What is Ethics?

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He says: “My ethics is beyond reproach.” Ever wonder what that means? I have. It seems everybody these days has some kind of personal, peculiar benchmark to which they measure their professional or social actions. It’s splendid to be ethical, but what does ethics really mean?

Do we understand the concept of ethics or do we merely regurgitate what others have tossed up during business meetings or mind-numbing seminars and lectures. Or do we really have an ingrained sense of the difference between what is right and what is wrong, because, all in all, that’s what should define ethical behaviour, shouldn’t it?

It should be simple; it’s the difference between right and wrong. But the hardest part is knowing the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong. Most discussions of ethics quickly become philosophical, reaching toward lofty principles. Such discussions often take place in a vacuum, apart from real world situations. However, the idealistic nature of this level of discussion is often not sufficient to help people cope with a problem immediately at hand.

Is it all right to lie? No. Except, when the traffic police pulls you over, and you give him some kind of bizarre account about where you going and why you’re speeding or why you have ample amounts of unpaid traffic fines. It’s unethical – but it’s convenient. See that’s the thing – even most of us who consider ourselves to be ethical – as I do – sometimes break the rules when it’s convenient for us to do so. Maybe some of the rules themselves are merely a fabrication of convention.

So the question is this: is there any absolute or natural morality or truth? And thus can we seek an absolute moral or ethical code objectively? When a moral rule appears to be an inflexible or inconvenient, we can always think a situation in which we can to justify breaking the rule. The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it is often superficial, ending with the needed justification but failing to consider the consequences of the action.

One of the key elements of ethics is reflective choice (Decision making). Ethical problems almost always involve projecting ourselves into the future. These usually turn on these questions, namely, 1) What written and unwritten rules govern my behaviour?; and 2) What are the possible consequences of my choices?

Remember that, reliance on the opinions of others or of a particular social group is not always enough as these may perpetuate a practice that is improper. The most persistent rumour is not necessarily the correct one. Maybe our guide to ethics should lie in morality. However, discussions about morals and values often lead to, what we term “moral relativism,” commonly translated as “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Moral relativism denies the existence of absolute values and morals. And that values and morals have changed over time and among cultures.

For example – many years ago slavery was accepted as part of the social order with little dissent. A moral relativist may say that that’s alright because in that age it was socially acceptable, while a moral absolutist may argue that keeping a slave is immoral at any time or place. What is morally acceptable now was not acceptable 50 years ago.

What is morally unacceptable now may be acceptable 50 years from now. Let’s take the example of gay relationships or marriage which was previously morally unacceptable. It used to be “wrong”, now it’s ok. What the hell is going on? Was it ever wrong in the first place? By that logic, what else do we erroneously label as immoral or unethical without considering their merits?

Craig Mudaly has 16 years experience in the forensic audit and investigation sector. He has worked extensively in large private and public sector forensic audits including large state owned entities, including some of the largest frauds in South African history.