Ethics Glossary

May 29, 2009

Even among those who believe they know ethics, there is not total agreement on the meaning of the terms that are used. For many, a particular definition is a function of the academic discipline that shaped one's thinking and the religious, theological or philosophical underpinnings of one's personal belief system. For others, there may be a usage that is specific to their individual area of work or study.

Below are some ethics terms used in Ethics Resource Center publications and on this website; many of the definitions come from our own files, but we have also tried to indicate where a definition is derived from another source.

The ERC has also compiled a list of the definitions of values typically used in codes.

A strong desire to achieve something high or great. An aspirational code would be intended to reach a higher ethics standard that supercedes being in compliance.

The process of comparing one's ethics climate to that of a previously established "best practices" climate.

Capacity Building
The development of an organization's core skills and capabilities, such as leadership, management, finance and fundraising, programs and evaluation, in order to build the organization's effectiveness and sustainability. It is the process of assisting an individual or group to identify and address issues and gain the insights, knowledge and experience needed to solve problems and implement change. Capacity building is facilitated through the provision of technical support activities, including coaching, training, specific technical assistance and resource networking. (From the California Wellness Foundation's "Reflections on Capacity Building,)

Character Education
The long-term process of helping individuals develop knowledge of, motivation to, and practices of living by a set of ethical standards. Character education stems from the idea that we establish our standards for action based upon the ideals and behaviors we learn from others. (See also About Character Education)

Code of Conduct or Code of Ethics
A central guide and reference for users in support of day-to-day decision making. It is meant to clarify an organization's mission, values and principles, linking them with standards of professional conduct. As a reference, it can be used to locate relevant documents, services and other resources related to ethics within the organization.

Code of Conduct
Can refer to a listing of required behaviors, the violation of which would result in disciplinary action. In practice, used interchangeably with Code of Ethics.

Code of Ethics
Often conveys organizational values, a commitment to standards, and communicates a set of ideals. In practice, used interchangeably with Code of Conduct.
In Section 406(c), the Sarbanes-Oxley Act defines "code of ethics" as such standards as are reasonably necessary to promote-- (1) honest and ethical conduct, including the ethical handling of actual or apparent conflicts of interest between personal and professional relationships; (2) full, fair, accurate, timely, and understandable disclosure in the periodic reports required to be filed by the issuer; and(3) compliance with applicable governmental rules and regulations.

Code Provisions
The specific standards of behavior and performance expectations that your organization chooses to highlight and address in your code.

Conforming or adapting one's actions to another's wishes, to a rule, or to necessity. A compliance code would be intended to meet all legal requirements.

Conflict of Interest
A person has a conflict of interest when the person is in a position of trust which requires her to exercise judgment on behalf of others (people, institutions, etc.) and also has interests or obligations of the sort that might interfere with the exercise of her judgment, and which the person is morally required to either avoid or openly acknowledge.

The abuse of public power for private benefit. Perversion or destruction of integrity in the discharge of public duties by bribery or favor or the use or existence of corrupt practices, especially in a state or public corporation

Choosing to do what one believes is right even if the result will not be to everyone's liking or may lead to personal loss.

Fundamental beliefs (or a set of beliefs) or guiding principles.

The science related to duty or moral obligation. In moral philosophy, deontology is the view that morality either forbids or permits actions. For example, a deontological moral theory might hold that lying is wrong, even if it produces good consequences. Deontological theories, from the Greek word deon, or duty, emphasize foundational duties or obligations. This is a kind of purist view of ethics, somewhat independent of the realities of life.

Dynamic responsibility
The world of embracing problems and challenges; knowing when to renegotiate promises made; and fostering change in the society around us. (From "The Joy in Taking Responsibility: Remarks to the Corps of Cadets, Valley Forge Military Academy & College", April 2001, Kenneth W. Johnson)

Caring about the consequences of one's choices as they affect others. Being concerned with the effect one's decisions have on those who have no say in the decision itself.

Ethical Congruence
A situation where one's decision is consistent with, aligns with, the applicable set(s) of values. Under these circumstances, a choice to take some action will harmonize with the decision-maker's values. The organizational state where values, behaviors and perceptions are aligned.

Ethical Differences
Situations in which two people agree on a particular value and disagree as to the action to be taken or decision to be made.  

Ethical Dilemmas
Situations that require ethical judgment calls.  Often, there is more than one right answer and no win-win solution in which we get everything we want.


  1. The decisions, choices, and actions (behaviors) we make that reflect and enact our values.
  2. The study of what we understand to be good and right behavior and how people make those judgments. (From "What is the Difference Between Ethics, Morals and Values?", Frank Navran)
  3. A set of standards of conduct that guide decisions and actions based on duties derived from core values. (From "The Ethics of Non-profit Management," Stephen D. Potts)
  4. There are many definitions as to what ethics encompasses:
    * The discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation;
    * Decisions, choices, and actions we make that reflect and enact our values;
    * A set of moral principles or values;
    * A theory or system of moral values; and/or
    * A guiding philosophy.
    (From "Creating a Workable Company Code of Conduct," 2003, Ethics Resource Center)

Ethical Decision-making
Altruistic considerations What impact will this action or decision have on others or my relationship with them?

Ethical Decision-making
Idealistic considerations  What is the right thing to do - as defined by the values and principles, which apply to this situation?

Ethical Decision-making
Individualistic considerations  What will happen to me as a consequence of this action or decision?

Ethical Decision-making
Pragmatic considerations  What are the business consequences of this action or decision?

Focus Group
A small group of people whose response to something is studied to determine the response that can be expected from a larger population. Information obtained from focus groups is not analyzed statistically, but instead used for informational purposes (i.e., to assess the culture of an organization).

Good faith
Based on the belief in the accuracy of the information or concern being reported.

The act, process or power of exercising authority or control in an organizational setting.

Gray Areas
Situations in which the individual's business standards lack clarity. The lack of clarity may be due to an individual's not being familiar with a guideline or a guideline that is vague and subject to interpretation.  Guidelines are often written to provide managers with as much latitude as appropriate, and this may create gray areas.

In the most general usage, freedom to act without control or influence from others, to be free to make decisions and act without external constraint. In the business world, independence has come to have a specialized meaning. It is most commonly understood to mean freedom from conflicting interests - the specialized case of having the ability to make a decision or act in ways which are free from conflict between one's personal interests and the interests of the party on whose behalf we are making the decision. (From "No Virginia, There Is No Such Thing as Independence", Frank Navran)

In-house Reporting System
Any system established by an organization to meet the standards of an effective program to prevent and detect violations of law in order to provide employees and other agents with a means to report misconduct to the organization without fear of retribution.
(Resolution and Report: Employee Confidentiality and Non-Retributory Reporting Systems)

In the context of ethics programs, integration means the ability to put ethical principles into practice

Making choices that are consistent with each other and with the stated and operative values one espouses. Striving for ethical congruence in one's decisions.

Leadership Interview
One-on-one interviews with top-level executives or managers that are intended to bring forth information regarding one's ethics climate. Information obtained through these interviews is not intended for statistical analysis, but instead for informational purposes.

Short, pithy statements that are used to instruct and guide behavior.

Values that we attribute to a system of beliefs that help the individual define right versus wrong, good versus bad. These typically get their authority from something outside the individual -- a higher being or higher authority (e.g. government, society). Moral concepts, judgments and practices may vary from one society to another. (From "What is the Difference Between Ethics, Morals and Values?", Frank Navran)

A designated neutral or impartial dispute resolution practitioner whose major function is to provide confidential and informal assistance to managers and employees and/or clients of the employer: patients, students, suppliers or customers.

Taking time to consider and deliberate the long term consequences of a choice before making that choice and acting upon it.

Rules-centered Code of Conduct
Frequently takes the form of a list of behavioral requirements, the violation of which could result in disciplinary action.

Static responsibility
The world of duty, obligation, and accountability: doing what you are told, doing what you promised, doing what is expected. (From "The Joy in Taking Responsibility: Remarks to the Corps of Cadets, Valley Forge Military Academy & College", April 2001, Kenneth W. Johnson)

A set of questions used to examine a condition, situation or value.

Generally, referring to a state or condition that can be maintained over an indefinite period of time. Commonly used with development as in: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (from the 1987 publication "Our Common Future" by the World Commission on Environment and Development.)

Task Force
A temporary grouping under one leadership for the purpose of accomplishing a definite objective.


  1. Sharing information and acting in an open manner.
  2. A principle that allows those affected by administrative decisions, business transactions or charitable work to know not only the basic facts and figures but also the mechanisms and processes. It is the duty of civil servants, managers and trustees to act visibly, predictably and understandably. (From the Transparency International website,

The core beliefs we hold regarding what is right and fair in terms of our actions and our interactions with others. Another way to characterize values is that they are what an individual believes to be of worth and importance to their life (valuable).  (From "What is the Difference Between Ethics, Morals and Values?", Frank Navran) 

Values-centered Code of Ethics Offers
A set of ethical ideals, such as integrity, trust-worthiness and responsibility, which companies want employees to adopt in their work practices.


  1. A person who takes a concern (such as a concern about safety, financial fraud, or mistreatment) outside of the organization in which the abuse or suspected abuse is occurring and with which the whistle-blower is affiliated.
  2. Whistleblowing is made up of four components: "(1) An individual act with the intention of making information public; (2) the information is conveyed to parties outside the organization who make it public and a part of the public record; (3) the information has to do with possible or actual nontrivial wrongdoing in an organization; (4) the person exposing the agency is not a journalist or ordinary citizen, but a member or former member of the organization." (From "Whistleblowing: When It Works -- and Why," 2003, Roberta Ann Johnson )

The following sites also have ethics glossaries online:

The Online Ethics Center Glossary:
An in-depth glossary of terms used in relation to ethics from the Online Ethics Center for Science and Engineering at the Case Western Reserve University. The mission of the Ethics Center is to provide engineers, scientists, teachers and science and engineering students, with resources useful for understanding and addressing ethically significant problems that arise in their work life.

The Nonprofit Good Practice Guide
Includes large glossary of terms related to all aspects of philanthropy, volunteerism and nonprofit management, including areas such as governance and accountability. The NGPG is a project of the Philanthropic and Nonprofit Knowledge Management Initiative (PNKM) at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership.

Philosophy / Ethics Glossary
Detailed descriptions of the major concepts used in Ethics from the Bentley College Philosophy Department. Bentley College educates students to be leaders in business and related professions in a global economy, by combining the communicative, creative and reflective strengths of the arts and sciences with the analytical, technological and problem solving strengths of business.

Ethics Updates -- Glossary
General glossary of ethics terms with clear definitions. Part of the Resources section of Ethics Updates, from the University of San Diego, which provide updates on current literature, both popular and professional, that relates to ethics and is designed primarily to be used by ethics instructors and their students.