Glossary of Ethical Terms


Ethics refers to standards of conduct that indicate how one should behave based on reasoned ethical principles and core or universal values.  Ethical principles are the rules of conduct that are derived from ethical values. For example, "honesty" is a value that leads to a series of principles such as: tell the truth, don’t deceive, be honest, don’t cheat. In this way, values give rise to many principles in the form of specific "dos" and "don’ts."

Ethics entails action; it is not just a topic to discuss. In other words ethics is about thinking ethically and being ethical.

Ethics, Morals and Mores

The terms "morals" and "mores" describe beliefs, customs and traditions that are reflected in personal convictions about right and wrong. Morals tend to be associated with a personal concept of values, especially concerning matters of religion, sex, drinking, gambling, lifestyle and so forth.

Most people have convictions about what is right and wrong based on religious beliefs, cultural roots, family background, personal experiences, laws, organizational values, professional norms and political habits. These are not the best values to make ethical decisions by — not because they are unimportant, but because they are not universal.

Moral Duty

Moral duties establish the minimal standards of ethical conduct. Moral duty obliges us to act in certain ways (e.g., honestly, fairly and accountably), as well as to not act in other ways (cruelly, disrespectfully, etc.).

Moral Virtue

Moral virtue goes beyond moral duty. It refers to moral excellence, characteristics or conduct (say, generosity or valor) worthy of praise or admiration because it advances moral principle. Moral virtue is an ideal - we ought to be charitable, temperate, humble and compassionate; however, it is not unethical if we are not so long as we do not harm others.

Universal Values

Universal values are core beliefs or desires that guide or motivate most peoples' attitudes and actions. They also define the things we value and prize the most, and, therefore, provide the basis for ranking the things we want in a way that elevates some values over others.

Ethical Values

Ethical values directly relate to beliefs concerning what is right and proper (as opposed to what is correct, effective or desirable). Some ethical values are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

Non-ethical Values

Most of what we value is not concerned with our sense of ethics but rather with things we like, desire or find personally important. Wealth, status, happiness, fulfillment, pleasure, personal freedom, being liked and being respected fall into this category. We call them non-ethical values because they are ethically neutral. The pursuit of non-ethical objectives is normal and appropriate so long as ethical values are not sacrificed in the process.

Conflicting Values

Our values often conflict. For example, the desire for personal independence may run counter to our desire for intimacy and relationships of interdependency. Similarly, in particular situations, our commitment to be honest and truthful may clash with the desire for wealth, status, a job or even the desire to be kind to others. When values conflict, choices must be made by ranking our values. The values we consistently rank higher than others are our core values, which define character and personality.

The Stakeholder Concept

A person concerned with being ethical has a moral obligation to consider the ethical implications of all decisions. Each person, group or institution likely to be affected by a decision is a “stakeholder”. The stakeholder concept reinforces our obligation to make all reasonable efforts to foresee possible consequences and take reasonable steps to avoid unjustified harm to others.

The False Notion of "Personal Ethics"

Some believe that ethics are "relative" or "personal" but this thinking usually reveals a misunderstanding of ethics.

Many people have a wider range of values and beliefs than core, universal ethical values. Unfortunately, some people seek to impose their personal moral judgments on others as if they were universal values. A bigger problem is that some people adopt personal codes of conduct that are inconsistent with universal ethical values. Actions and beliefs inconsistent with trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship are simply not ethical.

Imposing Value Judgment on Others

Ethical thinking requires an objective examination of personal values, exposing certain beliefs (e.g., that one race is superior to another) as wrong precisely because they conflict with core ethical values. But while we must insist on honesty and integrity over hypocrisy and corruption, we cannot also claim that a particular religion, political philosophy or sexual orientation is universally superior to another. Indeed, allowing some personal choice and conscience is critical to upholding the core ethical value of treating all with respect.