The difference between ethical issues and moral issues in business depends on how you personally define the terms. Many people use the words “ethical” and “moral” as synonyms. Others see a distinction between ethics and morals, but there is little agreement on exactly what the difference is. Thinking about the distinction between ethical and moral issues can help you clarify your own approach to business ethics.


Ethical Houston, a website for the discussion of ethical issues in business, defines ethics as a set of professional rules or guidelines for proper behavior, while morality involves deeply held personal beliefs about right and wrong. Professional ethics and morality can be in conflict, as in the case of a counselor bound by ethical rules to keep the immoral behavior of a client confidential. Philosophers use the word “ethics” in two distinctly different ways. To a philosopher, ethics can either mean the philosophical study of beliefs about morality, or a particular code or set of moral rules. The consultants at Applied Corporate Governance define business ethics as the application of morality to the process of running a business through the use of a code of conduct.


One factor common to the different definitions of ethics and morality is that ethics is often seen as a set of rules agreed upon by a group, such as a society or a profession. Morality is seen as being either highly personal or as transcending specific social rules. For instance, an act can be unethical according to the rules of a particular profession without being something most people would consider morally wrong. An act also can seem wrong to most people without violating a particular code of ethics. It could be useful to think of ethical issues in business as issues of accepted professional standards of conduct and moral issues in business as those that involve broader questions of right and wrong.


Professional ethics sometimes require decisions that may be morally distasteful to the person making them. For example, a criminal defense attorney may be ethically obligated to provide the best possible legal defense to a client she finds morally reprehensible. A doctor may be ethically obligated to prescribe a medication or a procedure that goes against the moral teachings of his religion. If your industry has a professional code of conduct or ethical best practices, it should usually be easy to say if a particular action would or would not be considered ethical. Only your personal beliefs about right and wrong can tell you whether the same action is moral.

Thinking About Ethics and Morality

Your business can run into a serious public relations problem if you fail to distinguish between ethical standards and moral issues. If you only consider whether or not an action would violate the ethical standards of your profession, you may be looking at the issue from a narrower perspective than your customers and the general public would. The public may be more concerned with whether or not your business is socially responsible than with whether or not you follow the rules for your profession. Professional standards are important, but if you want your business to be perceived as a benefit to the community, you should give some thought to the broader moral implications of your business activities.