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What is Ethics?

Defining Ethics in Society and Workplace Ethics

I have been blogging about ethics for some time so it is reasonable to ask what my perspective on ethics is. The term ethics is derived from the Greek word ethikos which itself is derived from the Greek word ethos, meaning custom or character.   In philosophy, ethical behavior is that which is “good.” The field of ethics or moral philosophy involves developing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior.  These concepts do not change as one’s desires and motivations change.  They are not relative to the situation.  They are immutable.

In a general sense, ethics (or moral philosophy) addresses fundamental questions such as: How should I live my life? That question leads to others such as: What sort of person should I strive to be? What values are important? What standards or principles should I live by? There are various ways to define “ethics.”  The simplest may be to say that ethics deals with “right” and “wrong.”  However, it is diffi­cult to judge what may be right or wrong in a particular situation without some frame of reference. 

Standards of Behavior

Ethics must be based on accepted standards of behavior.  For exam­ple, in virtually all societies and cultures it is wrong to kill someone or steal property from someone else.  These standards have developed over time and come from a variety of sources including:

(A)       The influence of religious writing and interpretations.

(B)       The influence of philosophical thought.

(C)       The influence of community (societal) values.

Norms, Values, and the Law

Ethics deals with well-based standards of how people ought to act.  Ethics does not describe the way people do act.  It deals with the way people should act. Ethical people always strive to make the right decision in all circumstances.  They do not ration­alize their actions based on their own perceived self-interests.  Ethical decision-making entails following certain well established norms of behavior. The best way to understand ethics may be to differentiate it from other concepts.

Values are basic and fundamental beliefs that guide or motivate attitudes or actions. Values are concerned with how a person will behave in certain situations whereas ethics is concerned with how a moral person should behave.  A person who values prestige, power, and wealth is likely to act out of self-interest whereas a person who values honesty, integrity and trust will typically act in the best interests of others.  It does not follow that acting in the best interests of others precludes acting in one’s own self-interest.  Indeed, the Golden Rule prescribes that we should treat others the way we want to be treated. 

Laws versus Ethics

Being ethical is not the same as following the law.  While ethical people always try to be law-abiding, there may be instances where your sense of ethics tells you it is best not to follow the law and regulations.  These situations are rare and should be based on sound ethical reasons. A good example is from the novel Les Misérables. Jean Valjean is a fictional character and the protagonist in Victor Hugo's 1862 novel. Hugo depicts the character's 19-year-long struggle to lead a normal life after serving a prison sentence for stealing bread to feed his sister's children during a time of economic depression. Stealing is wrong and violates the law but this seems to be a situation where following one's moral values would weigh the good of providing for his sister's children over the harms of breaking the law.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), the noted English novelist, debater, and former prime minister, said that, “When men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt, laws are broken.” A person of good will honors and respects the rules and laws and is willing to go beyond them when circumstances warrant.  As indicated by the above quote, such people do not need rules and laws to guide their actions.  They always try to do the right thing. On the other hand, the existence of specific laws prohibiting certain behaviors will not stop a person who is unethical (e.g., does not care about others) from violating those laws. Just think about a “Ponzi” scheme such as when Bernie Madoff duped others to invest with him promising huge returns that, unbeknownst to the investor, would come from additional investments of scammed investors and not true returns.

Workplace Ethics

Workplace ethics are codes of conduct that influence the development of an ethical culture within the workplace. Going beyond what is considered legal in the area where the business operates, they inspire communication between employees, allow for respect to be extended to each person within the organization, treat others fairly, establish an ethical tone at the top and promote customer relationships that are based on honesty and integrity.

Ethical people often do less than is permitted by the law and more than is required.  A useful perspective is to ask:

        What does the law require of me?

        What do ethical standards of behavior demand of me?

        How should I act to conform to both?

An ethical society is one that values a commitment to do the right thing regardless of personal costs. It’s not an easy standard to live by but one worth pursuing. Ethics requires a commitment to have the courage to carry out ethical intent with ethical action. Ultimately, we are all responsible for our choices in life whether of a personal or professional nature. However, our actions influence others and each of us can shape a broader ethical society if we look beyond self-interest and consider the needs of a broader community and society.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 7, 2014. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Professor Mintz also blogs at: