What do we mean when we talk about ethical decision-making in a professional context, such as business ethics?
‘Ethics’ is really just a set of rules for behaviour.
They may be specific rules, such as “Always declare any conflict of interest before your board starts discussing a relevant issue”. They may be general rules, such as “Always try to look after your client’s best interests”.
You can say that ‘ethics’ is a set of rules/standards that are applied to evaluate the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of actions in a particular context. For example:
- Medical ethics refers to the rules of behaviour which apply in the health care sector.
- Legal ethics refers to the rules of behaviour which apply to lawyers.
Ethical rules differ from legal rules:
- There is often no explicit punishment, penalty or right to sue associated with a breach of ethical rules – whereas there are with legal rules.
- Ethical rules are – to an extent at least – adopted voluntarily by people they apply to – but you can’t opt out of legal rules.
That doesn’t mean that legal rules and ethical rules necessarily cover different subjects. Sometimes there are ethical rules and legal rules that are the same as each other.
But even if they don’t lead to explicit punishment, breaches of ethical rules can have consequences:
- If you breach the ethical rules of a profession, you might be fined or even disbarred from practice by the profession’s governing body.
- If you behave unethically in society, you can be shamed, shunned, reviled, held up to ridicule, lose your customers, lose your advertisers, lose your sponsors, lose your staff, or suffer productivity loss due to loss of staff morale.
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