Is the Word Ethical Being Used in an Unethical Way?

Dictionary2014-snell-roy-speaking-headshot-200By Roy Snell
From ethikos.

I saw a recent post on LinkedIn that talked about whether it was ethical for Starbucks to talk about race relations. Starbucks was apparently encouraging their employees to support positive race relations in their stores. The author was asking if what Starbucks was doing was ethical. He questioned if their company’s resources should be used to weigh in on issues such as race relations. He questioned their ethical decision making. One could legitimately ask the question “Is it ethical to tell others (including a company) that they can’t support positive race relations?” Is Starbuck’s unethical or are the people saying Starbucks should not use their resources to support race relations unethical?” The point here is not the answer to that question. The point here is…are we using the word ethical correctly? If ethical means right from wrong, how can both parties involved in any debate both be ethical or both be unethical?

If the word ethical could speak for itself it might tell you it’s troubled by the recent use of the word ethical. Wikipedia says the definition of ethical is “of or relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these.” says “pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct.” I don’t think that is how the word is currently being used by a majority of the English-speaking population. I think the word ethical is being used to state one’s opinion or belief with emphasis. This is what I hear when I listen to people using the word ethical in many situations: “We are not in agreement. I am going to disagree. And I am going to punctuate my opinion by questioning your ethics.”

I have also seen the word ethical used to discuss the border issue. Some have claimed that if you are for a stronger border you are unethical, and others say you are unethical if you are against a stronger border. No matter who is correct in either example, the way they are using the word means the word ethical can mean anything. Again, I do not wish to raise the question of who is correct. The thing I want you to consider is how they use the word ethical. If the word ethical could mean anything, then it means nothing. I know many of us want the word to be meaningful. I know many of us want ethical to mean “right from wrong.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what we want. The definition of the word is not in our hands or even in the hands of a dictionary. By definition, the definition of a word is defined by the definition the majority of the people using the word give it.

[bctt tweet=”If the word #ethical could mean anything, then it means nothing @SCCE” via=”no”]

It seems to me that if the dictionaries were reflecting the current use of the word ethical it would sound more like this: “Your opinion, how you feel about values, principles, and political or social issues. If two people are in strong disagreement both may refer to the other as unethical. Ethical is often used to emphasize how strongly one feels, to enhance the chances of winning an argument or win over those looking on.”

Here is the question we in the compliance and ethics profession have to ponder. Should we be saying we want to build an ethical culture if the word ethical can often mean so many things to so many people? Is the word unfortunately too vague to be of use to the compliance and ethics professional who is trying to implement a compliance program and build an ethical culture? I have often wondered why we have so much trouble building an ethical culture. Obviously there are many reasons why it is hard to build an ethical culture. However, if the word is vague th,en saying we want to “build an ethical culture” is problematic from the start. Could this be one of the reasons our overwhelming effort to build an ethical culture is not working to our satisfaction? Are we essentially being too vague? Would it be easier if we tried to be more descriptive? Is there another word or phrase that would be more effective or clearer? Should we change our approach, even though changing the use of the term “building an ethical culture” is so ingrained in our vernacular?



  1. I think that ethics and compliance professionals have to keep explaining what ethical really means, to continue to educate people. The perception will change slowly, but it will change. Just because some people use it improperly, we shouldn’t think about replacing the word, but about getting back its meaning/sense.

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