The five branches of ethics as applied to compliance principles

Compliance and ethics are related but separate disciplines. In a professional setting each one relies heavily upon the principles and practices of the other, while still maintaining its own distinct character.

Compliance concerns not necessarily the intuitive or collective ideas about right and wrong, nor the legal bright lines about what is permissible or prohibited, but rather the decision points between all of these. The function of compliance in a practical sense is to adjust or create conditions to choices in order to analyze or bridge the gap between good and bad, yes and no. In compliance, ethics provides the values-based approach, while the legal and regulatory guidance provides the rules-based approach. The work of the compliance professional is to attempt to reconcile the two and in that work create a second set of connections, this time between that which is legally acceptable or not, and that which is deemed ethically appropriate or not.

Very simply put, ethics, on the other hand, refers to the standards of behavior by individuals or organizations and the moral principles governing the conducting of an activity by the same. This is a values-based approach to “right” and “wrong,” or what is good for people and the society in which they live and work. The concept of right and wrong behavior is fundamental to ethics and acts as a systematic discipline in order to guide decisions on how to act.

Ethics draws its foundations from five branches, each one of which is useful to inform a practical and discipline perspective for a corporate compliance program.

  • Normative ethics contemplates the questions which arise in consider how one should act morally, in line with the norms and expectations of society or a community/organization in which the actions are taken. What are the different interests at stake and what are the potential consequences and outcomes of the possible actions to be taken? This view is very helpful in ethical decision-making and designing defense strategies to encourage identifying and choosing good decisions while discouraging and removing incentives or rationales for bad decisions.
  • Meta ethics focuses on what morality actually is and means – in general as well as in context. This involves the careful analysis of the level of understanding about moral considerations as well as an analysis of the situational status and scope of it. This approach is imperative for defining a values-based culture and corresponding corporate identity and business strategy. These values must be organic and intrinsic from the beginning in order for them to truly imbed as genuine. If they are imposed upon the business culture with no respect for what original standards were set for the organization at its inception, then a values-based approach to a culture of compliance will not permeate the company’s actions- customer service, product design, hiring and retaining employees – and a strong tone at the top cannot succeed.
  • Applied ethics goes in-depth into the practicality of really using ethical theory in order to analyze actual moral issues in both private and public life. The practical skills inherent for this discipline are incredibly useful for creating the dialogs that support compliance awareness. Taking a critical look at real-life moral issues that would be encountered in one’s personal time or on an everyday basis at work is a very useful way to get comfortable with approaching ethical dilemmas. Dilemma analysis and discussion is key for encouraging a robust culture of compliance at all organizational levels.
  • Moral ethics is the philosophical area of ethics that centers on defining, choosing, and suggesting behavior with classifications of “right” and “wrong” in mind. This practice is the most directly influential in determining standards and expectations for conduct. Elevating moral conduct by clearly defining it as a corporate cultural norm is imperative for encouraging employees to value it as such as well. Senior leadership should genuinely demonstrate this as well, acting as good conduct role models to embody the cultural values and categorizations for understanding the difference between right and wrong and making good choices within that dichotomy.
  • Finally, descriptive ethics is the study of attitudes of individuals or groups of people aimed at characterizing and understanding their beliefs. The objectives of this branch of ethics are very important for compliance risk management because they help to expose heuristics and routines in play that may encourage or hinder ethical decision-making and the cultivation of strong compliance themes within the corporate values. This is crucial for providing positive support for organizational and employee integrity.

Given the above, there are great affinities between the principles of ethics and those of compliance. The two disciplines share prolifically in their application in life in general and specifically in the workplace. It is very useful for compliance professionals to have some foundation in the discipline of ethics and an understanding of the practical application of its system of principles.

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