Meaning of Ethics, Scope & Importance of Ethics

5th July 2022 1 By indiafreenotes

Ethics is mainly known as the principle of moral conduct that makes a distinction between good and bad/ evil, right and wrong, virtue and non-virtue. The word ethics is derived from a Greek word ‘ethos’ meaning character. It is a branch of knowledge that governs right and wrong conducts and behaviours of an individual, profession, group or organization. It is a core of the professional and personal lives of people. Different scholars have defined ethics differently. However different their definitions might be, ethics is always concerned with morality and right vs wrong and good vs evil. It is applied universally. There is also ethics in professions such as journalism, advertising, education, medicine, etc.

Characteristics of ethics:

(i) Ethics is a set of moral standards and values acceptable in a society. It is relevant in the context of a society only.

(ii) Ethics guides human conduct or behaviour. If any member of the society behaves contrary to the norms and customs, society disapproves it. Moral principles serve as a guide for personal and professional conduct. Ethics checks people from taking decisions and actions which are harmful to society.

There are three main theories of ethics. First, the utilitarian theory suggests that actions become right or wrong on the basis of their consequence. Second, the theory of rights holds that all people have certain basic rights. Third, the theory of justice demands that actions must be fair and equitable.

(iii) Ethical principles are universal in nature. These prescribe obligations and virtues for everybody in a society. Ethics is important not only in business and politics but in every human endeavour.

(iv) Ethical standards differ from society to society. What is considered ethical behaviour in one society might be considered unethical in another. For example, abortion and artificial birth control is a taboo in most of the Islamic countries and catholic Christian communities. But these practices are fully ethical in China, Russia, Japan and many other countries. Similarly, euthanasia (mercy killing) is permitted in some countries but is strictly unethical in most countries.

(v) Ethics is normative or prescriptive in nature. It deals not with what is but what ought to be. It does not rest on feelings of approval or disapproval but on principles. For example, it may be unpleasant to fire an employee but morality may require it.

(vi) Ethical norms might not be legally binding. But these are more powerful than law because these have the sanction of society. When a person’s behaviour is inconsistent with the prevailing values and norms, it is called unethical. Ethics serves as a guide to law by highlighting its short comings.

(vii) Ethics relates to the behaviour of individuals and groups. The ethical norms do not apply to the behaviour of animals, birds, and insects. Only human beings have the capacity to guide and regulate their behaviour.

(viii) Ethics are not hard and fast rules. They are an expression of a society’s attitudes and beliefs. There is an element of discretion as a person has the option to adopt ethical norms. Ethics may differ from place-to-place and time-to-time.

(ix) There exist no sharp boundaries between ethical and non-ethical. Therefore, people often face ethical dilemmas wherein a clear cut choice is very difficult.

(x) Ethics aims at perfection in human conduct. It guides law makers in framing proper laws to regulate the behaviour of all citizens. Existing norms may contain valuable insights but ethics sets out to critics and test them in terms of ultimate norms.

(xi) The concepts of equity and justice are implicit in ethics. Fair and equitable treatment to all is its primary aim.

(xii) Ethics and morality are interrelated but not synonymous. In the words of Rogene A. Buchollz “Ethics deals with the formalisations of ethical principles in the abstract or the resolution of concrete ethical problems facing individuals in their daily life. Morality on the other hand generally refers to the tradition of belief that have involved over years. concerning right and wrong conduct, so that morality has its roots in belief of a society while ethics aim at formulating the principles to justify human behaviour.” According to Clearance C. Walton, “morality is the standards than an individual or group has about what is right and wrong good and evil.”

Scope of Ethics

Meta-Ethics: Meta-ethics comprises the area of situational ethics and deals with logical questions like ‘What do we mean by ‘freedom’ and ‘determinism’ etc. It delves into the nature of ethical properties, attitudes and judgements. For example, a media critic’s description of a TV series as ‘good drama’ does not necessarily denote that the program is morally sound. It is the function of metaethics to define such vague concepts in ethical terms. Some of the theories of Meta-Ethics are Naturalism, Non-Naturalism, Emotivism and Prescriptivism.

Applied Ethics: Applied ethics is the problem-solving branch of moral philosophy. It uses the insights derived from metaethics and the general principles and rules of normative ethics in addressing specific ethical issues and cases in a professional, disciplinary or practical field. Applied ethics is the vital link between theory and practice, the real test of ethical decision-making. Applied ethics often requires not only theoretical analysis but also practical and feasible solutions.

Some of the key areas of applied ethics are:

  • Decision Ethics
  • Professional Ethics
  • Clinical Ethics
  • Business Ethics
  • Organizational Ethics
  • Social Ethics

Normative Ethics: Normative ethics deals with standards or norms by which we can judge human actions to be right or wrong. It deals with the criteria of what is morally right or wrong. For example, if someone murders a person, everyone will agree that it is wrong. The question is: Why is it wrong to murder someone? There are a lot of different answers we could give, but if we want to specify a principle that stated why its wrong, the answer might be: Murder is wrong because when we kill someone, we violate their right to live. Another perspective might be to inflict unnecessary suffering on the person being murdered or their family is wrong, that’s why to kill a person is wrong. There are three elements emphasized by normative ethics:

  • The person who performs the act (the agent)
  • The act
  • The consequences of the act

Importance of Ethics

Business ethics comprises various traits, such as; trustworthiness and transparency in customer services. Ethical business practices strengthen customer relationship that is of prime importance for long-term organizational success. It deals with retaining and creating a long-lasting impression in the minds of customers.

Such impressions help the enterprise to win the trust of customers and get more business. Business ethics plays a very crucial role in various management functions.



The beneficence principle enunciates a fundamental principle of ethical conduct. This essentially means doing good to others. According to this principle, all our thoughts and actions must be directed to ensure that others benefit from these thoughts and actions. This can be done without much difficulty. People generally tend to care more about themselves than others. Even small actions performed by us can be based on this principle.

As an example, consider a person parking his/her motor vehicle, a car or a motor cycle. He/She must park the vehicle in such a way that it does not block pedestrians walking on the road, prevent smooth flow of traffic, or obstruct another person‘s parked vehicle. Many times, people park their vehicle oil the road without caring about the inconvenience caused to others.

As another example, consider an unfortunate accident where a person has been hit by a vehicle and the driver of that vehicle has fled. The person has been badly injured and requires urgent help. What would you do? Here, doing good to others would mean mitigating the injured person’s suffering by ensuring that he/she gets immediate medical help.

Least Harm:

The second ethical principle to keep in mind is that our actions must result in the least harm to others. There can be situations where, even if we intend to do good to others, our actions may cause some harm to them. In such a situation, it is necessary to ensure that our actions are such that we cause the least harm to others.

Let us consider the case of a train accident. One’s duty in such an event is to help the injured passengers. He/She must get them out of the compartment; help the authorities take the injured to the hospital, and so on. On the other hand, sometimes it is seen that people use such incidents as an opportunity to steal the belongings of the injured, hapless people.

This is what doing harm is. The least good one can do in such situations is to prevent people from acting in such an unethical manner. Consider another example of a day-to-day occurrence. Young people travelling in a city bus are often seen grabbing a seat as soon as it is vacant, while a senior citizen or a woman accompanying a small child has to travel standing. It is your duty to offer your seat to such people if you are sitting.

If you are standing and a seat falls vacant, do not jump to catch that seat, taking advantage of their frailty or inability to move fast. Allow them to occupy that seat. This is the least that you can do.


This principle essentially states that we need to respect the autonomy of others for performing actions. We should not impose our views on others. This principle assumes that every person knows what is good for himself/herself. One can also look at it from the point of view of the person performing the action, who decides that what he/she is going to do is good for himself/herself.

As an example, consider your own case. As a student you may have opted for a course based on your love for the subject. On the other hand, some of you may have taken up the course because your parents took the decision for you. They have invaded your autonomy to take decisions about yourself. This is a very common occurrence and many students end up pursuing a course for which they have no aptitude or do not like.

As another example, consider the case of arranged marriages in India. It is not uncommon to find parents deciding a partner for their sons/daughters based on factors such as family status or wealth, without caring for their children’s feelings or wishes. This is a clear invasion of the person’s autonomy. Taking the concurrence of the children before getting them married is a very important factor in the success of marriages.

Non-Violence or Peace:

This principle has become very relevant today. Violence has now pervaded all sections of society and has become its greatest bane. One of the basic ethical principles is to shun violence and to not support those who resort to it. Unless we adhere to this principle, no substantial progress can be made in ethical behaviour.

Our greatest concern is that there is a tendency to resort to violence in cases where many other options are available. There is also a nonchalant attitude to violence among people. This is a major cause for concern.

In an incident, a person was killed by a group. The police could not even investigate the case because in the violence that spread in the aftermath of this murder, many people were killed, a large number of houses were burnt, and hundreds were injured. In this case, there was violence for no particular reason.

In a case that was reported by the press, a group was collecting donations for a festival. The group approached a small shopkeeper and demanded Rs. 1000. The shopkeeper refused to pay more than Rs. 250. The group resorted to violence, beat him up, and ransacked his shop. It is to be remembered that donations, by their very nature, are voluntary.

However, extortion of money in the name of religious festivals and, in case someone refuses to pay, resorting to violence and causing bodily harm have become common nowadays. As a society, we have become violence- prone and there is an urgent need to curb this to prevent further damage.

Thus, commitment to peace and non-violence is a fundamental principle of ethics. There should be a commitment to not resort to violence and explore other better options to solve a problem.


The principle of justice states that our actions must be such that they are fair to everyone concerned. All ethical decisions must be based on the principle of fairness. There can be situations where a deviation from past practice is required. All such cases must be analysed and justified before a decision different from earlier decisions is made.

For example, consider the many development-induced displacements that make headlines in the newspapers these days. The building of a dam, the requirement of a weapon-testing ground, the need for a nuclear power plant, or the need for an expressway might necessitate displacement of a community to clear land for such a purpose.

If you take the specific case of a dam, it is a necessary part of infrastructure development as it provides water for irrigation and electric power generation. The construction of a dam is, thus, for the common good of a large section of the society. However, thousands of people are displaced from their land and their means of livelihood threatened because of such a project.

It is generally found that the rehabilitation of people affected by such projects is shoddy. They are left in the lurch at the end of the project with, in some cases, inadequate compensation and in others, no compensation, land, or means to earn a living. Here, injustice is done to the thousands affected. Similar examples can be seen in many developmental projects.


Truthfulness is the quality of telling, adhering to, or upholding the truth. This appears to be a universal principle. Truthfulness also leads to other values such as trustworthiness and honesty. Mahatma Gandhi highlighted this principle when he undertook the freedom struggle and named it Satyagraha, desire for truth.

We will seldom find an example where not telling the truth gets us any real benefit. In the Upanishads, it is said asato ma sat gamaya, meaning ‘lead me from falsehood to truth’. Truthfulness is thus a universal principle propounded by all religious texts. In engineering measurements, it is mentioned that the true value of a quantity is not known.