What is Business Ethics?

I'm Kirk Hanson executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. This is one of a series of short videos on the core ideas of ethics and business ethics. This is on what is ethics and what really is business ethics.

First of all, ethics in general is the study of standards of behavior that promote human welfare and what is often called the good. The good of course can extend this concern to animal welfare, to the value of the physical environment, in and of themselves as well as for how they serve human welfare.

Business ethics is the study of those standards of business behavior which do the same thing, which promote human welfare and the good. But it is business behavior that is specifically the concern of business ethics.

What is ethics in general about? Well, it's about how we behave, how we behave the standards by which we guide our behavior and determine what we do day to day in life. Ethics is also about relationships, it's about how we treat one another even those we don't know.

So let's talk about what ethics is not, and some of the common misconceptions about what it is. Ethics is not just about feelings or about conscience. Conscience is helpful in ethics as one guide, but conscience in general is not adequate nor are our feelings of queasiness about certain kinds of behavior. Ethics really goes beyond those to think in intellectual and rational and practical terms about how our behavior affects others.

It's also not the same and not just about religion. While religion brings us many insights about how we ought to behave and what is virtuous for example, religion often does not address all of the complex questions that we need to get at when we think about ethics. And certainly ethics is not just about following the law; although we hope our laws reflect the ethical standards that we consider to be important. The law often lags our standards of ethics or there are may be areas in which it's impossible to legislate or to create standards and laws that address certain kinds of behavior.

Ethics is certainly not about just following what everybody else does, some people would argue that it is simply whatever is the common practice in a particular society or community. I think that's a very inadequate definition of what ethics is, because ethics should be something which is more common and universal and completely shared amongst those who think deeply about these issues.

And it's certainly not about what we can do technologically or scientifically. There are some things that we can do maybe in the area of internet privacy or in the area of manipulation of cells that we ought not to do for a variety of ethical reasons. So it's not just about what can be done.

Ethics can really be thought about at three very different levels - ethics can be thought about is how we act as individuals; it can be about how our organizations act, how they're structured to act; and it can be about the broad system or society, how we structure our society, how we structure the systems of taxation or the systems of health care and the ethical implications of those. So ethics can be considered at any of those three levels.

Business ethics, similarly, can be thought about at those three levels. It can be thought about how we act as individuals in business, how we structure our business organizations and therefore the way those organizations direct and guide and incent people to act, and it can be about how we structure our business society, how we incorporate organizations to participate in commerce, the laws and regulations which bind business organism.

For more information about business ethics and ethics in general, please go to our website. Thank you.


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