I read this sentence in this morning's New York Times. Is "a reliable ethics" correct?

"You don't have to be clinically depressed or burdened by childhood guilt to want help with the timeless questions of the human condition -- the persistence of suffering and the inevitability of death, the need for a reliable ethics."

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What makes the sentence above even more puzzling -- here's a headline from another article in the same issue of the New York Times:

A Question of Ethics: How to Teach Them?


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The noun "ethics" wears a variety of guises. It can refer to a general system of values and behavior, or it can refer to a particularized system related to one individual or category of people. "Ethics" used as a singular count noun seems to be quite common, often with the meaning of "a kind or model." I did a Google search for "a * ethics that" (with the * representing any adjective or other premodifier) and found 601 examples:

...[We] should develop a global ethics that applies equally to all those involved in world affairs.

...I would argue that we need a liberal ethics that protects nascent traditions while retaining the ideal of universal principles.

...He also suggests elements for the construction of a political ethics that seeks an "articulation of justice and solidarity from within global capitalism

...The harm-reduction principle is at home within an ethics for complexity and is alien to a utopian ethics that tends toward an "all-now-or-nothing ethic," ...

As for "ethics" being referred to with a plural pronoun, eg "them" in the headline "A Question of Ethics--How to Teach Them?" the plural is also used. Here are some examples from Google:

...Work Ethics: Are They Worthwhile or Not?

...in his final chapter, he calls for the institutionalization of ethics and their implementation both as a disciplinary regime enforced by a regulatory authority

...The study of work ethics is of particular importance, because the ethics themselves are normative, helping describe the culture they originate from

Still, I found only 21 instances of "the ethics themselves," versus 26 instances of "the ethics itself."

Other examples of "ethics" being used in the plural abound:

...Medical ethics have always been a subject of major concern to practitioners and these issues arise throughout medical practice

...Our professional ethics have never been called into question as vociferously as they have been since the accounting scandals began.

...In other words, we are trying to get around the laws that were put in place because our personal ethics weren't strong enough to protect the environment

The general, abstract noun "ethics" is used in both the singular and the plural. The instances of "ethics is" (19,600) far outnumber the instances of "ethics are" (3,120):

...Ethics is a conscious stepping back and reflecting on morality, just as musicology is a conscious reflection on music.


...Ethics are a system of principles that tell us what acts are right and wrong.

When the noun "ethics" is individualized it often takes a plural verb:

...People in a well-functioning society are aware of such relationships, and their ethics are a manifestation of that consciousness.

...We think their ethics are a little excessive but we can recognize their logic: how are we to know that plants don't have feelings and souls?

Don't forget the other singular noun, "ethic," with no plural s marker. It's also very common. Sometimes you find it used in the same passage as the plural form, which itself can have a singular or a plural verb:

...Kant's ethics are also called a good will ethic. The passage is well crafted even if the ethics themselves are horribly anti-economic.

...The type of an ethic, lawful or good, is listed after the ethic. This is a rough description: the ethics themselves give the finer details.

...How, then, do we develop an appropriate land ethic? Just as social ethics directs intrahuman activity and is based on what it means to be a human being, a land ethic directs our actions toward the land and must be based on the needs of the land to support life.

So there you have it. Take your pick, and you'll probably be right.

Marilyn Martin
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There may be some further underlying principles at work besides the general-particular contrast regarding -ics nouns such as ethics, statistics, tactics, and economics. You will find an illuminating discussion of the various kinds of concord (subject-verb agreement) used with these nouns in The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (2002) by Biber et al., Section

Marilyn Martin

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