What is ethics anyway?


Thinking about ethics does your head in, or at least it does mine. I bought a download of ‘A Short History of Ethics’ by Tim Dalgleish, to try and get a better understanding of the subject and listen to it in the car but miles can pass by without me being any the wiser. The trouble is that everyone has a different opinion of what the word means and mankind has been arguing over these things for ever.

Dan Johnson from the Institute of Business Ethics didn’t really help either by giving us the Institute’s definition which in effect said that being ethical was the application of ethical values. If ever there was a circular argument.

He was speaking at the latest North East Initiative on Business Ethics event, this time based around the latest research by the IBE: Ethics at Work 2018 survey of employees, United Kingdom.

What is ethics was the first question he asked and while there was no absolute consensus, everyone had areas of common agreement around things such as trust, honesty and fairness. This is what they  mean by ethical values. He emphasised the point by giving examples of where organisations had been in the news recently due to ethical concerns and even posed us a couple of dilemmas we had to solve ourselves.

It was an interesting and insightful talk, with lots of interesting data to support the tale Dan and the report were telling. One thing that stuck with me however, was when he told us about how people perceive themselves in terms of their own ethical position. Most people have an elevated impression of their own behaviour and score themself, on average 9 out of 10. Almost saintly on the scale. This figure drops depending upon how far the person is away from the respondent, 7 out of 10 for people that they know and 5 out of 10 for those they don’t. Clearly proximity improves your ethical position.

This made me think about my own ethics. I feel I have a relatively high moral compass but perhaps I don’t. Since the talk I have been very conscious of all the decisions I have made. Do they meet my ethical standards? Am I doing right by others? Of course I am both judge and jury yet it has been an interesting challenge. It has made me stop and think on at least a couple of occasions.

The report makes fascinating reading and is available here.

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