What Ethics is not

Some years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked business people, "What does ethics mean to you?" Among their replies were the following:

"Ethics has to do with what my feelings tell me is right or wrong."
"Ethics has to do with my religious beliefs."
"Being ethical is doing what the law requires."
"Ethics consists of the standards of behaviour our society accepts."
"I don't know what the word means."

 

Clearly, in order to understand what Ethics is more thoroughly, we need to know what ethics is not.

Ethics are not same as feelings: Like Baumhart's first respondent, many people tend to equate ethics with their feelings. But being ethical is clearly not a matter of following one's feelings. A person following his or her feelings may recoil from doing what is right. In fact, feelings frequently deviate from what is ethical.

Eg: A person with high ethical standards feels bad when he accepts bribe, where as, a corrupt persons feels right/happy to take a bribe.

Ethics not necessarily follow culturally accepted norms: Some cultures are quite ethical, but others become corrupt or blind to certain ethical concerns.

Eg: Caste System in India

Ethics do not refer to any religion: Most religions, of course, advocate high ethical standards. Yet if ethics were confined to religion, then ethics would apply only to religious people. But ethics applies as much to the behaviour of the atheist as to that of the devout religious person. Religion can set high ethical standards and can provide intense motivations for ethical behaviour. Ethics, however, cannot be confined to religion nor is it the same as religion.

Ethics is not always following laws:A good legal system often incorporates ethical standards to which most citizens subscribe. But laws, like feelings, can deviate from what is ethical. Law can become ethically corrupt.

Eg: Whistle blower - Edward Snowden