Ethics: Definition

“Ethics” can be defined as the critical, structured examination of how we should behave — in particular, how we should constrain the pursuit of self-interest when our actions affect others.

“Business Ethics” can be defined as the critical, structured examination of how people & institutions should behave in the world of commerce. In particular, it involves examining appropriate constraints on the pursuit of self-interest, or (for firms) profits, when the actions of individuals or firms affects others.

The “critical” and the “structured” parts of those definitions are both important:

  • Ethics is critical in the sense of having to do with examining and critiquing various moral beliefs and practices. (In other words, it’s not just about describing people’s values or behaviour, though that can be a useful starting point.) Ethics involves looking at particular norms and values and behaviours and judging them, asking whether various norms and values are mutually contradictory, and asking which ones matter more in what sorts of situations.
  • Ethics is structured in the sense that it’s not just about having an opinion about how people should behave. Everyone has opinions. Ethics involves attempting, at least, to find higher-order principles and theories in an attempt to rationalize and unify our diverse moral beliefs.

For practical purposes, ethics means providing reasoned justification for our choices & behaviour when it affects others, and reasoned justification for our praise or criticism of other people’s behaviour.

Now, nothing above constitutes an argument. I’m just explaining roughly the proper use of the term “ethics.” There are, of course, other uses of that term — some of them arguably regrettable. (Some people in business and government, for example, take the word “ethics” to refer exclusively to the rules set out in various “ethics laws” that govern the behaviour of individuals in positions of responsibility, rules about conflict of interest, bribery, and so on.)

So, here comes the contentious part. I’m not sure it really is or should be contentious, but some people are bound to disagree with it.

The breadth of the topic “business ethics,” as defined above, means that other, related ideas like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and corporate citizenship and sustainability are in fact sub-topics within the broader topic of business ethics. That’s not to diminish the importance of those sub-topics. But it’s worth keeping in mind, because it means that a focus on any one of those topics means setting aside potentially-important issues that fall under a different heading. This is especially true when companies (and consultants) focus on just one term. When they do that, it’s worth wondering, and maybe asking pointedly, about the stuff they’re leaving out.

Edited for clarity in October, 2011.

20 comments so far

  1. Jeffrey on

    On a related note, I’ve often found it odd when people — esp. those in business schools — distinguish CSR or citizenship from ethics. I think of ethics broadly (as you do, though perhaps not in the precise way you do), as the study of how one ought to live. (I stole this from Plato). So ethics naturally encompasses CSR, citizenship, and the rest.

  2. Chris MacDonald on


    I know what you mean. I suspect that’s a consequence of the pairing of “ethics & compliance” and the existence of “ethics laws,” both of which serve to narrow people’s view of what ethics is.


  3. Jack Marshall on

    Excellent, clear and much needed post. The real division I see, especially in government, business and law, is threefold: Enforcement (what can I do that won’t get me punished), Compliance (how can I still stay within rules, laws and regulations while doing dishonest, selfish things) and ethics, which means doing the right thing once you figure out what it is. I often put morality with compliance, since following a moral code is usually based on fear of authority rather than reason.

    The confusion over what ethics means is widespread, and supports a lot of scoundrels. Your post is a very valuable contribution.

  4. Beverly on

    “She is ethical.”
    “She is moral.”
    Do these statements really mean two different things?
    Why make a distinction? Why not just use common parlance?

  5. Chris MacDonald on


    Fair question.

    For casual purposes, we can indeed use those words interchangeably. So we can either say “You have an ethical obligation to do x” or “You have a moral obligation to do x” and mean the same thing.

    But there is a difference between a norm being prevalent in a community and a norm being well-justified, and so sometimes we want to use different words to point out that distinction. We don’t always need the technical distinction, but it can be handy.

    It’s also interesting to note that you very often hear it said that such-and-such is “morally and ethically wrong”, and in most cases the speaker has absolutely no idea what they mean by that.


  6. Jeffery S. on

    Thanks. This needs to be said, and emphasized. I often present Carroll’s famous CSR pyramid (which has ethics as a part of CSR) as a transition to a different model which has ethics as a foundation for legal, social and economic “responsibilities”, claiming to my students that ethics is what grounds these other components of CSR. I take it that this is consistent with your suggestion. Citizenship is another matter, but there, too, it seems like a comparable move is possible, grounding notions of citizen rights and responsibilities in terms of some prior ethical commitments.

    • Andrew on

      If I have no CSR, am I ethically incorrect?

      • Chris MacDonald on

        Andrew, I don’t know what it means to “have” no CSR. “R” stands for “Responsibility,” and all companies have responsibilities.

  7. Nurglitch on


    I’ve been wondering about the definition of ethics given here, as constraints on self-interest, when the philosophy of personal identity seems to have a hard time defining a personal identity that could function as an extension for the ‘self’ (whose interest is at odds with that of the public)*.

    Now, I’ve been corrected by my biggers and betters for suggesting there might not be a workable distinction between ethics and prudence. Indeed, it was not until I got to SMU that I was even aware of such a distinction. It seemed pretty reasonable to me that, given the tendency to use “morals” and “ethics’ interchangeably, and to label certain behaviours only affecting the self as “immoral” or “unethical”, one could have competing self-interests as well as conflicts between groups and there members.

    It seems to me that it would be useful to take your working definition of ethics and to contrast it with definitions operating with different auxiliary theories, of personal identity and other disputable notions. I agree that it’s useful to have a common definition to use as a starting point for a constructive discussion, but my experience is that such attempts at common ground often become an orthodoxy, and get used to quash dissent or to dismiss objections as merely skeptical.

    *At least according to a gentleman who presented at a colloquium about the state of philosophy of personal identity at Dal while I was at SMU, I forget his name but it’s easily looked up.

  8. […] Chris MacDonald defines ethics by johnolaghere on May 5, 2010 Chris MacDonald, Ph.D. of The Business Ethics Blog defines ethics and business ethics. […]

  9. […] one that can be defined more or less uncontroversially. As a field of study, business ethics can be defined as the critical, structured examination of how people & institutions should behave in the world […]

  10. […] eye…’ comment draws on Chris MacDonald’s definition of business ethics in this posting on his blog […]

  11. Paulette G. on

    This is a very interesting discussion, one which I feel some connection to given my long years in business (food Industry to be specific). In business I have seen many examples of rationalizations using legal parameters as the ultimate guideline. – The trouble with using legal definitions for ethical behaviour is that the law defines what can be termed the `lowest common denominator` for ethical behaviour. The line that you may not go below without prosecution. It is the purpose of Law to establish that boundary. It is not the purpose of law to define ethical behaviour above that boundary.

    Those (and there are many) who subscribe to the legal constraints are at constant odds with those (and there are many) who are in agreement with your statement “Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and corporate citizenship and sustainability are in fact sub-topics within the broader topic of business ethics“
    I can`t count the number of heated discussions that I have been involved in, where `legal definitions`are at odds with ethical considerations that are not specifically codified in law- and most are not, nor in my opinion should they be.

  12. Paulette G. on

    Yes it was interesting. It also reflects certain behaviors and rationalizations that I have seen, dealt with and been frustrated by in the business world. The problem often is that the person who believes the law is the ultimate authority is one who does not see beyond the law or has a somewhat stunted sense of right and wrong in daily life. In reality these are the very people that laws are written to constrain as without the law they would have no constraints at all.

  13. […] (You can check out my more formal definition of business ethics here.) Share this:ShareLinkedInTumblrTwitterFacebookEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  14. sekandi from uganda on

    only buying and selling is where we can see ethics? or the entire businss

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Business ethics is about ALL matters of right and wrong in business.

      • azhar on

        Dr MacDonald, how do we determine whether certain action is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?

      • Chris MacDonald on

        There’s no short answer to that question. But you can get a start on it by looking here:


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