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A Discussion of Ethics – Prologue

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Sometimes a discussion on a topic means doing enough research to be able to talk intelligently without looking foolish. I had planned to do a series of articles on Ethics and began reading and collecting data from a lay perspective and not as a scholar. I learned quickly that this word I have used and misused needs to be defined more clearly. Common everyday usage in articles, blog posts, and in social media by most people is only scratching the surface of the deeper meaning. When I began to write this in a format that could be shared with others, it suddenly became clear that there is not a black or white, night or day, unethical or ethical definition. The poles are not only separated by different degrees off behavior there are situational uses of ethics that can shift meanings. Ethics and ethical behavior is a chameleon that takes on the appearance of the environment in which it is used.

Ethics, from the Greek word ethos meaning character, is a branch of philosophy that deals with concepts of right and wrong. Unfortunately, the benchmarks that most people use to discuss ethics are measures of morality based on religious beliefs, traditions, and societal norms of behavior. More often than not, a person will describe something as being unethical in one context that could be perfectly ethical in another. In spite of this complexity, society craves for there to be some established norms to measure our actions. Not being a philosopher or even knowing one in real life, I turned to the internet for the simplest form of a definition. As it turns out, there are four major areas in the study of ethics (as gleaned from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) to use as a starting point without the graduate level courses in philosophy:

  • Meta-ethics – Determining the truth values of moral propositions.
  • Normative ethics – Determining a moral course of action.
  • Applied ethics – How moral outcomes happen.
  • Descriptive ethics – Studying people’s beliefs about morality.

Don’t worry; this foundation is not to set the stage for an in-depth academic look into all aspects of ethics, although reading about them will either fire up your passion to learn more or cause your eyes to glaze over. In my case it was a little of both, but I really wanted to start a discussion on business ethics and it is necessary to know that it is part Normative and part Descriptive. How do we know what is ethical in business practices? If there is no absolute right or wrong, what do people believe is right or wrong and how might that change for the short term and long term. Business leaders are concerned primarily with determining a moral course of action, but others need to be concerned with what people think about that morality.

There is a fine line between what people do and think. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is considered in a way to be the father of modern philosophy, put it this way: “In law a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so.” In business, we need to act instead of just think… an ethical dilemma sometimes.

Image credit: alexis84 / 123RF Stock Photo



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