Ethics not as Simple as Right or Wrong, or is it?

By Calin Elardi

We all want to be ethical, that’s part of the reason we are in compliance and ethics, right? But what does it mean to be ethical? What “ethical” means to you may not be the same as what it means to everyone else, and it is essential that you and your company agree on what is considered ethical behavior.

The dictionary defines ethics as “that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, concerning the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.” There are several schools of thought when it comes to the philosophy of ethics; three main are; formalism, utilitarianism, and fairness and justice. Each of these approaches looks at issues differently and places values on different results, groups or individuals to determine if any given act is ethical. So how do your ethics align with the three main philosophical branches?

Formalism highly values the rights of the individuals and individual liberties. A formalist would want all people to be treated the same way that you are treated. Formalism especially bases its ethical reasoning on the act itself being ethical or not.

Utilitarianism believes that it doesn’t matter what the ethics are for the act itself, just the ethics of the consequences. For a utilitarian, the ends justify the means and what action creates the most good for the most number of people.

Fairness and justice believe that everyone no mater seniority, personal circumstances or any other potential reason should always all be treated the same.

So where do you fall among these three ethical ideologies, and where does your company fall? Quite often in life, it feels like it can depend on the situation. However, if you can identify where you stand and where your company stands as this ethical tightrope, you may be better able to not only understand your decision making but also the decisions of the company.