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What does Ethics have to do, have to do with it?


Examples of unethical behaviors, activities, policies, etc

Instead of trying to arrive at a standard or all-encompassing rule of what is ethical, it is helpful to illustrate the depth and variety of ethics through suitable examples.

This is an extension of the ethical business investment items listed above, and goes into far greater detail of different behaviors which might often be regarded as unethical.

The first category might seem obvious and clear-cut, and actually it’s a reasonable starting point for the vast majority of ethical decisions, but this one point cannot be applied exclusively in assessing whether something is ethical or not:

*anything unlawful in the territory or area covered by such law – is probably unethical. Not always – see ethics and law.

Conversely, and more importantly, very many legal activities and behaviours can be extremely unethical. For example, behaviors that are not necessarily unlawful but which are generally considered to be unethical to Western society would now typically include:

  1. dishonesty, withholding information, distortion of facts
  2. misleading or confusing communications or positioning or advertising
  3. manipulation of people’s feelings
  4. deception, trickery, kidology, rule-bending, fooling people
  5. exploitation of weakness and vulnerability
  6. excessive profit
  7. greed
  8. anything liable to harm or endanger people
  9. breach of the Psychological Contract – the Psychological Contract represents trust and expectations between people in a relationship – notably within employer/employee relationships, extending to other organizational relationships too – (aside from Psychological Contract theory, specialized theory within Transactional Analysis helps explain this aspect of trust and expectations in human relationships)
  10. avoidance of blame or penalty or payment of compensation for wrong-doing
  11. inertia-based ‘approvals’ and ‘agreements’ (in which action proceeds unless objected to)
  12. failing to consult and notify people affected by change
  13. secrecy and lack of transparency and resistance to reasonable investigation
  14. coercion or inducement
  15. harming the environment or planet
  16. unnecessary waste or consumption
  17. invasion of privacy or anything causing privacy to be compromised
  18. recklessness or irresponsible use of authority, power, reputation
  19. nepotism (the appointment or preference of family members)
  20. favoritism or decision-making based on ulterior motives (e.g., secret affiliations, deals, memberships, etc)
  21. alienation or marginalization of people or groups
  22. conflict of interests (having a foot in two or more competing camps)
  23. neglect of duty of care
  24. betrayal of trust
  25. breaking confidentiality
  26. causing suffering of animals
  27. ‘bystanding’ – failing to intervene or report wrong-doing within area of responsibility (this does not give licence to interfere anywhere and everywhere, which is itself unethical for various reasons)
  28. unfairness
  29. unkindness
  30. lack of compassion and humanity

You will perhaps think of other examples of behaviors or activities which are not necessarily unlawful, but which a reasonable majority of people (especially those directly affected by the activities) would consider to be unfair, unjust or simply wrong and therefore effectively unethical.

Most of the above are subject to extent or degree, whereby serious extensive examples are more likely to be unethical than minor transgressions and negligible effects.

Ethics and public opinion

Ethical considerations are not wholly determined by majority view, just as they are not wholly defined by law or religion.

Ethics are not a matter of a referendum or vote.

Popular opinion alone is an unreliable measurement of what is ethical for several reasons:

  1. A poorly informed majority of people – or anyone poorly informed – is not able to make an informed decision about the ethics of a particular decision. The extent to which people are helped to understand longer-term consequences of a situation is also a limiting factor in the value of majority opinion.
  2. Democratic decision-making is vulnerable to whim and ‘herding’ instincts – especially if the national press and other mainstream media have anything to do with it.
  3. Leadership – as a function within civilizations – features in the organization of human systems and societies because people generally accept that many sorts of complex and large scale decision-making are best made by full-time experts working in the areas concerned, rather than such decisions being left to the vagaries of popular inexpert view. This is not to say that people have no right to consultation or a vote on crucial issues (in fact generally people need more involvement in decisions which affect them) – it is more to illustrate that majority view, especially when colored with apathy or misinformation or prejudice for whatever reason, is not the only basis for deciding what’s ethical or not.

Popular opinion is a significant factor in the consideration of what is ethical, but it is not the only factor, and the significance of popular opinion in determining ethical decisions will vary according to the situation.


The use of this material is free for self-development, developing others, research, and organizational improvement. Please reference authorship and copyright of material used, including link(s) to and the material webpage; see authorship/referencing above. This material may not be sold, published, or reproduced online. Disclaimer: Reliance on this material and any related provision is at your sole risk. Alan Chapman assumes no responsibility for any errors or damages arising. Seek qualified advice for any action entailing potential liabilities. Where appropriate retain this notice on copies. See about us for detailed terms.
© Businessballs 2017

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