I was recently reprimanded by my supervisor for “imposing morality” on the management team I lead. I found the reprimand to be a bit hypocritical because the company I work for stresses the importance of honesty, integrity and ethics. The topic I shared with my staff was the Golden Rule. What is the difference between “morals” and “ethics”?

To begin, I believe that the chaffing you experienced may not be a result of the definition of “morals and ethics” as much as it may have been a reaction to biblical references, which to some secular workers is offensive. In order to have their cake and eat it too, these people tie morality to religion, while they connect ethics to business. This misconception creates perceived differences between ethics and morals in business settings.

As you probably know, “business ethics” courses are taught at many universities. These courses provide excellent insights on how to conduct business the right way. If all corporate leaders took these issues seriously, we would have prevented many of the scandals of the past decade and avoided much of the financial crises our country and world are currently facing.

Technically, it is really difficult to separate ethics from morals. This is highlighted by the fact that most people use the opposing word to define the other. But, by definition, ethics is almost always rooted in morality, whereas morality is sometimes defined without ethics. The real confusion comes in because most people define morality based on differing philosophical perspectives. That method creates different standards and “rules” for behavior that seep their way into the workplace. In the end, it creates moral relativism.

As Catholics, we have access to the proper understanding of morality because we are grounded in natural law and guided by the Church. As simple as that sounds, moral issues can be very complex. For example, we know that in Catholic moral teaching there are situations that fall under the principle of double effect. In these cases, a morally permissible action may unintentionally create an effect that, as a primary objective, would be immoral. An example could be the unintentional deaths of civilians in a just war.

The desired outcome of ethical actions may also be a factor that confuses people in business. In business, many people see profit as the desired outcome. This reduces ethics to a tool instead of a framework.

Catholics see morality and ethics as a means to holiness; therefore, they are used as a foundation, not simply a tool. “Ethics as a tool” encourages people to “look” ethical rather than be ethical — thus permitting unethical behavior as long as a profit is realized and, according to them, no one gets hurt. As Catholics, we know that is impossible and that every immoral action has an effect on our world, even if we can’t see the effect for ourselves.

My advice to you is to use the same principles you used in your message to management, but to employ terms which are more palatable to the culture. In other words: Stay the course, but speak their language. 

Catholic business consultant Dave Durand is online at DaveDurand.com.