“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.