What is Ethics?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

We are globally connected and becoming more aware of the complexity of our connections. We need a robust understanding of ethics – what it means, what it requires of us, and what we need to know and do to be ethical.

As we learn about ethics, we need to understand it in a multidimensional way. One-dimensional definitions lead us down a single path and prevent us from seeing our broad responsibilities as citizens and leaders.

Here is a quick tour of ways to think about ethics – only by honoring all of them will we have a chance of keeping up with increasing ethical expectations.

Ethics is Required Of All of Us

“Ethics or simple honesty is the building blocks upon which our whole society is based, and business is a part of our society, and it’s integral to the practice of being able to conduct business, that you have a set of honest standards.”

Kerry Stokes

Ethics is Moral Awareness

“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

Potter Stewart

Ethics is More Than Meeting Minimum Standards

“In law a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so.”
Immanuel Kant

Ethics is Thinking Beyond Ourselves

“While egoism may be a strong motivator of human behavior, ethics traditionally assumes that human beings are also capable of acting from a concern for others that is not derived from a concern for their own welfare.”

Andre and Velasquez, Santa Clara University

Ethics is Caring About Others

“The ethics of care starts from the premise that as humans we are inherently relational, responsive beings and the human condition is one of connectedness or interdependence.”

Carol Gilligan

Ethics is Doing Good and Preventing Harm

“Let me give you a definition of ethics: It is good to maintain and further life it is bad to damage and destroy life.”

Albert Schweitzer

Ethics is Caring For the Planet and Society

“Corporate Social Responsibility, or “CSR,” refers to the need for businesses to be good corporate citizens. CSR involves going beyond the law’s requirements in protecting the environment and contributing to social welfare. It is widely accepted as an obligation of modern business.”

Ethics Unwrapped, University of Texas

Ethics is a Journey of Human Growth 

“Ethics is the activity of man directed to secure the inner perfection of his own personality.”

Albert Schweitzer

See also 7 Definitions of Good: Why We Disagree About Ethics


Top 100 Leadership Blog





Click the cover to read a free preview!





Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership®

©2018 Leading in Context LLC





  1. Linda, as always, you offer valuable insights into the discussion of ethics and leadership. So often, people assert, “Why, of course, I am ethical!”

    Part of the problem is that there are a multitude of ethical perspectives — each with a philosophical foundation and justification. Your excellent points reaffirm that perhaps we are looking for a different question, “What do we mean by moral conduct and how should it be measured?”

    Thank you for your wise contribution to such an important topic.

    Cam Caldwell


Join the Conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: