E is for Ethics

Copyright © 2018 by Barney Rosenberg
President, Ethics Line, LLC™

When talking about Ethics the tendency is to get all philosophical and academic.  But you and I know better, right?  Let’s test that assumption.

One way to think about Ethics is “I know it when I see it!”  But it’s more likely that we know it when we see signs of unethical behavior.  After all, it’s what we business ethics practitioners do best.  We are paid to notice!

My friend Professor Tom White (PhD in Philosophy by the way) says that ethics used to be about keeping the help from stealing the silverware.  But where I grew up in the Bronx we didn’t have any “help” or silverware.  Professor White has long since moved on from the classic philosophers to teaching business ethics (one of the few who does).  He is also the creator and patron saint of the International Business Ethics Case Competition (IBECC).  Look it up on line and sign up to be a judge for these fabulous students from around the world.  They have deep insights into the world of global business they will soon enter.  I learn from them every time.

Wikipedia tells us that Ethics is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.

But how is ethics different from morals?  I found this interesting view on a Google search: while they are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different: Ethics refers to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong.  Not bad!

The simplest way to think about it is also from Professor White:  “Ethics is from the Greek.  Morals is from the Latin.  Simple.  They mean the same thing.”  I’ll go with that!

Again, generally, both are frameworks to think about and resolve questions of good and evil, right and wrongvirtue and vicejustice and crime.

In our world of business ethics, I think it’s about the standards we will work toward to deliver to our customers what they pay us to make for them; to keep our company out of trouble; and our people out of prison.  We develop Codes of Conduct; Ethics and Business Conduct policies; Anti-corruption policies; supplier Codes of Conduct; and so much more.  We train to those policies.  We put in place call lines, ethics lines, hot lines – we advertise them on posters.  We have teams of people (internal and external) who manage the calls, investigations and responses.

We are serious about doing the right things the right way.  And there are lots of alphabet soup enforcement agencies waiting to step into our breaches.  With a little bit of luck and careful scrutiny of the front pages and cable news, we can steer a course to better results than the companies that grab the headlines for the bad choices they made.

So what should we tell our corporate leaders and co-workers about the difference between ethics and morals?  I wouldn’t worry about that.  I would rather encourage them to travel the right path.  They know what it is and where it takes us.

Ethics is about what we do when nobody is looking!

What’s your advice?


  1. Ethics is for Society’s norms of what is right and what is wrong in a personal conduct and so it is external until adopted by a person. This is for a Human Resposibility in the face of the Society.

    Morals refer for Moral (Religious) Law in personal life and so it is also external until adopted by a person. This is the Personal Conscience Responsibility.

    Questions are: Could Companies substitute for Society in Ethics? If could, is it Right? And to what extent? What is the contemporary role of the Society in Ethics? And where is the limit of the freedom of Conscience? Salary or Termination?

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