Ethical Ground Rules

by Walter Johnson; Updated September 26, 2017

The ground rules of ethics are the fundamentals. These are the bases by which we make ethical decisions. Because they are “rules,” rather than norms or principles, they must be practical in character, easily able to be put into action. The fact that they are “ground” rules means that they are not themselves actionable, but they inform action. Differing circumstances might force a change of plan, but they can never alter the nature of the ground rules. Good action is good only because it exemplifies these rules.


Integrity means wholeness. Wholeness can be understood by its opposite, falseness. By “falseness,” we mean the sort of person who wears a different “mask” depending on with whom a person is speaking. A person who lacks integrity is religious with a religious person, conservative with a conservative person and liberal with a liberal person. Such a chameleon has no integrity in that there is no “core” of the personality. Such a person is what he needs to be at the time, not maintaining a real sense of self, mission or purpose. Falseness is the opposite of integrity in that the false person manipulates others by character mirroring, either hiding her real intentions or, even worse, not having any intentions at all.

Justice and Fairness

This is a broad rule, but it is closely related to the more practical “fairness.” Justice means, abstractly speaking, to treat people with equal respect. Specifically, respect refers to seeing others as ends, not means. In this case, an immoral person is one that uses people, friendships and relationships to further their own interest. A moral person is one that gives equal latitude to their own ends, as well as the ends of those encountered. Justice demands that people receive what they deserve. The caveat here is that an impartial, unbiased and objective criterion be used to determined what a person, in fact, “deserves.”

Accountability and Autonomy

The basis of all moral ground rules is to treat people as free beings, not as things. Accountability goes to the heart of this general principle. Praise and blame can and should be assigned, but based on real merit, merit derived from real, accepted and objective criteria that is unbiased toward any group. People are to be treated as individuals, with free will, rather than parts of a broader group. Imputing to people free will then give the ground for treating them as real people rather than objects to be manipulated. Free will means that the people who you encounter are real beings with real interests, not mere stepping-stones to reach your desires.


Honesty is about being genuine. In this way, it is closely related to both accountability and integrity. As an ethical ground rule, honesty is about using words to reveal things, not conceal them. Dishonesty is about using language to hide one's true intentions or real beliefs. Telling people “what they want to hear” is a well-known form of dishonesty, which disguises one's true intentions behind appearing as a “friend.” Using language to “dress up” one's opinion or belief rather than lay it out unvarnished is another common example of this vice. Such a dishonest person seeks acceptance, not truth. They lack integrity and accountability.

About the Author

Walter Johnson has more than 20 years experience as a professional writer. After serving in the United Stated Marine Corps for several years, he received his doctorate in history from the University of Nebraska. Focused on economic topics, Johnson reads Russian and has published in journals such as “The Salisbury Review,” "The Constantian" and “The Social Justice Review."