What Are Ethical Lapses?

by Roslyn Frenz; Updated September 26, 2017
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An ethical lapse is a mistake or error in judgment that produces a harmful outcome. A lapse in ethics doesn't show a complete lack of integrity, just an oversight or an ethical blind spot. Routinely producing harmful results is not considered a “lapse”, that’s just considered unethical. Ethical lapses can be large or small scale, kept private or publicized and be illegal or within the realm of the law, but immoral. In academia, the causes of these lapses (in a regularly ethical person) are sometimes called fallacies.

Lapse from Subjectivity

This type of ethics lapse occurs when an unethical action is allowed due to the idea that morality cannot be defined. It’s true that the exact definition of what constitutes as “ethical” differs from person to person, but that fact should not be used to justify an unethical action. There are thousands of actions that most people would consider wrong, regardless of their personal moral codes. Deception, theft and murder are considered wrong by the majority of cultures throughout the world. Generally, minimizing harm is the moral rule of thumb to follow when the situation seems ethically ambiguous.

Lapse from Attempted Tolerance

This lapse has a similar basis as the subjectivity fallacy, but it happens for a different reason. Tolerance lapses happen when a moral agent acts unethically (or allows unethical action) in an attempt to keep from offending anyone. This lapse is driven by the thought that ethics is a personal choice and one person’s ethics shouldn't override another’s. If this fallacy were true, there would be no such thing as laws.

Authority Fallacy

This lapse happens when someone acts unethically because their action has not been deemed unethical by a noted authority. An action may not be listed as unethical in a traditional source, such as a corporate code of conduct or religious dogma, but it can still be a lapse in ethics. As with any ethical dilemma, the consequences of the action should be considered along with an official or authoritative advice.

Status Quo Fallacy

This type of lapse in judgment happens because the unethical act is done by everyone, has always been done or is part of some tradition. It’s possible for a great number of people to be mistaken about the ethical validity of an action. For example, slavery, a morally repressible action, was once widely considered acceptable.

Lapse of Conscience

This lapse happens when someone decides to go against what they know to be ethical. A normally ethical person acts unethically simply because they want to act unethically. This could be a sudden drive for gain at another’s expense or a case of carelessness.

About the Author

Roslyn Frenz started writing professionally in 2005, covering music, business ethics and philosophy. Her work has appeared in "Designing Wealth," "The Other Side," "Upstate Live" and many other publications. Frenz has a bachelor's degree in business marketing from the University of Phoenix. She is pursuing an M.F.A. in creative writing.

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