Christian ethics at evangelical seminaries. I do not refer to dogmatic or denominational differences but only to variances in how we use a common word. We may sometimes find that we agree on substance while using different terms, and if so we can try if we can to improve common discourse by getting colleagues to use the term “ethics” as we do. But failing that, it also means we ought then perhaps to modify what we say to avoidable conflict with a colleague who prefers using the term “ethics” in a manner other than we consider best. Doing so compromises no real substance and applies Christian love to our manner of communication.


[1] See footnote 2 on p. 30 in Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Penguin Classics edition, translated by J. A. K. Thompson (London: Penguin Books, 2004).

[2] Douma claims that a distinction between ethos and ēthos “is rarely visible” and that scholars should accept “that both senses merge.” J. Douma, Responsible Conduct: Principles of Christian Ethics, translated by Nelson D. Kloosterman (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishers, 2003), 3. But Aristotle indicates that he himself saw a slight variation in what the words meant saying, “character, on the one hand, is the result of habits, from which it has actually got its name, being a slight modification of ethous.” Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 1103.a.16-19. In other words, while acknowledging a close connection between the words in both meaning and form, he nevertheless treats ēthikē  as able to indicate something (character) produced by ethous not fully present in what the word meant as it was (habit).

[3] Plato’s The Republic opens with Socrates requesting a definition of dikaiosunē (dikaiosuvnh) with which he launches into a long discourse on what we now call “ethics.” Plato, The Republic 331.c.

[4] For example, some take Raziel Abelson’s relatively true statement that, “Ethical philosophy began in the fifth century B.C., with the appearance of Socrates” to be expressing the false notion that “ethics” as a matter of human concern only began with and did not exist prior to the Greeks. Of course dealing with this claim depends on how much “philosophy” covers and to what “ethics” refers. I will argue that if “philosophy” only concerns human speculation, then “ethics” entails more than “philosophy.” Accordingly “ethics” in the full sense began with man’s handling of God’s first moral command in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:17; 3:1-6) See Raziel Abelson and Kai Nielsen, “Ethics, History of,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol 3 (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 82.

[5] For example the Greek historian Herodotus (484?-485? B.C.) used ēthea to reference “dens” where lions lived in the wild. Herodotus, The Histories 7.125. In this regard, Birch and Rasmussen are right about ēthos originally referring to animal dwellings (habitats) but are wrong then to associate the word with human provision of “stability” for domestic animals in artificially constructed “stables.” All ancient references are to haunts of wild animals in their customary surroundings, and there is no etymological connection to the words “stable” or “stability.” Bruce C. Birch and Larry L. Rasmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1989), 38.

[6] These words appear in the New Testament in the following forms: h[qh (1 Cor 15:33); e[qo~ (Luke 1:9; 2:42; 22:39; John 19:40; Acts 25:16; Heb 10:25); e[qh (Acts 6:14; 16:21); e[qei (Acts 15:1); ejqw`n (Acts 26:3); e[qesi(n) (Acts 21:21; 28:17); and eijwqo;~ (an obsolete form of e[qo~, Luke 4:16; Acts 17:2).

[7] As for example in 2 Cor 1:12; 1 Tim 3:15; Heb 13:18; 1 Pet 1:17; 3:2; 2 Pet 3:11.

[8] Henry Sidgwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1892), vi.

[9] Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1901), 2-3. Italics in the original.

[10] On October 28, 1787, Wilberforce wrote in his diary, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” Cited from Robert Isaac and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1838), 149. Of Wilberforce’s Second Great Object, one biographer writes, “The goal of the reformation of manners was to turn the tide of immorality in Britain. The profligacy and moral decay that marked the Regency era (when Wilberforce first entered public life) gave way to the moral integrity and concern for the welfare of others that was the hallmark of the Victorian era (which began in 1837, just a few years after his death). Wilberforce and his fellow philanthropists were salt and light in their generation, and set on foot an incredible array of charitable initiatives. Their legacy offers the best model we have for turning around a society and culture.” Kevin Belmonte, Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 151.

[11] That Wilberforce’s plan for “the reformation of manners” addressed what the term “ethics” means today is evident from the fact that his efforts centered on a royally issued document titled The Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue and for the Preventing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality. Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 81. Notice how this public policy document issued by the King of England concerns the public importance of “immorality” generally and is not limited only to personal disposition or private sentiment.

[12] Barth says, “theology in general includes from the very first and at every point the problem of ethics.” Karl Barth, Ethics, ed. Dietrich Braun, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromley (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 13.

[13] Barth held that “ethics is not possible as an independent discipline alongside dogmatics. Not just in general, but also in particular, the concern of ethics is a proper concern of dogmatics.” Ibid., 16.

[14] Barth held that, “On the field of ethical deliberation . . . (Christian theological ethics) advances the claim that it is the one that with its investigation has the last word which absorbs all others.” Ibid., 19-20.

[15] Barth says, “Philosophy cannot . . . go beyond the Word of God, . . . if it is not to become (a false) theology.” Ibid., 44.

Daniel R. Heimbach
Daniel Heimbach is Senior Professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has authored or contributed to fourteen books and published over sixty articles and book reviews. He is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s Research Institute.