A few years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked business people, ―What does ethic mean to you?‖ Among the 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 behavior our society accepts.‖
These replies might be typical of your own. The meaning of ―ethics‖ is hard to pin down and views of many rest on shaky ground.
Many people tend to equate ethic with their feelings. But being ethical is clearly not a matter of followings one‘s feelings. A person following his or her feelings may not do what is right. In fact, feelings frequently deviate from what is ethical.
Nor should one identify ethics with 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 saint. Religion can set high ethical standards and can provide intense motivations for ethical behavior. Ethics, however, cannot be confined to religion nor is it the same as religion.
Being ethical is not the same as following the law. The law often incorporates ethical standards to which most citizens subscribe. But laws, like feelings, can deviate from what is ethical. Our own pre-Civil War slavery laws and the apartheid laws of South Africa are examples that deviate from what is ethical.
Finally, being ethical is not the same as doing ―whatever society accepts.‖ In any society, most people accept standards that are ethical. But standards of behavior in society can deviate from what is ethical. An entire society can become ethically corrupt. Nazi Germany is good example of a morally corrupt society.