Ethics Are Not Situational: They must be standard

One of the curiosities in society, from the business sector to government and nonprofits, is that while there is common appreciation for the need for ethical behavior, we see far too many instances of unethical behavior.

Through my work in crisis and issues management, ethical decision-making is the number-one driver, not only because doing the right thing is, well, the right thing, but also because it’s the smart thing. The enemy of effective crisis communications management is inconsistency.

If you deviate from principled behavior, you likely start down a path you’ll have difficulty explaining later. Once you do that, you open the floodgates to inconsistent behaviors and explanations. Such inconsistency kills credibility, and lost credibility kills trust.

No matter who is important to your organization, from customers and donors to investors or employees, you can’t accomplish anything meaningful without trust.

So, what do we mean by ethics?

The professional definition is that ethics involves a value system by which a person or organization determines right from wrong, and then uses that determination to dictate behavior.

At least that’s the common understanding. But leave it to the intellectuals to create confusion on the simple issue of right versus wrong.

I once had a lengthy discussion with someone who was paid by a large company to be the guardian of ethics in the company. He had the word “ethics” in his title.

As we talked, he described ethics as not being a simple matter and that ethical standards can vary from organization to organization, or culture to culture. Ultimately, he said it’s not for us to judge others based on their ethical codes, or to expect others to follow our own ethical standards.

What the literature says

There is academic literature to support this, though as you’ll see, it’s fundamentally flawed in its assumptions. It believes there are three types of approaches to ethics.

Deontological Ethics

Deontological Ethics are based on a standard moral code. Some behaviors are considered “good,” while others are considered “bad.” If this sounds familiar to you, it should. It’s probably the approach to ethics your parents took when raising you. Heck, it’s probably the same approach you use when training a pet. Good actions are rewarded. Bad actions are punished. Good behaviors are incentivized. Bad behaviors are discouraged.

The intellectuals say this does not take into consideration the consequence of the action, however good it may be.  Deontological ethics define something as ethical even if it generates negative outcomes because the both the intent and the behavior was deemed “good.”

An example of this might be when a cashier makes a mathematical mistake and inadvertently gives a customer too much change. The cashier owns up to the mistake and the employer decides to recover the lost money from the cashier’s next paycheck.

Teleological Ethics or Utilitarianism

The second school of thought on ethics is called Teleological Ethics or Utilitarianism. This school teaches that true ethics should be assessed based on the impact of the action, rather than on the action itself.

In other words, as Machiavelli might say, the end justifies the means. If you subscribe to this way of thinking, something will be ethical to you if the outcome is deemed good.

An example of this might be when a manager tells a struggling employee that he is a valued member of the team with a bright future, when in fact, the manager realizes the employee probably will never earn a promotion. But the justification for the “white lie” is that the manager does not want to demoralize a valued employee who is urgently needed right now to complete an important project for the entire organization and its people.

Situational Ethics or Ethical Relativism

The third type of ethical thinking is called Situational Ethics or Ethical Relativism.  This way of thinking says that ethics are determined on a case-by-case basis. There is no standard moral guide for all situations. For that reason, situations are deemed “ethical” based on how they reflect current social norms. Since social norms change from one year to the next, or one culture to the next, there are no ethical standards for all.

Advocates for Situational Ethics believe that they best respect cross-cultural differences and diverse value systems. Many recognize that this system of ethics is reliant on a dominant mainstream culture that changes and never clearly defines the essential rightness or wrongness of a behavior.

The 2020 dilemma

Chances are if you have spent any time thinking about ethics in your personal life, you’ve operated from the standpoint of Deontological Ethics, the system of thought your mother taught you.

Yet, we often see that the waters on when it comes to ethics can get muddied. But of the three schools of thoughts for ethics, the most problematic may be the third one – Situational Ethics. The reason being that it is a house over a sink hole of poor logic.

Situational Ethics advocates recognize cultures may have different value systems, yet for this theory to work it’s still reliant on a single, dominant culture. That’s a huge contradiction. Situational Ethics advocates believe you can’t have standards in principle but they expect standard behaviors.

How should we be graded?

I ran into this issue once when I spoke to a group of MBA students at an elite university.  I have spoken there many times and had come to expect that these students would not ask questions to learn from my words, but that they would ask questions to test me, and learn through the give-and-take.

So, one asked me, simply, “Is it ever OK to lie?”

To which, I responded, “No. It’s never OK to lie.”

I further elaborated that in the real world, matters of opinion, conjecture and debate are often a mix of truths, half-truths and total misrepresentations of the truth. But as a matter of policy, we need to start with the acceptance that it is not OK to lie and to adhere to that basic code as a basis for all communication.

The student then told me that in his home country, it is OK to lie, and that America is wrong to establish honesty as a universal ethical principle.

So, I posed this scenario to him and the rest of the class.  “If your professor tells you at mid-term you will definitely get an A as a final grade, and then when you get your final report card and see that you got a C grade, is that acceptable?”

One hundred percent of the hands in the group, including my interrogator, said, “No,” that is not OK. They laughed a little sheepishly, because they realized that this thing we’re calling Situational Ethics is only the right system if we ourselves are not negatively affected.

Standards should be standard

The lesson for the group and for anyone taking a hard look at ethics is that the code for behavior must be standard.  Yes, it may be uncomfortable for some who resent the sense that someone else’s standards are being applied to them, but the value of adhering to ethics is when standards are shared. Effectiveness is only realized when everyone has the same understanding or right from wrong, what is acceptable and unacceptable.


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The Essential Crisis Communications PlanTim is the author of the book called “The Essential Crisis Communications Plan: A Crisis Management Process that Fits Your Culture.” He is founder of O’Brien Communications and has provided crisis communications and issues management support to clients from Fortune 100 firms and national nonprofits, to emerging start-ups.

Tim has handled hundreds of crises, large and small over decades, working with some of the most iconic brands in the world along the way. To receive updates, click here.





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