What is the distinction between ethics and morality? Discuss the different meanings of the word "ethics," and include examples that elucidate the distinctions between these definitions. Please...

  1. What is the distinction between ethics and morality? Discuss the different meanings of the word "ethics," and include examples that elucidate the distinctions between these definitions. Please include examples from your world of work or current local or world-wide events.
  2. How do moral obligations apply to business organizations? Can companies be held accountable for what they do, or are the individuals who make up the company the ones we must hold accountable? Discuss the major arguments concerning corporate responsibility.
Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While there is usually a lot of overlap, ethics and morality are two different things.  Ethics is generally associated with organizational or institutional prerogatives regarding the conduct expected of members, for instance, the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Conduct, which sets forth a series of principles with which the association’s members, pretty much all practicing attorneys, are expected to comply.  The ABA’s Rule 1.6, for instance, establishes the parameters for ethical conduct with respect to the principle of “attorney-client confidentiality.”  Under this rule, lawyers are expected to maintain such confidentiality, but with certain mitigating circumstances, such as to prevent injury to a third party, allowing for exceptions to that rule.  Morality, in contrast, is more internal to the individual, and may go well-beyond the ethical boundaries within which certain professions (e.g., law, medicine) operate.  Whereas codes of ethics may not proscribe certain actions, one’s personal sense of morality may argue otherwise:  “I’m allowed to do this under the code of ethics, but I think it’s wrong.”  Morality, in other words, tends to encompass a broader and more visceral universe.  A real-world example could include deliberations regarding military actions that are being considered by the president.  The decision whether to authorize the bombing of a particular target could very well fit within the parameters of universally-recognized laws of war, but may not be considered moral if there is a high probability of civilian casualties – a fact probably known only to those with access to highly sensitive information.

In the realm of business, morality can be frequently challenged by the imperative of remaining a viable functioning entity the survival of which may be important to many employees and their families.  The case study provided in the question from the same student and located at http://www.enotes.com/homework-help/answer-following-questions-case-study-below-1-were-471640#answer-665791 represents a perfect example of the conflict between the imperatives of supporting one’s family and doing what one knows to be right.  Occasionally, businesses face such moral and sometimes legal quandaries, and the psychological need to do what’s necessary to retain one’s position in life can result in the wrong decision being made.  Retaining one’s job is a powerful motivator for taking the path of least resistance, as is the need, in the case of publicly-traded companies, to show a positive balance sheet to one’s investors.  The filing of fraudulent reports with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, such as occurred during the major scandal affecting the accounting industry, especially the mammoth accounting firm Arthur Andersen, in 2001, highlighted the moral, ethical and legal transgressions that can occur when the pressure builds to demonstrate success despite underlying problems pointing to structural deficiencies. 

How moral obligations apply to business organizations is entirely a product of corporate cultures and the degree to which morals overlap with legal obligations.  Some industries, for example, automotive sales, have long been identified with a questionable or dubious sense of morality regarding obligations owed the customer.  Car salesmen work on commissions, and their ability to support their families hinges on their ability to persuade people to purchase cars that may or may not represent the optimal purchase for the customers in question.  Plumbers may or may not be prone to recommending “fixes” that are actually necessary, and physicians may prescribe tests and medications that are not necessary but boost income and assuage friendly pharmaceutical company representatives.  The legal concept of caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware,” is ingrained in the legal code and clearly suggests that morality and legality are not always the same thing.

Companies can be held accountable for the actions of individuals, especially when the individuals in question are, essentially, indistinguishable from the company.  The Department of Justice can seize assets, and the Securities and Exchange Commission can fine corporations for the conduct of their employees.  When the morally dubious or legally-challenged corporate official is synonymous with the company he or she represents, such as with a celebrity like Martha Stewart, whose Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia suffered the consequences of her conviction for insider trading, the company usually suffers by virtue of the damage done to its reputation.  Individuals who constitute corporations, like some particularly famous athletes, can see their corporate fortunes devastated by the revelation of improper conduct, such as occurred with cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose professional success and personal reputation were badly damaged by revelations of illegal doping, and many banks have suffered serious reputational damage from criminal and civil proceedings alleging failures to comply with banking laws and regulations.  The aforementioned public accounting scandal involving Arthur Andersen, however, presents possibly the best case of corporate devastation wrought by the actions of individuals.  Enron, the giant energy company at the center of that scandal, was forced into bankruptcy by virtue of the series of convictions and fines levied against both the company and its officers.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

1. While both ethics and morality pertain to standards of conduct, ethics are more specific to professions and specific groups, or cultures, whereas morals often pertain to personal principles to which an individual adheres; morals are often founded upon a person's religious beliefs. For instance, it is unethical for a physician or a lawyer to discuss why a patient or client has come to them, or to discuss information about this individual, but it is not morally wrong. In another example, journalists have a code of ethics, the first of which is to tell the truth. But, in 2003 a New York Times journalist violated these ethics as he was guilty of plagiarism and fabrication both. On April 28, 2003,

The senior editor of the San Antonio Express-News contacted The Times about close similarities between Blair's article and a story penned by his reporter, Hernandez.

In another example involving journalists and political organizers who were not ethical, during the incipience of the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks became famous as the first African American woman who would not give up her seat on a public bus when told to move because she was not in the "Colored" section. However, there were actually other residents of Montgomery who had refused to give up their seats and were, like Ms.Parks, arrested. But, the photojournalists were not present for their arrests. In addition, the NAACP wanted publicity for Parks as they felt she would be more suitable for a court challenge.

Others had taken similar steps, including Irene Morgan in 1946, Sarah Louise Keys in 1955, and the members of the Browder v. Gayle lawsuit (Claudette ColvinAurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith) who were arrested in Montgomery months before Parks. NAACP organizers believed that Parks was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws. 

While these actions of creating a staging for Ms. Parks were not immoral and they were certainly much like the actions of other African Americans in similar situations, they seem rather unethical especially in light of the intentions of the organizers for her court case. It certainly seems unfortunate that the other protesters did not receive the credit that they deserved.

2. Many people feel that businesses do have a moral obligation to their customers. The decision to force cigarette companies to post the dangers to health on packs of cigarettes because, according to a government report, cigarette smoking effected $23 billion in health care costs and over $30 billion in lost productivity was a moral one.

Engle v. Liggett Group is a class-action suit. In that case, a jury awarded damages of more than $145 billion to a group of people with smoking-related disease and family members of deceased smokers.

This class-action suit points to the accountability of the tobacco companies. In another case, General Motors faulty ignitions have caused the deaths of Americans. In an effort to make GM morally responsible, Senator Blumenthal of Conneticut has led other state attorneys in fighting against a bankruptcy court restructuring that will protect the "new GM" from assuming any liability for defects in its vehicles that were built before 2009. If the ruling holds, GM will not violate any business ethics, so it will not assume any responsibility.

Unfortunately, companies will often not act morally, or even ethically, unless forced by regulations. For example, President Theodore Roosevelt had to ask the Supreme Court to pass anti-trust laws to control the unethical behavior of John D. Rockefeller, owner of Standard Oil Company. The executives of Enron Corporation such as Kenneth Lay who was convicted of accounting fraud and corporate abuse, were guilty of both violation of business ethics and moral turpitude because they cheated their investors and lied and misrepresented to their employees.