There is a good amount of literature discussing ethics, morals, principles, values, virtues, and beliefs particularly in the fields of moral philosophy, organizational ethics, and even in consumer behaviour, but very few articles attempt to distinguish between them as they are collectively and often interchangeably used to describe the good in humans. However, we believe that the meanings suggested by the concepts they represent are vastly different. Let us explore this together.
Ethics and Morals. Which is Which?
Ethics and morals provide a distinction between what is deemed to be good/right and what is deemed to be bad/wrong. This general definition caused many, at times even specialists, to use them interchangeably. The key to understanding the difference between ethics and morals is to look at the level to which a person is able to internalize certain standards. To explain this further, let us look at the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy’s definition of ethics being the act of “systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour” which suggests that this is done at a community level, often with the endorsement of authority within said community. Morals, on the other hand, is the personal adoption and application of those recommendations that were systemized and defended by the larger group. In other words, ethics are societal standards of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ which are disseminated among a certain community while morals are beliefs constituting a personal campus that guides the behaviour of a person or an organization.
The interplay between these two notions can be tricky. For example, a person may follow the ethics mandated by a certain group, say a religion, an organization or a family but may not have any morals at all because they have not internalized any of the standards that they are following. While another may violate the ethics of the same group in order to uphold personal moral standards.
Ethics can impact morals as it is noted that remaining exposed to certain ethical standards for a sustained period of time may sway a person’s morals depending on the level of consistency and influence of the larger group.
Principles vs. Values. Which is Which?
The terms ‘principles’ and ‘values’ are commonly used as an expression of one’s moral position. However, they are contradicting in nature although areas of overlap are present. Perhaps one of the best descriptions of the distinction between the two notions is put forwarded by Stephen Covey the author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He explains that principles are an objective reality that is not bound by cultures and individuals and thus, they are universal. Principles include fairness, honesty and integrity, and other such undisputable standards. In contrast to the universal and constant nature of principles, values are internal, subjective, and flexible beliefs that people hold regarding ideas or issues. Let us take the example of a clothing company where honesty is a principle that management upholds due to its universal correctness while being fashionable and trendy are values that management upholds due to their relevance to their specific line of business i.e the clothing business.
We notice that the values of being fashionable and trendy actually add value to the clothing line of business and thus, justifies their presence. In the case where the company was to change its operations to say, corporate accounting, they are likely to continue to uphold honesty as a principle but drop fashionable and trendy as values as they no longer serve the purpose of the company.
Principles being the most prevailing and constant enjoy the most momentum, they are the seeds from which all other notions grow. Ethical codes of conduct disseminated by universities, for example, are founded on principles of integrity and upholding the intellectual rights of others. If such ethical codes of conduct were not aligned with principles, chances are students and universities alike will resist them in due time. We have seen numerous occasions where ethical standards in organizations were challenged due to their lack of alignment with widely accepted principles such as the inclusion of people of colour, gender equality, fair compensation, etc.
Virtues vs. Beliefs. Which is Which?
Virtue is a trait or quality that is considered morally good. It encompasses parts of ethics and morals as it is an assessment of a person’s morals as defined by a group of people. For example, chastity is a virtue as defined by certain communities while hard work is a virtue as defined by other communities. Further to that, there are virtues established by entities in a position of authority such as religious texts or organizational leaders. In their very core, virtues are attitudes, dispositions, or character traits that enable a person to be and to act in ways that are aligned with established principles as described by The University of Santa Clara.
Beliefs are the thoughts underlying both virtues and morals. Building a belief or a belief system in its entirety is the process through which ethics and principles being a collective expression of ‘good’ that typically reside outside of the person in the external environment become internalized and transform into morals and virtues which are an individual expression of ‘good’ that typically reside within the person.
What Does all this Mean to Individuals and Organizations?
It is surely interesting to look at the emerging literature in the areas of morality and ethical conduct, the power of building and persuading human beliefs, and that discussing the distinction between principles and values in general. However, a substantial amount of specialized literature that discusses those topics in the realm of a specific industry, country, or organization also exists. Understanding the abstract meanings inherent in those notions facilitates the reader’s sense-making when engaging with the specialized text and when thinking about the application of those notions in various settings be it familial, organizational, or other.
Understanding those, may I say not so subtle differences, between ethics, morals, principles, values, virtues, and beliefs is also important for understanding human behaviour. It provides an explanation to many human phenomena such as, why does one employee challenges the codes of conduct while another does not or why do people behave inconsistently in different situations.
Other than providing an insight into human behaviour, this knowledge equips leaders to lead better by focusing on morals, virtues, and beliefs which are the internal engine of change.