Ethics are the underlying basic principles upon which choices are made throughout life. These are bedrock reference points for right or wrong. Ethical principles are developed early in life, generally by the time a child is 4 or 5 years old. After that point, the person learns how to apply these principles with increasing ability and success. Ethics are both a personal and a public display of your principles and beliefs. It is because of ethical beliefs that humans may act differently in different situations. These actions based on ethical principles are called morals.
Ethics can support clearly defined right and wrong, as in duty-driven or deontological ethics. In this case, what is right and wrong is determined by an external authority, in most cases a deity or the law (right-based ethics). In systems such as relativism, ethics may shift, depending on if you are with family, at work, at a sporting event, at a religious gathering, in a professional organization, with friends, or alone. The list is endless. In relativistic ethics, underlying principles, unlike those in duty-driven ethics, are variable and determined by an internal source: the individual. In relativistic ethics, each person makes up their own right and wrong based on personal feelings. Experience, the situation, culture, or any other factor the individual thinks is important may assist in determining right and wrong. One can never tell exactly how a relativist will act in a particular situation. His or her moral actions depend on the feelings of the moment. One must ask what ethical variability does to management in a business. Does it add more or less stability to the organization?
The key to understanding your ethics is to understand your own ethical belief systems. What do you believe is right and wrong, and why do you believe that way? What early childhood influences formed your ethical system? Have people, readings, or events led you to change your moral actions and your expression of what you believe is right and wrong? As you progress through your undergraduate major course of study, you will be expected to understand and apply appropriate ethics in any given scenario.
Ethical standards do differ, which is why you so often see the phrase situational or relative ethics to describe how people justify their own shifts in ethical stances. Why ethical standards differ depends on a number of factors, including personal background, field of study—a scientist, for instance, may have different ethics from an English professor—and the attitudes of other respected people. A person’s ethics may also shift because he or she may or may not want to take responsibility for an issue or action. Usually, an individual’s personal and professional ethics are built upon a foundation of basic ethical theory acquired as a child.
The great Greek philosopher Aristotle used ethics first as a standard of behavior—a code of ethics—and second as an area of study exploring the nature of morality. Aristotle considered good to be the constant goal of humankind. A problem develops in trying to decide the following:
•What is good?
•What is not good?
•Why do we think of it as good?
•Why do we think of it as not good?
This is the philosophical or theoretical use of the word ethics. It is this use of ethics that forms a major area of concern in many areas of society today. It is important that people root their ethics in an ethical theory so they are as consistent as possible in their decision making. Relativistic ethical systems used by the majority of Americans make consistency difficult, because what is right depends on the feelings of the moment.
You also must realize that your personal and professional ethics may clash with the ethics of others, depending on their view of the world and their own background or understanding of a situation. There are always ethical reasons to help explain what people do and why they do it....