Definition

Ethics is a branch of philosophy that studies the difference between right and wrong. 

All of us have opportunities to choose between right and wrong every day, we see in the business press, getting it wrong can lead to serious consequences, including corporate failure, loss of reputation, fines or even jail sentences.

Different people approach ethical decisions from different points of view, and we must all accept that different cultures, for example, approach ethics in different ways. In any situation, you must begin with the laws of your country. Next you look to the specific rules that govern the situation. For example, if you’re an auditor, you’ll be bound by the relevant auditing standards in your jurisdiction. Then, as a professional, you should consider the principles of your professional body, which form the basis of your professional ethics.

Personal vs professional ethics

Most of us see ourselves as ethical. We usually like to feel we’ve done ‘the right thing’. Your personal ethics are as important as your professional ethics. It’s one thing to know what you should do – what you’re told you should do – but another thing to want to take the ‘correct’ course of action. Clearly, membership of a professional body requires adherence to a code of ethical conduct. As accountants, we ‘profess’ to a high standard of ethical behaviour. But leaving rules and regulations to one side, who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong? 

Members of the public may place their trust in you because you’re a member of a trusted professional body. The public aren’t expected to know how to assess either the ability or the ethics of a doctor, lawyer or accountant. They trust that the professional bodies will do that for them. This means that as a professional you owe the public a certain level of integrity and objectivity - as well as professional competence and due care, confidentiality and professional behaviour. In other words, you should uphold the five fundamental principles set out in our Code of Ethics and Conduct simply because you’re a professional and you have professional ethics.

Your own values, interests and experiences are the filter through which you view any situation. You should be aware of those filters because they could influence your professional judgement. That’s why it’s important to be able to recognise your own personal ethical perspective when you exercise your professional ethics. You need to be able to know the difference between the two. As a professional accountant, you should strive to maintain objectivity by being mindful of the fact that your personal values are just that - personal and unique to you.