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What is the value of ethics?

by Suzanne (Suzi) Ross
01 February 2000


What is the value of ethics in the market place? What is it really worth to people? It is difficult to put a value on something if we don't know what it is. Unfortunately we often act out these false pictures in our heads.

With this is mind, I shouldn't ask you to value ethics before defining it: you might think that ethics is simply 'your code'.

What is ethics?

Whilst acknowledging ethics has connections with codes, philosophical theories and morality, the points below show its broader, practical, everyday face.
  •     Ethics is about relationships.
  •     It's about struggling to develop a well-informed conscience.
  •     It's about being true to the idea of who we are and what we stand for.
  •     It's about having the courage to explore difficult questions.
  •     It's about accepting the cost.
It's about the asking of one simple question when faced with everyday life and the complexities of the workplace:

    What ought I to do?

In the beginning was Socrates. The above question came from Socrates (as reported by Plato), way back in the fifth century BC.

After leaving his career as a stone cutter, Socrates wandered the marketplace trying to get some truth and clarity about core meanings and values. He challenged prominent figures in his community to 'look more closely' at themselves, their systems, their understanding and their way of doing things.

He wondered about what makes a worthwhile life, which I suppose is another way of asking, “What is the worth of my life?” Socrates even suggested that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Such emphasis upon worth makes it easy to suggest that he was the first valuer!

In examining life and lives, Socrates also asked questions of professionals. He asked a judge, “What is justice?” If he were alive today, he would probably be asking you, “What is value?” or “What is the true worth of something?” and “Who are you to decide anyway?”

A code worth living

Ethics, therefore, is about examining, questioning, exploring, deciding and committing. The production of a code of ethics or a code of conduct should follow that process.

Whilst the creation of a code may lead one to feel as though the world is now created and it is time to rest, with ethics, there is no rest.

Such documents need to be living in two aspects. Firstly, that they are continually reviewed and adapted to reflect the organisation's world of the moment and secondly, the members of the organisation have to live with them. Living with these 'laws' can be quite difficult.

Ethics can also be said to be the tension between what is ‘good’ and what is ‘right’.

Ethics can also be said to be the tension between what is ‘good’ and what is ‘right’. What is good are the things we value, eg. family, leisure, peace, money, cappuccinos, sunsets and friendship. What is right is about what we believe about the way things should be and our judgements about the order of things and the good society.

At the heavy end, this may involve 'hard laws' like, "It's not right to murder someone", whereas 'softer laws' are, for example, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" or "Will this action make the world a better place?"

You may ask, “But if it's good, then isn't it right?”. To demonstrate the difference I'll risk using some oversimplified examples:
  •     Money is good, but is it right that I have it all and you have none?
  •     Taxes are good, they help to provide essential community services, but is it right that I have half of my income taken away just because I earn a reasonable amount of money, money which I've worked hard to get?
  •     Caring for our children is good, but when is nepotism right?
  •     Loyalty to friends and giving quality service to clients is good, but is it right to give a false valuation if they ask for it?
  •     Peace and sunsets are good, but is it right that I fence off the beach so that I can enjoy them?
It's about the asking of one simple question when faced with everyday life and the complexities of the workplace: What ought I to do?

Areas of conflict

Ethics is struggling with this tension between what is good and right as we attempt to lead a worthwhile life.
Formal laws and professional regulations can never deliver us from every difficult decision that we face. We are often left to our own resources to decide what we should do. Today's workplace has become increasingly technological, transparent, litigation-laden and full of contentious issues with no clear answer as to what is right. Even if an all-encompassing rulebook and a compliance-based approach were preferable, it can be argued that we are no longer in the sphere of ethics once there is no individual freedom of choice.

Ethics in its full sense is not a professional code that is adhered to by non-thinking robots. Ethics is the continued discussion and reflection about basic questions of what is morally right.

In the same vein Hugh Mackay in a 1992 symposium said:

"The fundamental point about ethical behaviour is that it willingly takes the rights, the needs and welfare of others into account. It is not behaviour which simply responds to the pressure of law, regulation or code: it is behaviour which synthesises a number of conflicting pressures and competing claims, and never quite feels neat and tidy. Black and white judgements rarely emerge from sensitive ethical debate."

Being human this entails human nature's discomfort with not knowing answers. Living with uncertainty, responsibility and accountability are what real ethical debate involves.

In these times, we may defend against the anxiety of uncertainty in a number of ways. One obvious way is to look for the answer in the authority of the rulebook or the authority of a superior or respected colleague. If the answer is there and we are comfortable with this answer, then we can simply put this into practice and obey the direction.

Hopefully we will also reflect on the reasons for the answer, the competing values and guiding principles and the rationale behind them: such involvement in the decision-making process allows learning to take place. This helps us expand our understanding of the ethical arena and apply this in the future. However, if the direction from the authority is clear and yet competes with our core principles then life is not that easy.

Many of the calls that come to Ethi-Call, St James Ethics Centre's free Ethics Counselling service, are to do with a person feeling conflict between two or three basic sets of values. These potentially competing sets are the values and principles of one's employing body, one's profession and those that the caller holds personally.

[Illustration of overlapping circles showing employer, personal and professional.]

It is not possible to regulate the many moral and professional questions and hope that independent, educated free-thinking people will blindly obey regardless of their own personal values and belief systems. Many of the ethical dilemmas we face relate to three areas:

The choice between two very good principles.

Most of us value honesty and the care of others; that is, the principles of "tell the truth" and "do no harm". But what if to tell the truth will do some harm? What do we do? Alternatively we value home and family, peace and relaxation, also career and work-life. Nearly every professional today is trying to find balance in his or her home, work and leisure time. All of these are good, but time-wise they compete. What is the right balance for oneself, one's family, one's work colleagues, one's clients and one's own dedication to creating professional work?

The choice between a set of poor options.

In this case we often become stressed. Alternatively we grind into reverse (procrastinate), slam into overdrive (rash and hasty decisions), or spin around in circles (panic).

Professional issues

For example, conflicts of interest, divided loyalties, unethical behaviour of colleagues, confidentiality and information, competence and the ingrained habit and culture of the 'old way".

Tools to help us with these dilemmas

We may find at times that it is difficult to discuss these types of dilemmas and wish for the opportunity to explore the situation and find solutions without jeopardising our jobs, our relationships or even ourselves.

Three tools to help in the exploration are:
  •     A greater understanding of the concepts behind the 'rules of thumb' that are often used.
  •     A framework to use when faced with an ethical dilemma.
  •     Use of a free ethics counselling service.

1. Greater understanding of concepts

We often use one or more of the following rules of thumb when making decisions:


This is about me, me and only me. It is ego-centred and therefore does not consider any other stakeholder, let alone society in general. Its catch-cries are, “The world owes me a living”, “There's a sucker born every day”, “Tell someone who cares”, “What about me?” and “What's mine is mine and what's yours is mine also”. As Peter Joseph, Chairman of the Board at St James Ethics Centre stated in our 1996 Annual Report:

"Faced with the reality of contemporary life, a life of profound uncertainty, a life in which momentous forces seem to move people in directions beyond their individual control, it is understandable that some conclude that there is little they can do to affect the character of the world – let alone how it will be tomorrow. In these circumstances, it is fairly common to hear talk of frustration with 'the system' or 'the government' or unnamed 'forces' that conspire to shape the universe. Those who make such comments are perfectly sincere in their belief that they are powerless to make a difference. Yet, in adopting this position, they risk coming to accept a diminishing sense of personal responsibility. It is in these circumstances that some become numb, or despairing of the future."

The greatest good:

This area deals with questions like “Who are the stakeholders and what's in it for them?” or a wider lens of “What's in it for society in general or the world at large?” You will no doubt have heard of utilitarianism and questions like “What alternative will result in the greatest good for the greatest number?” and “Do the means justify the ends?” Working with this rule of thumb one makes cost / benefit type calculations with regard to making an overall 'happiness profit'.

The golden rule:

This is the area of duties, rights, obligations and responsibilities. Kant's directive was to “Do that which you wish to be a universal maxim.” Similar questions are, “Which alternative would be the one you would like all people faced with this dilemma to choose, ie. would the world be a better place if all did this?” “What about duties and rights for yourself, your profession and other stakeholders?” “What about the UN Declaration of Human Rights?” You may recognise this duty area more by the 'Golden Rule' of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The 'sunlight test':

This area is about human nature realising potential and the question of “What sort of character do you aspire to?”. We can also look at a profession or organisation's character. Aristotle argued for four prime virtues: wisdom, temperance, courage and justice.

This area often relates to what is known as the 'sunlight test' whereby you imagine your actions are placed on the front page of every major newspaper where it is seen by all of your family and friends. If brought into the public eye, could you justify your decision and would you be proud of yourself?

2. An ethical dilemma framework

The following model is useful in exploring your dilemmas. It is a composite of a number of models with significant additions.

Basic ethical dilemma model:
  •     Determine the facts and the assumptions related to the issue. Don't confuse assumptions with facts. Check your assumptions in an attempt to elicit more facts.
  • Identify the significant stakeholders.
  • Tease out the ethical issues of the case, ie. what makes this particular issue an ethical one? Frame the ethical issues clearly.
  • What are the norms, principles, rules and values relevant to the above issue?
  • What are the alternative courses of action – brainstorm possibilities without making judgements as to their applicability.
  • Compare these alternatives to the specified norms, principles, rules and values. Which option is the most consistent with these norms, principles, rules and values?
  • Evaluate these options in the light of the three “vertices of ethics”:
  •      What are the duties, obligations or rights of all the stakeholders?
  •      What are the consequences of enacting these options with regard to the overall wellbeing of all stakeholders? Calculate the happiness/harm balance for all stakeholders, with particular regard to the cost of achieving the end. Include your personal motivations that contribute to this decision, ie what kind of person will you become if the option is achieved through this intention?
  •      What sort of character do you wish to be, virtuous or vicious?
  • What is the decision and is it the right decision based on all of your thinking?
  • One last check ... having completed this analysis has any new option emerged, if not, why not? Can your decision be 'worked further'? Is this the fairest, most just decision? Imagine someone you hold dearly, eg. your child, lover, mother or best friend and put them in the place of each of the stakeholders, how would you feel if they were on the receiving end of your decision?

3. Use of a free ethics counselling service

As part of its commitment to encourage people to explore ethical dimensions in their daily lives, St James Ethics Centre provides Ethi-Call as a free service to the community offering a safe place for you to ask the question, “What should I do?”.

Our ethics counsellors are competent professionals from a wide range of backgrounds who have chosen to undergo training and freely donate their time to this service. Learn more about our free and confidential Ethics Counselling service.

In the end

The concept of 'character' as can be seen from the prior discussion of the sunlight test and virtue is a core aspect of ethics. In fact, when considering what makes a worthwhile life, at the end of one's life, the funeral mourners always talk about the character of the deceased. Whilst still alive, Groucho Marx reflected on his character and its effect upon the wider community. He said, “I would never join any club that would have me as its member.”

Suzanne Ross was Director of Education and Accreditation at St James Ethics Centre and is a Consulting Fellow.