Understanding Ethics As a Decision-Making Process

One of the challenges often faced when discussing ethics is the concept that it is synonymous with morality. Ethicist Scott Rae tackles this common misunderstanding by suggesting the following:

Most people use the terms morality and ethics interchangeably. Technically, morality refers to the actual content of right and wrong, and ethics refers to the process of determining right and wrong. In other words, morality deals with moral knowledge and ethics with moral reasoning. Thus, ethics is both an art and a science.

Put another way, morality is knowing the difference between right and wrong, whereas ethics provides a system to understand right and wrong. People can use ethics in order to reason through situations and arrive at courses of actions. Ethics, however, are not simply a set of rules or a set of “if –then” statements that will automatically ensure public relations professionals behave ethically. Rather ethics is the art and science of the process used to arrive at a decision, based in a deeper conviction. The deeper conviction rests in one’s understanding of the industry, the duties to that industry, the virtues of the industry and one’s personal moral framework. How one understands those convictions, or morals, is crucial to ethical reasoning.

It probably does not surprise you to learn that some people suggest public relations professionals are ethically obligated to select choices that involve “doing the right thing.” But what is the right thing? The study of ethics helps identify the process public relations professionals use in order to make decisions about what course of action is the right one to take.

Next Page: Ethical Theories