Ethics determines the difference between right and wrong. Laws are rules that must be obeyed, both voluntarily and involuntarily, whereas ethics are voluntary. Behaving ethically is more than obeying the law -- it is expecting your rights to be upheld and upholding the rights of others through ethical duties.
A right is an expectation about something you deserve or a way to act that is justified through a legal or moral foundation. Humans have all types of rights, including legal, moral, spiritual, natural and fundamental rights. Examples of rights include the right to education provided by society or the right to bear arms. Ethical behavior must recognize and respect a series of rights that belong to each person, animal or society.
Duties are a direct result of the acceptance of rights. Each person has a duty to uphold or respect another person’s rights, just as he has the duty to uphold your rights. Once a person accepts a right, or is told as in legal rights, he must uphold that right for himself and others. For instance, you have the right to free speech, but so does everyone around you. Even if someone is saying something you do not agree with, you have a duty to respect his right to say it. You have a duty to respect, and sometimes defend, the rights of others.
Sometimes there are unintended consequences when a duty to uphold someone else’s rights conflicts with your own rights. Ethical conflicts must be viewed by looking at the end results of any action and how they affect the freedom or rights of others. One instance of conflicting rights is the admission into private clubs. Although we have the freedom of association, our laws prevent discrimination. Either the club’s rights are violated or individual rights are violated by not being allowed to join. Social or personal costs must be identified and weighed; rights cannot be the only consideration when making ethical choices.
Corporations have the right to seek a profit. It is the duty of the employees to do whatever they were hired to do to promote profitability. The corporation cannot violate the rights of its employees or society just to seek a profit. For instance, the company cannot pay employees less than minimum wage or make them work dangerous hours to increase profits. Companies cannot resort to immoral behaviors such as bribery, substandard quality or false advertising, which may violate the rights of other companies, company stakeholders, individuals or society.
Rebekah Smith is a writer and editor from Montana and the owner of several businesses. Smith has consulted and worked with businesses in the fields of commercial greenhouses, ecommerce, technology and home improvement. She holds a Master of Business Administration and is working on a Ph.D. in business.