Ethics is the branch of philosophy concerned with the meaning of all aspects of human behavior. Theoretical Ethics, sometimes called Normative Ethics, is about discovering and delineating right from wrong; it is the consideration of how we develop the rules and principles (norms) by which to judge and guide meaningful decisionmaking. Theoretical Ethics is supremely intellectual in character, and, being a branch of philosophy, is also rational in nature. Theoretical Ethics is the rational reflection on what is right, what is wrong, what is just, what is unjust, what is good and what is bad in terms of human behavior.
Business ethics is not chiefly theoretical in character. Though reflective and rational in part, this is only a prelude to the essential task behind business ethics. It is best understood as a branch of ethics called applied ethics: the discipline of applying value to human behavior, relationships and constructs, and the resulting meaning. Business ethics is simply the practice of this discipline within the context of the enterprise of creating wealth (the fundamental role of business).
There are three parts to the discipline of business ethics: personal, professional and corporate. All three are intricately related, and it is helpful to distinguish between them because each rests on slightly different assumptions and requires a slightly different focus in order to be understood. We are looking at business ethics through a trifocal lens: close up and personal, intermediate and professional, and on the grand scale (utilizing both farsighted and peripheral vision) of the corporation.
In spite of some recent bad press, business executives are first and foremost human beings. Like all persons, they seek meaning for their lives through relationships and enterprise, and they want their lives to amount to something. Since ethics is chiefly the discipline of meaning, the business executive, like all other human beings, is engaged in this discipline all the time, whether cognizant of it or not. Therefore, we should begin by looking at how humans have historically approached the process of making meaningful decisions. Here are four ethical approaches that have stood the test of time.