Ethically Speaking

Years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart was researching ethics; he asked a test group of business people, “What does ethics mean to you?” The group had several different answers:

“Ethics has to do with my religious beliefs.”

“Ethics has to do with what my feelings tell me is right or wrong.”

“Being ethical is doing what the law requires.”

“Ethics consist of the standards of behavior our society accepts.”

“I don’t know what the word means.”

The answers of the test group may be representative of how most Americans would respond to this question on ethics. The truth is, most people in general don’t understand ethics, or their view is limited at best.


Ethics is a term that most people find boring and many misunderstand. Ethics is a branch of philosophy that arranges, defends, and recommends concepts of acceptable and unacceptable conduct. Deriving from the Ancient Greek word “ethos”, translated means habit or custom.

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” – Aristotle

Ethics asks two basic questions:

  1. “What is the best way for people to live?”
  2. “What actions are right and what actions are wrong in every possible circumstance?”

Ethics involve human morality as it defines concepts of pairs such as good and evil, right and wrong, justice and crime, and virtue and vice. There are three major areas within ethics: Meta, Normative, and Applied.

  1. Meta: Theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions, and their truth values if any. Asks how we know about, understand, and what we mean when we talk about pairs such as good and evil.
  2. Normative: Practical means, determining a moral course of action, the study of ethical action. Investigates the questions of how people should act. (Morally)
  3. Applied: Obligated to do in a specific situation, or domain of action, attempts to apply ethical theory to real life.

A list of some famous ethicists include: Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, James Childress, Confucius, Eric Fromm, Mohandas Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Fredrich Nietzsche, Blaise Pascal, Plato, and Ronald Reagan.

Potter Stewart was quoted as saying, “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do.” We all need ethics! We all need rules and a code to live by to help us grow as human beings. Many people confuse ethics with behaving in accordance with social and religious beliefs, and the law; however, ethics is not a stand-alone concept. Ethics can refer to one individual’s principles, right conduct, or business ethics. Ethics can also refer to many other concepts.

Business ethics are very complex, yet simple. They usually involve several categories:

  1. Fraud and related conduct. Don’t
  2. Professional standards. Do.                                    
  3. Safety and welfare. Do.
  4. Confidentiality. Do.
  5. Record keeping. Do.
  6. Unlawful Conduct. Don’t.
  7. Cooperation with investigation. Do.                                    
  8. Assisting unqualified practice. Don’t
  9. Exploitation of clients. Don’t
  10. Sexual Misconduct. Don’t even think about it!

This set of guidelines will help human beings to avoid any potential pitfalls in any profession. Ethics is about common sense, experience, and wisdom mixed together with a solid set of principles that honor local, state, and federal laws, self, family, God, and Country. Business can’t survive on ethics alone, the other important terms to consider are:

  1. Integrity. (Do the right thing.)
  2. Competence. (Do what you are trained and licensed to do.)
  3. Standards. (Set them high, and keep them there.)
  4. Principles. (Not personalities.)
  5. Quality. (Do your very best.)
  6. Respect. (Treat others like you would like to be treated.)
  7. Professionalism. (You worked hard to become who you are, now be who you are.)
  8. Legal Compliance. (Don’t break the law.)
  9. Mandatory Reporting. (Child, elderly, and disabled abuse is mandatory.)
  10. Self Disclosure. (Keep it to a minimum.)
  11. Boundary Management. (Stay in bounds.)
  12. Harm Prevention. (No harm, no foul.)
  13. Conflicts of Interest. (Don’t make messes.)
  14. Confidentiality. (That’s their business.)

Those who master these practices of business will have a much greater chance at success then someone who doesn’t. Well informed CEOs and owners are realizing that everyone is a potential client, even employees. Great customer service makes a world of difference. Ethics carry over into everything a business does. Social media lets potential clients look into the personal lives of CEOs, owners, and managers of companies. If the bosses aren’t ethically sound in their lives, clients will know.


Bosses with bad habits beware! The clients are watching. The ones who don’t have the luxury of confidentiality are you. If you have a Facebook account, Twitter, Google, etc. the public is watching. All you have to do, is to do the right thing, and you won’t have any problems. Since the beginning of time, though, it seems that human beings have had trouble doing the right thing. Then again, what is the right thing? Ethically speaking, of course!

©2015 Rev. Dr. K.T. Coughlin PhD

All Rights Reserved