Introduction to Ethics

Ethics is a branch of philosophy that studies questions and aspects of morality, the concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, etc..

Ethics and morals are the principles by which a group, company, organization, or government governs their behaviour and actions.

Ethical studies are an examination of morality, an investigation into the nature of right or wrong in any given situation.

The situation could range from personal morality minefields such as acceptance of gifts or personal relationships in a professional context, through to corporate positioning regarding regime support, child labour or the environment.

Whether a given personal or corporate position is right or wrong is wholly an individual concern.

What a person believes is up to the individual, a unique and personal mindset.

The study of ethics investigates and evaluates this mindset

What is Ethics?

Ethics is defined as a moral philosophy or code of morals practiced by a person or group of people.

An example of ethics is a the code of conduct set by a business.

Ethics is based on well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues.

Ethical Theories: Absolutism and Relativism

Ethical absolutism holds that moral commands are true at all times. This means that they’re true in all cultures and situations.

Under this view, actions such as murder and stealing are seen as objectively wrong, regardless of their circumstance or results.

Characteristics of absolutism

  • Set of principles which are non-negotiable
  • Principle have universal application
  • Principles are timeless in their application
  • Creates a restrictive view and clear distinction between right and wrong
  • A traditional view of morality.

Ethical Theories: Absolutism and Relativism

In contrast, moral relativism views moral values as entirely relative to different societies and contexts. Therefore, whether an action is right can depend on the context (such as culture) in which it takes place.

Relativist moral theories may consider the consequences of moral actions when deciding if they are right or wrong.

Characteristics of relativism

  • Offers guidance rather than rules for behaviour
  • Flexible models dependent on the situation
  • Responsive and adaptable to change
  • Suggests improvement in ethical behaviour over time
  • A modern, corporate view of morality.

Ethical Theories: Teleological and Deontological

Teleological: Teleological is referred to as consequentialism.

Teleology (from the Greek telos, meaning goal or end) describes an ethical perspective that contends the rightness or wrongness of actions is based solely on the goodness or badness of their consequences.

In a strict teleological interpretation, actions are morally neutral when considered apart from their consequences.

There are two kinds of consequentialist belief.

Egoism is a belief that the right decision is the one that leads to the maximum personal benefit. The decision is made by looking at the possible outcome of a situation and deciding whether it is in the individuals self interest to act in a certain way. This is a selfish standpoint.

Utilitarianism considers the likely consequence of behaviour in relation to the benefit for others. The impact of the decision is considered in relation to a variety of stakeholders and how actions may positively or negatively affect them. This is a selfless standpoint.

Deontological: Deontological beliefs are referred to as non consequentialist beliefs.There is no consideration of what may happen either to oneself or others in making the decision as to how to act. The motivation stems from a sense of duty, a deep and automatic response to a given situation based on recognition of the perceived requirements of society.

The nature of duty may derive from a variety of sources:

  • Obeying the law
  • Upholding an individual’s human rights
  • Acting to a standard expected by family or community
  • Acting to a standard expected by the individuals country
  • Acting to a standard expected by an individual’s religion.

Ethical Stance

Ethical stance means ethical position. An “ethical stance” is when a person takes a position on a topic or action based on defined ethical principles as determined acceptable by the person or the group in which they identify themselves.

An example could be a doctor taking a stance against taking the life of a person on life support to supply tissue to save the life of another. The code of ethics in the medical profession prohibits such an action as the code is based on non-malficence (do no harm, intentionally) and beneficence (do good, improve the health of others).

The doctor would be taking an ethical stance against the action to essentially kill one person to save the life of another regardless to what the victims’ families, hospital, or other authorities may dictate.

To develop an appropriate ethical position or stance, two models can be used to assist.

  • Kohlberg’s model
  • The model of Grey, Owen and Adams

Kohlberg’s model

Kohlberg’s Cognitive Moral Development model (CMD) investigates and maps a variety of ethical positions or stance that an individual may take with regard to any ethical decision.

Since it is a development model the presumption is that the individual will strive over time to raise their ethical position to one that is at least in conformance with societal expectation.

The model has three stages and six positions.

Stage 1: Pre-conventional behaviour

 Position 1: Punishment-obedience orientation

Position 2: Instrumental-relativist orientation

Stage 2 Conventional Behaviour

Position 3: Good boy-nice girl orientation

Position 4: Law and order orientation

Stage 3: Post-conventional Belief

 Position 5: Social contract orientation

Position 6: Universal ethical principle

Stage 1: Pre-conventional behaviour (rewards/punishment/self-interest):

The decisions individuals make on ethical matters will have nothing to do with the ethical issues involved, but instead will depend on the personal advantage or disadvantage to the individual.

Ethical belief is dominated by self interest and only this is only compromised to the extent that the actions of others may negatively affect the persons own interests.

Position 1: Punishment-obedience orientation

The individual acts out of self interest only compromised by the perceived negative impact of others actions should they act in a certain way. The punishment aspect usually relates to the threat of action if a legal standard is not met.

Specifically, individuals will see ethical decisions in terms of the rewards and punishments that will result.

  • How will I be rewarded if I do this?
  • What punishment will I suffer if I do this?

Position 2: Instrumental-relativist orientation

The individual is willing to act in others interests or to meet others needs in as much as it helps to serve their own self interests.

Stage 2 Conventional behaviour

This meets the requirements of society as an ethical position or stance. To reason in a conventional way is to judge the morality of actions by comparing them to society’s views and expectations.

Conventional morality is characterized by an acceptance of society’s conventions concerning right and wrong. At this level an individual obeys rules and follows society’s norms even when there are no consequences for obedience or disobedience.

This is also termed a normative approach to ethics.

Position 3: Good boy-nice girl orientation

This stage can be defined as individuals learning to live up to what is expected of them by their immediate circle (friends, workmates or even close competitors).

This can work both ways in a business context. An individual might feel pressurised into staying out for a long lunch because everybody else in his team does.

On the other hand, individuals may feel they have to be at work by a certain time because everybody else is, even if it is earlier than their prescribed hours.

They try to be a “good boy” or “good girl” to live up to these expectations.

Position 4: Law and order orientation

This implies looking at what society in general wants, rather than just the opinion of those around them. It certainly means complying with the law but it doesn’t just mean that. Directors may for example decide to offer better terms to overseas workers because of the activities of pressure groups campaigning against “sweat shop labour”.

Sweatshops often have poor working conditions, unfair wages, unreasonable hours, child labour, and a lack of benefits for workers.

Stage 3: Post-conventional Belief

The post-conventional level, also known as the principled level, is marked by a growing realization that individuals are separate entities from society, and that the individual’s own perspective may take precedence over society’s view; individuals may disobey rules inconsistent with their own principles.

Post-conventional moralists live by their own ethical principles—principles that typically include such basic human rights as life, liberty, and justice.

People who exhibit post-conventional morality view rules as useful but changeable mechanisms—ideally rules can maintain the general social order and protect human rights. Rules are not absolute dictates that must be obeyed without question. Because post-conventional individuals elevate their own moral evaluation of a situation over social conventions.

Position 5: Social contract orientation

On the lower stage what individuals believe to be right is in terms of the basic values of their society, including ideas of mutual self-interest and the welfare of others.

This differs from Stage 4 in that individuals act according to their own interpretation of what the basic values are, rather than being influenced by the rules of society or the interpretations of others in society.

Position 6: Universal ethical principle

On the higher stage, individuals base their decisions on wider universal ethical principles, such as justice, equity or rights, and Kant’s framework.

Kolhberg had a deep concern that accountants as a professional group were captured by capitalism and that their ethical stance often failed to live up to the standard expected by society.

Training in ethics is deemed to be an appropriate response to this concern.

The model of Grey, Owen and Adams

Seven positions are

1) Pristine capitalism: The corporation’s beliefs are dominated by self interest with little or no regard to others. Adherence to the legal minimum typifies ethical decision making.

2) Expedient: The company exhibits a willingness to enter into dialogue with stakeholders and compromise its position in as much as profits are increased or not threatened by such action.

3) Social contractarian position: The company will meet a given level of expectation set by society simply because this expectation exists. The impact on profits is not considered.

4) Social ecologist: Social ecologists mark the turning point in CSR, viewing current organizations as wasteful, exhausting important resources and contributing to pollution problems. As such, organizations must modify their approaches and consciously embrace CSR as the model going forward.

This position postulates that commercial enterprises and large organizations are primarily responsible for environmental destructions and should take center stage in fixing the issues resulting.

5) Socialists: Organizations with a socialist bent seek to create an egalitarian (classless) equality within the organization and with its social and economic interests.

Socialists most often view the capitalistic system as exploitive and unstable, opting for a society that shares risk and reward equally.

6) Radical Feminists: This position doesn’t have any ties or connections to women’s movements. Rather, a radical feminist organization theoretically seeks to implement feminine values, such as cooperation in all organizational dealings.

The view is that business dealings are over-masculine in nature, resulting in many of our social problems, and that feminist values at the center of the organization are the answer.

 7) Deep Ecologist: The position of a deep ecologist organization stresses that human beings are of no more importance than other living organisms and therefore don’t have rights to resources or life above those any other being.

Deep Ecology is anti institution, anti capitalist and anti corporation. The position of extreme ecological pressure groups promotes animal rights, environmental protection and a restructuring of society away from central government control and towards local community autonomy and simpler, less consumerism driven societies.

Profession vs Occupation

The difference between occupation and profession can be stated with a simple example: Designing a building would be called a profession, whereas, constructing a building is an occupation.


1) A profession needs extensive training and specialized knowledge. On the other hand, an occupation does not need any extensive training.

2) A profession can be called an occupation when a person is paid for his particular skills, and his deep knowledge. Persons engaged in an occupation are not paid for their knowledge, but only for what they produce.

3) Unlike a person engaged in an occupation, a professional has to undergo higher education.

4) A profession tends to be autonomous, whereas, for an occupation, no one has autonomous power; he or she is supervised by another person.

5)Unlike occupation, a profession demands that the responsibility lies with the individual.

6 )A profession is guided through certain ethical codes, and regulated by certain statute or act.