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Is being on the fringe or just inside the law enough? What is ethical?

A quarter of a century ago, it was deemed acceptable to merely conduct yourself in accordance with the laws of the land. Companies only had to comply with legislation otherwise any means were available provided that they also satisfied the shareholders.

Ethics in business are both a reflection of and influenced by ethical aspects of life in general.

What is ethical?

The short answer is there is no answer! The definition of what is ethical is not absolute. A more common used word to describe ethical would be ‘fair’

The modern Oxford English Dictionary ‘OED’  says:

“Ethical – Relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these…”

This is merely an example of the word in use – it’s not an opinion – nevertheless it’s an example which reflects modern attitudes and the context in which ethical questions now arise which would not readily have done so a generation or two ago.

Morals and morality appear commonly in attempts to define what ethical means, although given the difficulties of defining the word morality without using quite subjective terms, this is not terribly helpful. Morality incidentally is defined in the OED as ‘…principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour…” See what I mean?.. Not especially firm or scientific.

The OED helpfully adds some extra explanation about ethics:-

Western ethical philosophy can be divided roughly into three types:

  1. Virtues such as justice, charity and generosity benefit the person and the person’s society. (Largely based on the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s ideas.)
  2. Ethics are central to morality – a human duty – based on rational people’s respect for other rational people.
  3. The guiding principle is based on conduct which produces the greatest happiness or benefit to the greatest number of people. (Referred to as utilitarianism – this might be also be considered ‘the greater good’ concept.)

A single precise definition of ethical is not easy to agree.

Moreover to show how ideas change over time, the first official Oxford English Dictionary published in 1933 says of ethics (when seemingly the word ‘ethic’ was used as an adjective like today’s use of the word ethical):

  1. Relating to morals.
  2. Treating of moral questions or of moral science.
  3. Characterized by ethos.

This significant definition of ethos is offered, since it suggests the relative component within ethics:

‘denotes the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterise a community’

Extending this theme, in a practical sense, aside from what is covered by law or other clear standards, whether something is considered to be ethical by people (markets, customers, media, etc) is generally a matter of opinion. The same might be said of morality. Both concepts – ethics and morality – are subjective and a reflection of society and civilisation, which of course implies that precise meanings will change. Both are relative in time and situation.

Certain ethical issues are represented in law, and in this respect are firm, to a point.

Ethics which are not covered clearly by law are usually a matter of subjective judgement, especially, but not exclusively, by the reasonable majority, whose view is significant in deciding whether something is ethical or not.

In work and life, opinion, especially large scale opinion for example communities formed as part of the Social Web can be more influential than rules and law, notably in relation to markets, publicity, and people’s attitudes, which manifest especially in the behaviour of clients and other acquaintances..

The law can actually have a theoretical or marginal effect, whereas large scale opinion is an unavoidable powerful reality and in terms of the social web, remains ad infinitum

For example it is unlawful to drive a little faster than the speed limit. But the vast majority of people consider it to be acceptable, and so do it. The introduction and implementation of the Poll Tax  in the 1980s was lawful, yet public reaction (much of it unlawful) against it caused the law to be changed.

Ultimately people’s attitudes are more powerful than law. Law is a reflection of public tolerance and views, not a cause of them (unless to produce a reaction against the law of course).

Popular public opinion is the sternest most unforgiving measurement of all and can influence the most.

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