Are Ethics and Morals Different?

Labarynth representing ethics and morals

By Linda Fisher Thornton

With my background in Linguistics, I tend to view the divergence of ethics terms (that originally meant the same thing) as a distraction from what we need to know and do. Creating categories and subcategories of ethics may ‘carve out new territory’ or help us understand ethics at a deeper level, but it also puts more perceived distance between leaders and ethical choices.

There are dozens of terms for different types and branches of ethics. Unfortunately, this abundance of ethical terminology causes leaders and managers to experience overload and confusion. We may divide things up into smaller parts to understand them, but to act on them requires a more holistic view.

So let’s dig into the big question – “Are ethics and morals the same thing?” Ethicists and scholars disagree. Some scholars advocate the importance of acknowledging the many different branches of ethics that have been carved out since the terms were originated. I believe that it’s more helpful to remember that ethics and morals originally meant the same thing.

“The Latin ‘moral’ was coined by Cicero to translate ‘ethical’ from Greek philosophy so that at the start the two words were equivalent.”

G. Moran, NYU

We can review peer-reviewed encyclopedia entries of different aspects of ethics, which are helpful for learning, but when we need to make good choices in real life we need a different perspective.

“In contemporary non-technical use, the two terms are more or less interchangeable, though ‘ethics’ has slightly more flavor of theory.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy

Are ethics and morals different? While some may argue that the terms have diverged, we should remember that ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ originally meant the same thing. Remember the origin of the words helps us avoid getting stuck in the terminology quagmire and lets us focus our energy on determining the right thing to do.

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Ignoring Toxic Leadership is Not Worth the Tradeoffs

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Toxic behavior is a problem in organizations across industries and it’s often ignored. Organizations that delay dealing with toxic behavior, though, will find that it spreads and erodes the integrity of an ethical culture.

Toxic behavior may be “allowed” to flourish because an employee or manager is a “top performer” in other aspects of the job. This is a dangerous bargain for organizations to make. By allowing the toxic behavior to continue unchecked, they keep the perpetrator’s top sales results, but the fallout is not worth it. Factoring in the negative impact on trust, the reduction in the quality of work-life for employees and colleagues, and the erosion of the importance of values in the organization, it’s a losing proposition.

If we SAY in our values that we demonstrate RESPECT and then we allow disrespectful behaviors, we are sending the message that respect is not really required. Since toxic behaviors destroy trust, customers and employees who expect to be treated better often leave to find a safer place to invest their money, time and talents.

The problem worsens if entry-level employees are handled differently from top leaders. If you coach a toxic front-line employee before taking performance action that may include termination, but you allow a leader to continue unchecked, you are applying a power dynamic that can make employees feel powerless and victimized.

What are employees thinking when the leader who is verbally assaulting them is keeping the job, not being coached, and getting bonuses and promotions? They are thinking that the company has a different standard for leaders than the standards it applies to employees.

A double standard not only lacks integrity, but also tells employees, customers and colleagues of the toxic leader “we don’t care about your well-being.” Our constituents have choices, and they will exercise them if they are not treated well. When was the last time you went back to a store where someone was repeatedly rude to you? The bottom line is that organizations can’t afford the fallout from sending a “we don’t care about your well-being” message to the employees, customers or colleagues of a toxic leader.

Resources For Learning:

13 (Culture-Numbing) Side Effects of Toxic Leadership

Can a Toxic Leader Be Ethical? Yes and No.

Unethical Leadership: Selective Respect

Every Decision Changes the Ethical Culture Equation

Take Positive Action When You See Unethical Leadership

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©2020 Leading in Context LLC

 

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