Behaviour, law and ethics: A practical view

Le Penseur, Musée Rodin, Paris

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Whether in scientific endeavour, the business world or in politics we see daily scandals where behaviour is considered lacking in integrity or in ethics. In recent days we have had the Hausergate scandal, the Commonwealth Games corruption scandals, the money-down-the-drain in Iraq scandals and the HP procurement scandal.

For clarity in my own mind I reason as follows:

My values lead to my behaviour.

Values are comparative standards or norms and they calibrate and motivate my behaviour but in themselves they have no inherent goodness or badness. My values are my behavioural standards. They allow me to make comparisons (faster, better, pleasing, irritating, bearable, acceptable, good, just, right ….).

Behaviour may be lawful or unlawful or ethical or unethical.

Laws are what the society I operate in, or wish to operate in, uses to define what is unacceptable behaviour. But lawful behaviour does not address whether it is ethical or unethical (though that may be implied). Where law is silent, behaviour is, by default, lawful but may still be either ethical or unethical.

My ethics tell me what behaviour is correct and desirable behaviour. This may or may not be consistent with the ethics of the society surrounding me which specifies what that society considers the right and proper and desirable behaviour. Ethical values and ethical behaviour thus represents a sub-set of all the values I may have and all the consequent behaviour they might lead to. Ethical behaviour is not necessarily lawful. Unlike the limits set by law, behaviour does not become ethical by default if ethics are silent. Behaviour which is not unethical is not therefore necessarily ethical.

Ethical values and moral values are almost synonymous. The only difference I can find is that what I consider ethical codes or values rely more on logic or a rationale and less on faith. And I take faith or belief to be that which exists in the space of the “unknown unknowns” where ” I don’t know what I don’t know”. Faith or belief then allows formulating the answer (and even the question) in the absence of evidence. But both ethical codes and moral codes specify  right and proper and desirable behaviour. Behaviour that is not unethical or immoral does not by default become ethical or moral.

In practice therefore;

  1. My values lead to my behaviour,
  2. Laws tell me what I ought not to do,
  3. Ethics tell me what I ought to do.

Many corporations and organisations and enterprises take the easy way out and adopt so-called ethical codes which are merely  a set of rules (codes of law). But this is merely relying on what not to do and is an abdication of the responsibility to come to a view on what is the right and proper thing to do. The right and proper behaviour must – I think – include a conscious choice from the various options available of what can be done and cannot be merely an exclusion of unacceptable or undesirable behaviour.

A child first accepts its parents view of what is right or wrong. As it grows it brings in and integrates what others consider right or wrong. Eventually a mature thinking individual develops his own views of what is right or wrong and integrates that with the views of the surrounding society. In this sense, most corporations and other organisations are still in their infancy and are content to rely only on what law excludes as being unacceptable. This in turn leads to a minimalist ethical code where anything which is not explicitly unlawful is perfectly OK.

Hence Enron and Satyam and Siemens and British Aerospace and …………

It is the having of an ethical code that matters.

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One Response to “Behaviour, law and ethics: A practical view”

  1. A small bright spot in the murky world of corporate ethics « The k2p blog Says:

    […] But ethics – when they exist – tell us what is the right and proper and desirable thing … […]

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