What are Social Ethics?

N. Phipps

Social ethics are the philosophical or moral principles that, in one way or another, represent the collective experience of people and cultures. This sort of ethics often acts as a sort of “code of conduct” that governs what is and is not acceptable, as well as providing a framework for ensuring that all members of the community are cared for. Standard ethics are typically driven by individual morals that determine right or wrong. Within a society, the focus is usually more on what may be considered appropriate behavior for people as a whole. People perceive things differently, however, and various cultures share often wildly opposing beliefs; as such, what is deemed “right” for one group may not necessarily be consistent universally — and defining social ethics as an absolute is often very difficult.

Businesses may choose to ship their products in "green" packaging to abide social ethics.
Businesses may choose to ship their products in "green" packaging to abide social ethics.

Action Dictates for People

There are some broad standards that members of most societies are expected to adhere to in the course of regularly interacting with each other. These are sometimes reflected in laws or legal codes — like prohibitions against killing and thievery, for instance. Religious texts like the Bible may sometimes be used as the basis for a society’s ethical climate. More often, though, they are things that should be done or not done for no other reason that they are the “right things to do.” The proverbial “golden rule” of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” fits this model well.

A society's social ethics are typically dictated by their religious beliefs.
A society's social ethics are typically dictated by their religious beliefs.

How Corporations and Businesses Are Affected

In most places, companies also abide by guiding social ethics principles. This can come in the form of eco-conscious or “green” sourcing and packaging, for example. Local responsibility may also play a role — corporate leaders often feel compelled by ethical norms to donate a percentage of annual profits to local charities, for instance, or to encourage employees to get involved with community service or volunteer opportunities in the nearby area. Many see this as a way for a company to “give back” to the communities that allow them to be successful in the first place.

Doing good deeds is commonly part of social ethics.
Doing good deeds is commonly part of social ethics.

Cultural and Regional Differences

Part of the problem with universally defining social ethics is that there are many different elements that contribute to them. Language, race, gender and culture all come into the equation; religion and education also play a role. The standards used to enforce social ethics are also numerous, including family values, religious beliefs, morality, integrity, and so forth.

Social ethics play a role in determining the consequences for various crimes.
Social ethics play a role in determining the consequences for various crimes.

In order for societal standards to work in the face of such differences, most societies operate under a “majority rule” system where what is best for the most people becomes standard. The rights and interests of the majority can only be enforced to the extent that others are not harmed or disenfranchised, however. Majority-based social ethics usually includes sharing with others, doing good deeds, and acknowledging different viewpoints. Social ethics also typically involves acceptance and tolerance of differences.

Pressing Issues

Topics like economics, immigration, and poverty and hunger often create some of the biggest questions within the social ethics realm. Concerns about the environment, homosexuality, and religious tolerance also tend to rank high on the list, along with the death penalty, abortion, and human cloning. These and similar issues often raise major concerns when it comes to how communities judge “right” and “wrong.” The role of social ethics is to provide members of society a framework for approaching controversial or sensitive issues so that everyone can peacefully coexist.

Caring for the elderly and disabled is part of social ethics.
Caring for the elderly and disabled is part of social ethics.

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Discussion Comments


I'm not sure if this is the right place for this but here goes!

Having heard today that Jude Law the actor is to receive £130,000 for having his phone 'hacked', unsettles me!

It unsettles me because in March 2007, my wife Pauline to whom I had been married to for 19 years, was accidentally killed in the hospital and I received no compensation whatsoever!

Why is it that the Fatal Accident Act of 1976 is conditional on negligence being proved? Surely a fatal accident is just that, regardless of negligence!

Why is it that Mr. Law will feel, and rightly so, that justice has been served to him and can now continue with his life and yet for me to feel that I have been abandoned by the state and can never feel that justice has been done to enable me to continue with my life and move on!


Cupcake15-I love Target. I know that many companies get involved with the United Way.

In UPS all members of management are expected to contribute a certain level of their paycheck to this cause.

This company blends the social corporate responsibility and creates an altruistic corporate culture. There is even a program for members of management to take time off to volunteer in a mission or charity of their choice. This is really social ethics in the making.


Latte31-Ethics and social responsibility in management really should blend the ethics of integrity with empathy.

Members of management should always manage from a perspective of placing themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Seeing something from the employee’s perspective before you react is essential. An ethical manager will never defraud the shareholders of a company as we saw in Enron, and such a person would not have the conscience to hurt the employees like that.

That is why a company that makes social responsibility and ethics in management important in the culture will always be rewarded. Customers tend to look favorably on companies that give back. Target gives millions to local schools and is also very generous with its employees. Companies like this are blessed with positive karma.


GreenWeaver-Social responsibility really focuses on the need to help those that are underprivileged. While we are not required to give to charities or raise money for deserving families that may have nothing to eat, morally you can not look the other way.

It is a tenet of the Judeo-Christian philosophy that we should try to help those that need our help.

If we were blessed with a prosperous life, then we should give back to show our appreciation and gratitude for our success.

There are so many children’s organizations that need help that anyone can spare an hour or two to read a story or get involved in a charitable event to raise money for a worthy cause.


The difference between ethics and social responsibility involve what is morally acceptable for someone versus what is acceptable for an entire community as a whole.

Social and personal ethics pertain to honesty and integrity. This is something that should be so ingrained in a person’s character that nothing will make them waiver.

You really can not teach honesty or integrity because either you believe in these values or you don’t. If you do people will generally trust and respect you more.

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