Many classical philosophers and scholars spent their entire lives grappling with the idea of ‘ethics’, including Aristotle and some of his contemporaries. We can only imagine the rich debate that filled the Lyceum as both student and teacher challenged their understanding of applied ethics. Aristotle, one of the most influential minds in the field of modern ethics, asserted that our primary purpose is to reason and live virtuous lives – in the pursuit of happiness. While considering the simplicity in those words, it is also evident that there is tremendous room for interpretation and subjective reasoning. After all, what does it mean to be happy or to live a virtuous life? The answer is unique to each person’s experience. The use of subjective language and over-generalizing is precisely what has led to a deficiency in the application of ethics. To effectively apply ethics to our lives and organizations, we need a clear definition, allowing for shared meaning and understanding.
Ethics are generally defined as the governing principles used to determine what is good or bad, right or wrong, and how we should live our lives. I would offer an alternative definition for ethics: “acting responsibly and with fairness towards others as we pursue our own self-interests.” When considering this definition, it is necessary for us all to accept that ethics are more than ideas – they are actions. Exploring the alternative definition further, the term ‘self-interests’ can be considered literally as when someone pursues personal benefit or when an individual is acting in the interest of an organization, institution, nation-state, or business. Stating that we should treat others responsibly and with fairness is an accessible concept, but some detractors may still find the wording vague.
The words ‘fairness’ and ‘responsible’ are intended to evoke the type of sentiment contained within the golden rule’s, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” This is a familiar concept and can be found throughout society in most cultures, philosophical texts, and religions. Those words were also chosen to establish a minimum expectation for behavior and to address concerns regarding the prior use of language perceived to be implicit of moralistic or judgmental standards. When the words are removed that give the perception of judgment, like “good and bad” and “right and wrong”, we can then reintroduce the importance of morals, a critical undercurrent of ethics.
The idea of morals has fallen out of favor in recent times. Like ethics, the term ‘morals’ is often misunderstood and under-defined. Morals are simply, “absolute values that we are unwilling to compromise.” Some criticisms have arisen regarding the use of morals, stemming from a belief that the concept only applies in a religious context. This notion should be challenged as far too many people get hung up on semantics while others avoid the potential for accountability that morals are perceived to imply. By defining morals, we are better prepared take a position on ethics, establish standards, and apply these essential concepts.
Standardized definitions of ethics and morals help to create shared meaning. It also helps to establish a framework for the application of ethics. This framework offers decision-making guidance and ensures that we are working towards the main objective of treating others fairly and responsibly while pursuing our own self-interests, and finally, we can now hold ourselves, others, and our institutions, to clear and consistent ethical standards.