Ethics

by John Bandler

Ethics are a type of rule, often a rule we impose on ourselves. Synonyms include morals, character, integrity.

Ethics and good moral character may be the most important trait when selecting a candidate for a position. Any position. That is because it might not matter how competent, smart, experienced, or capable a person is if they are inclined to lie, cheat, or steal.

We all have different perspectives on ethics and moral values. What is acceptable for one person or one family may not be acceptable for another. So we need to recognize those differences, which are sometimes reasonable, sometimes not.

I put it into the context of rules: and self, family, groups, government, and law. My perspective comes from experience as a lawyer, in law enforcement, plus life experience.

Ethical, criminal, and civil rules in context

Rules Ethics Criminal Civil Law

A good Venn diagram can help put criminal laws, civil laws, and ethics into a rough context.

Criminal laws prohibit the most extreme types of bad conduct, and it is fair to say that it sets a low bar for acceptable conduct. It is almost always the case that ethical conduct means not violating criminal laws. We presume the criminal laws are valid and enforced fairly, though obviously there are some exceptions to this.

Civil laws prohibit many actions already disallowed by criminal law plus many more. It is a higher bar for acceptable conduct compared to criminal law, meaning people may do things which don't constitute a crime or are not worthy of criminal prosecution, but they could still be found civilly liable for it. It is often the case that ethical conduct means not violating civil laws. This is because civil laws protect people's rights as defined by government, and a civil violation means someone interfered with someone's legal rights. Obviously there is going to be room for debate in many individual cases.

Finally, ethics is an even higher standard of conduct encompassing all of the above plus more. Someone might do something unethical which nevertheless does not violate any civil right nor criminal law.

There are a number of grey areas on how these overlap or differ but we can save that for another time. For example some acts might violate criminal law but not civil law, and one could argue some acts could be ethical even if they violate a law.

(The diagram is not to scale, as only the most extreme of bad conduct is criminalized, so the "criminal law" circle should be much smaller in proportion.)

Ethics and morals come from where?

Ethics and morals are a type of rule and standard which we apply to ourselves, other individuals apply to us, and organizations might apply to us.

Let's take a look at my "Rules" diagram, and consider that rules come from many places, including:

Rules infographic

  • Parents and family
  • Ourselves
  • Society
  • Organizations
  • Government.

In some countries and cultures (or sub-cultures), there is great respect for government rules (criminal and civil laws), so it is a considered good morals and ethics to abide by that.

In countries where government is perceived to be totally corrupt, it may be more acceptable to violate the laws put forth by government. In organized crime, it is expected to violate criminal laws.

Our upbringing by parents and family plays a great role in shaping our morals and ethics.

So does religion, which is an important organization in many people's lives, and infuses other sources of rules as well. One's religion may specify what conduct is deemed ethical and proper and what is not.

"Society" is a vague and amorphous term, overlapping with many areas, but clearly is a source of rules and influences what behavior is deemed ethical.

Government, organizations, and religion has played important roles in societal rules to influence behavior and establish codes of conduct.

Our personal rules (ourselves)

Based on our upbringing, experiences, and all other things in our life, we develop personal rules that guide our conduct. Sometimes this is known as one's conscience, ethics, integrity, moral compass, values, or personal honor. Some may follow the "Golden Rule" which is to do unto others only as you would wish done to you.

Our personal rules are heavily influenced by external forces and are not fixed in stone, and like any rule, we don't always follow our personal rules.

Organizational rules for ethics

Organizations create their own rules (what I call "internal rules" since they are created by the organization for within the organization).

Organizations include:

  • Work (the organizations that employ us)
  • School (where we go to school)
  • Religious groups (a little duplication perhaps with the above)
  • Professional groups
  • Other associations we may have.

Organizations may create rules about ethics. The concept is the organization can set standards of conduct, and demand they be higher than merely avoiding commission of criminal offenses or civil torts.

For ethics, consider to whom the duty is owed

A simple and effective principle for ethics and ethical behavior is considering to whom the duty is owed, and what the considerations should be. Usually that duty is owed to someone other than one's self.

Ethics is about not just the result and a final decision, but also the process.

For example, a government official is elected or appointed to serve in the government role, to serve the people. If that individual uses their position, their knowledge, their resources, to benefit themselves personally, then they are misusing their government position.

A company employee, manager, or executive is employed to serve the best interests of the organization. If they use their position to benefit personally, they are misusing their position and that could be deemed unethical.

Ethics is usually hard

Good ethics can be a harder course because it is often against self-interest.

Consider that there is no shortage of people who are capable of acting in their own self-interest.

But since ethics is about considering who is owed the duty, often that is someone other than one's self. And when one considers that duty, and what is proper, sometimes the final decision and action along the moral course is against self-interest.

Yes, we can make the argument that taking the ethical and moral course is ultimately in one's own self-interest, but that is a longer term course to take. And clearly many people act in their own immediate self interest, to the detriment of whoever was owed the duty.

Government ethics

Government has created rules for ethical behavior of government employees.

That doesn't mean everyone follows them, nor that the rules are where they should be, but rules exist.

We elect government officials not so they can serve themselves and help themselves, but so they can serve citizens and serve the country, state, city, or other governmental unit.

So hopefully voters select the candidate with the highest degree of ethics, or the least degree of immorality. And hopefully there is some type of process for assessing ethical conduct and rules.

Attorney ethics

Attorney ethics is a very large area, because it essentially encompasses everything that attorneys do.

If an attorney fails to meet the standards of competence, diligence, confidentiality, and fiduciary duty, they may have violated their ethical responsibilities.

I speak on cybersecurity for attorneys, and often that can fall within the "ethics" continuing legal education (CLE) category because it deals with the professional duties of confidentiality, competence, and more.

But consider that at a traditional "ethics" level, attorneys can find themselves in complex ethical situations requiring solid ethical analysis. Attorneys learn a lot of confidential information, and are in the midst of different people and clients, with tricky conflicts and a multitude of rules to protect clients. This creates unusual situations. It requires analysis of the things we discussed above, especially (1) who is the client, which indicates who is owed the duty, (2) giving proper legal advice to the client, (3) complying with laws and the multitude of rules for attorneys.

There is no shortage of attorneys who were suspended or disbarred for violating these many ethical rules.

Fairness of the rule and fairness of enforcement

Rules, including ethical rules, can be fair, unfair, or somewhere in between, and there will usually be room for reasonable people to debate that. Then the next issue is how those rules are enforced, and whether that is fair or not. Again, reasonable people will debate this as well. The goal is fair and reasonable rules, interpreted and enforced reasonably.

One thing to consider is that unethical people will not have much hesitancy to falsely accuse others of violations.

Conclusion

Ethics is an important concept for us personally, for organizations, and for government.

It is a highly subjective area, but reasonable people can agree on some reasonable principles.

This short article is not tailored to your circumstances and is not legal or consulting advice.

If your organization needs help with improving its internal documentation and compliance with laws and regulations, including regarding cybersecurity and protecting from cybercrime, let me know.

Additional reading

This article is hosted at https://johnbandler.com/ethics, copyright John Bandler, all rights reserved.

Originally posted 7/8/2024, updated 7/8/2024.