Ethics and Morals


Ajit Kumar AJIT KUMARWISDOM IAS, New Delhi.

The study of ethics is a systematic science. Its scope encompasses all human relationships in a society. Ethics also known as moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. The study of ethics can be divided into four operational areas namely – meta ethics, normative ethics, descriptive ethics and applied ethics.
Ethics fundamentally comprises of two elements:
Firstly, ethics refers to well founded standards of right and wrong that describe what humans ought to do in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, etc.
Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one’s ethical standards.
So, it is necessary to constantly examine one’s standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well founded.
Meaning 
Let us first try to analyse the key terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’. Note the linguistic use of the terms – they seem as if they are in the plural form, just as ‘economics’ or ‘politics’, but we treat them as singular. Generally, ethics and morals are used as synonyms. There is nothing wrong in such a usage, for after all, the meaning of all words depend on their common usage. However, in formal study, we need to understand the meaning of the terms in a qualified way so as to make our subject of study precise and well defined.
The terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ are etymologically, that is, from their very roots or terms, different. The word moral(s) is derived from the Latin root mora/is, which implies custom. In other words, it refers to a behaviour that is accepted or rejected due to an accepted social custom. The word ethics stems from the Greek word ethike, which attributes to a social environment, referred to as ethos or social milieu. This latter meaning embraces much more than mere custom. It refers to everything that is part and parcel of society and not just what is allowed or forbidden. Morality is more concerned with the norms, values and beliefs embedded in social processes which define what is right or wrong for an individual or community.
Another point of difference between the two refers to their usage in ordinary language. For instance, a lawyer defending an alleged rapist would accuse the victim as ‘morally fallen’ and not as ‘ethically fallen’. On the other hand, a committee that is formed to probe the behaviour of the members of Parliament would be called ‘ethics committee’, not ‘moral committee’. The meaning of the word is in its usage. Thus, both these terms have their unique characteristics and applications.
Usage
However, the terms are intrinsically not different. Both of them refer to the same reality of human actions, which may be characterized as morally or ethically positive or negative as the case may be. It may be true that the terms (ethics and morals) sound different but they refer to the same social reality wherein a certain body of accepted norms forms a code of conduct in society. The actions of the members are described as ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ depending on the linguistic nuances of the meaning in a particular case as well as on the conventional use of the terms. It is in the use of the words in a given context, that the meaning becomes clear.
In academic usage, however, moral behaviour refers to a concrete behaviour such as showing
respect to elders. Ethics, on the other hand, is used to mean a discipline or a systematic study of moral behaviour such as justice. People’s behaviour in a society can be morally characterized in their day-today actions. It is in the classroom that we analyse the ethical significance of these actions.
These terms are generally interchanged with one and the same meaning, that is, to determine whether some human action is right or wrong. They deal with the application of a socially accepted code of conduct. This conduct may be termed as either moral conduct or ethical conduct.
Evolution of Ethics
Social conduct has evolved along with the evolution of society. When your elders tell you ‘Do not cheat’, they are referring to a social code of conduct. Social conduct has developed in society over hundreds of years. The codes of conduct have been passed down from generation to generation, and there is a pattern to the evolution of such codes. Acceptable behaviour is promoted and elevated as a social value, and unacceptable behaviour is rejected and condemned. In ancient India, there was no moral problem with the custom of sati-immolating the wife on the funeral pyre or the deceased husband. But society has evolved humanely and has condemned the act as unacceptable and morally reprehensible.
The laws of a country are based on the customs or moral codes of its society. Penalties are prescribed for bad actions, actions that contradict the established laws. The laws are a measure against those people who cross the limits of the code of social conduct, and ensure that good citizens are protected from the negative consequences of the law-breakers.
The object of the social codes of conduct is to maintain, promote, and elevate harmonious relationships. ‘Honour your parents’ is one such code. It maintains a peaceful relationship between parents and children and promotes respect for each other in the family. It is because of its salutary effects, it is considered as one of the fundamental values to be cultivated.
Application of Ethics
The relevance of ethics is in its application. Just as when we study the theory of relativity in physics, we ensure that the laws or principles of relativity are applied to the factors and elements being considered, so too in our study of ethics, the universal principles have to be applied to individual contexts and situations. We have to abandon the absolutism of universal principles. For instance, killing a man is wrong. But we approve the killing of the enemy in a war and the government honours the act with medals for bravery. This is due to the fact that such an act has served a higher principle, that is, the protection of countrymen. Ethics, in the practical sense, is also known as moral action and is an applied discipline that deals with a particular human action and also assesses to what extent it is compatible with the general principles.
Ethics as a Principle
We have established that social evolution has developed definite principles of civic behaviour, which have attained the status of principles. By principle, we understand that something proceeds and depends on it for its cause. For instance, when one kicks a football, force is the principle that propels it into motion and the ball remains in motion till the force lasts. In other words, the physical world functions strictly according to the laws of physics. It is expected that people also submit their behavior , both in thoughts and in actions, to these principles. An action is valid as long as it reflects the principle, just as the speed of the moving ball depends on the force it receives.
All moral actions are directed towards their object, the good, which is the principle of all happiness. This is not only the sole purpose of our existence but our co-existence with others as well. We cannot be happy alone; we can only be happy together. The universal idea of the good is applied to individual instances . Individuals are good in their own particular way, and are good in so far as they share the essence of goodness. The universal good is a pure or general idea. It is formed through a process of abstraction of the essence from individuals or particulars.
Fundamental Principles of Ethical Behaviour
(i) Integrity: The principle calls upon all accounting and finance professional adhere to honesty and firmness while discharging their respective professional duties:
- Avoid being involved in activities which would impair the goodwill of the organization.
- Communicate adverse as well as favorable information with those concerned.
- Refuse any favour which could influence his actions in a negative way.
- Refuse to get involved in any activity which would adversely affect objectivity.
- Avoid conflicts and advise related parties on imminent conflicts.
(ii) Objectivity: Communicate information fairly and objectively in a transparent manner.
(iii) Confidentiality: Accounting and financial management should refrain from disclosing confidential information acquired during their work. When such information are to be disclosed to their subordinates in course of their normal work, care should be taken that ultimate confidentiality is maintained.
However, an organization must to submit information required under a legal obligation or statutory ruling.
(iv)Professional competence: Finance and accounting professionals need to update their professional skills from time to time. it has to be ensured that the client or employer receives competent professional services based upon current and contemporary developments in the related areas.
(v) Obedience to Rules: Accounting and finance professionals should comply with relevant laws and regulations and avoid such actions which may result into discrediting the profession.

Tuesday, 22nd Oct 2013, 09:58:02 AM

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