What Does Ethics Mean to You?

The title question, “what does ethics mean to you?” is one that a sociologist by the name of Raymond Baumhart once asked a number of people from the business world. The following are some of the replies he received:

  • ”Ethics is to do with religious beliefs.”
  • “Acting ethically is behaving as required by law.”
  • “Ethics is about doing what I feel is either right or is wrong.”
  • “I don’t understand what the word ‘ethics’ means.”
  • “Ethics is about behavioral standards that are acceptable in society.”

Replies like these may well reflect what we ourselves would say. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the word “ethics” means and the definitions people give are not always clear.

To consider the first reply above, ethics should not be linked exclusively to religion. Of course, religions generally promote high moral standards. However, if related solely to religion, only religious people would practice ethics. Yet, ethics is as applicable to atheists as it is to those who are devoutly religious. While religion can set high standards for ethical behavior, the two things are not the same and ethics cannot be limited to religion.

Neither is behaving in an ethical manner the same thing as being law-abiding. Ethical behavior is often incorporated in the law to which the majority of people adhere. However, like our feelings, laws can digress from what is generally considered ethical. The old US slavery system and South Africa’s apartheid system are good examples of such digressions.

Additionally, ethical behavior is not necessarily linked to feelings. Anyone who follows their feelings may shrink from doing what feels right e.g. human feelings are often at variance with the definition of ethics.

Lastly, behaving in an ethical manner cannot be said to be the same thing as doing what is acceptable in society. Most societies accept and indeed practice ethical standards. However, any society can stray from ethical values and whole societies can become corrupt. The Nazi period in Germany is a prime example of this.

Furthermore, if behaving ethically was the same as doing what is societally acceptable, it would be necessary to find out what is acceptable in order to truly discover what is ethical. For instance, to find out if abortion is acceptable, it would be necessary to undertake a survey and ethical issues are rarely decided in this way. Additionally, the inability to get agreement on a number of issues means it is not possible to measure ethics against what is tolerable to society. So, if ethics were entirely based on societal acceptance, it would be necessary to reach agreement on various issues where, in fact, such agreement is non-existent.

So, what is ethics then? In fact, it is two important things. Firstly, ethics is a reference to well-established standards that distinguish right from wrong and set out what people should do in relation to fairness, obligations, rights, certain virtues and societal benefits. For instance, ethics is a reference to the standards that reasonably oblige people not to engage in murder, rape, fraud, theft, bodily assault and slander, but encourages virtues such as compassion, loyalty, honesty and integrity. Additionally, ethics relates to a person’s rights e.g. the right to life, privacy and remaining free from injury.


Secondly, ethics is a reference to studying and developing a person’s or a society’s ethical values – in part to ensure the continuance of what is considered to be morally right and to ensure standards are solidly-founded and reasonable.

Tips for Writing an Essay on Ethics

Consider these questions when writing your ethics essay:

  • What needs to be achieved and why?
  • What principles could or should be used for decision-making?
  • Are financial implications important in deciding the right/best course of action?
  • What importance should be attached to precarious situations?

In answering ethics questions, the writing should be focused on what could/should be done from an ethical rather than from a practical or religious perspective.

Essays on ethics should focus on fairness, rights, consequences, and so on. The possible effects on people and society should be addressed. For example, is there any chance of violation of a people’s rights? Remember, there is no right or wrong answers. Success depends on how well you argue and support your stance.

Tips on Writing

  • Identify key points
  • Study the opinions of others to understand the topic’s strong and weak points
  • Build arguments according to the most crucial and compelling information available to you
  • Discuss the topic with people who have opposing views to you as a way of testing your argument
  • Do several revisions and collect feedback on every draft
  • Use reliable sources and correctly cite these sources using the most appropriate citation style – e.g. APA, Chicago, MLA, etc. – or the one specified by your professor/college.

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