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What is "ethics" and why should we learn about it?

Editorial Staff

There is a phrase, so often repeated that it is now impossible to tell who originally said it, that integrity is what you do when no one is watching. No, it's not dad dancing, that's.. well, something entirely different. Ethics actually has two separate meanings: the rules set down by a group to which a person belongs (e.g. professional ethics for lawyers and doctors) and, far more nebulous, the way individuals conduct themselves within the bounds of society. So, one has rules and one does not. Ethics is a fascinating, sometimes disturbing, subject that touches on all aspects of life and society. In this overview, we'll look at some of the concepts around which the subject revolves.

We often hear someone saying "that's ethical behaviour" or "that's unethical." We think we know what it means and, in common use, we are probably pretty close but when we consider "ethics" as a technical subject, we find that it's very, very complex.

To start with, then, let's think about this: a soccer coach knows that the other team have a star striker so he sends out a "hard man" to tackle the striker, kicking him hard in the ankle. In football terms, this would often be called a "professional foul." But that is, surely, exactly the opposite of what most people would consider "professional" behaviour. If a profession is guided by standards of ethics, then that behaviour would be an "unprofessional foul." And it is: if it is properly identified, it will be penalised by the referee. In some countries, it has been held in court that, even in contact sports like rugby, an overly aggressive tackle can be considered a battery (1).

Let's consider the position of a lawyer who is waiting for a big bill to be paid but in the meantime doesn't have enough money to pay his staff and the bank won't lend him money pending payment of that big bill. So he dips into his "clients' account" which is the bank account he must keep and into which money belonging to clients must be paid. His "clients' account" and "office account" (that is his own business account) must never be mixed, under the rules. He is certain that if he uses money from clients' account to pay salaries on the 31st of the month, that the money will come in on the first or second, which will mean he can repay the money. And it does and he does. What do you think is the ethical position? Does it differ from the professional position i.e. has he broken the rules of his profession? Beyond those two questions, has he committed a crime?

Actually, it's the criminal position is quite simple: he did not steal money from any identifiable client and no identifiable client had or was intended to suffer any loss. So there is no criminal liability (except in countries where breach of professional rules is a criminal offence but that's a step beyond the subject of ethics). He is in breach of the principles of ethics of his profession: that is absolutely clear and he is liable for the consequences his professional body might impose. But, on the wider question of ethics, he had a dilemma and he had to make a decision where every option caused harm to someone. The question he had to ask was which course of action would cause the least harm.

His choices were:

a) borrow the money knowing he was putting his entire future in the profession at risk, or
b) make a deliberate decision to fail to pay his staff on time, causing some to be in default on, for example, mortgage or car loans and affecting their credit ratings, perhaps for years to come.

What do you think he should do?


(1) the term "assault" is commonly used for when one person physically attacks another. However, in common law, that is a battery. An assault is a threat of aggression which puts another person in fear. So shaking a fist in someone's face is an assault, punching him in the face is a battery.