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Did Ducky Get it Right?

Last night, thanks to Netflix, I watched a season 4 episode of “NCIS” in which Dr. Mallard (David McCallum) is asked to describe, in his own words, the difference between ethics and morals.

His response: “The ethical man knows he shouldn’t cheat on his wife, whereas the moral man actually wouldn’t.”

First of all, I doubt those were his words. Rather, they were the words of the episode’s writers, Steven D. Binder (teleplay and story) and Christopher Silber (story).

But what I really wondered was whether ol’ Ducky was using the words right.

Ethic has four definitions, including “a set of moral principles or values” (don’t you just love when definitions show words to be synonymous?). But another definition is “the principles of conduct governing and individual or a group.”

Moral has six definitions (not including the four definitions relating to a story’s lesson), including “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior; ethical” (another synonym?). But another similar definition is: “conforming to a standard of right behavior.”

The dictionary also has a usage note that says moral implies conformity to established sanctioned codes or accepted notions of right and wrong, such as not committing adultery. Ethic, meanwhile, suggests there is a more difficult or subtle question of right or wrong: You know you’re not supposed to commit adultery, but what if you’re tempted?

I would say the usage is correct. Score one for the vast wasteland of TV!

Until next time! Use the right words!


May 14, 2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Ducky got it wrong. The ethical person knows it is wrong to cheat on their spouse, whether they do it or not. The moral person also knows it is wrong to cheat on one’s spouse in theory, however it is especially wrong for other people, but either justifiably right or forgivably wrong for the moral person themselves.


    Comment by b | October 10, 2017 | Reply

    • Ducky got it right, but his comment wasn’t quite completed.
      IMHO, it should have read:
      “The ethical man knows he shouldn’t cheat on his wife, BUT HE DID, whereas the moral man actually wouldn’t.”

      …huge difference!!


      Comment by dug | December 19, 2018 | Reply

  2. It’s all based on whose “standards” being used. In today’s world, we’re all right and everyone else is right to. Messed up and causes the pain we see so much of today.


    Comment by J. JEMISON | September 1, 2019 | Reply

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