What are ethics?

To me the word ‘ethics’ evokes some trepidation.

Am I ethical?

Is what I am doing ethical?

what makes something  unethical?

My first serious venture into ethics was when I ran a philanthropic program hiring female prisoners, once released, into one of my businesses, Fifth Quadrant, to give them an opportunity to work. Usually the women I hired had convictions of fraud or drug dealing, but one woman, Liz, had committed murder and had been locked up for 14 years.

To hire Liz or not?

I believed it was an ethical question because I may be putting my staff at risk. I really had no idea how to make this decision so I turned to the Ethics Centre and got guidance from one of their Ethicists. They asked me the question “Is hiring Liz serving the greater good?”

Since that time I have been hugely interested in ethics and human rights. Here is what I know about ethics: Ethics are the moral principles that govern your behaviour or the conducting of an activity. The key principles associated with ethics include: beneficence (the quality or state of doing or producing good), non-maleficence (non-harming or inflicting the least harm possible to reach a beneficial outcome), autonomy, justice; truth-telling and promise-keeping.

Ethics is concerned with what is good for individuals and society and is derived from the Greek word ethos which can mean custom, habit, character or disposition.


The Ethics Centre notes, “Ethics defines the best option as the one which best achieves what is good, right and consistent with the nature of the things in question”. Ethics relates to values, principles and purpose.

  • Values tell us what’s good – they’re the things we strive for, desire and seek to protect.
  • Principles tell us what’s right – outlining how we may or may not achieve our values.
  • Purpose is your reason for being – it gives life to your values and principles.

Some of the key questions to ask when considering if something is ethical or not include:

Will this decision or action:

Be for the greater good?

Make the world a better place?

Cause harm?

Be consistent with my (or my organisation’s) values and character?

Be hugely detrimental if everybody, or every organisation, did it?

These are great questions to ask yourself every time you have a difficult decision to make, when taking a difficult action or even when designing or deploying technology.

After much deliberation we hired Liz and gave her the first job in her life. The recidivism (likelihood to reoffend) rate for female prisoners at the time was 42%. We believed that providing Liz employment would increase the likelihood that she would not re-offend thereby serving the greater good. The staff supported Liz and helped ease her into her first job.

It was not easy for Liz, but she stayed with us for four months before securing a job local to where she lived so that she could be closer to her son, who was only two years old when she went to gaol.

I believed we made the right ethical decision and this gave us the framework to make many other future decisions – such as how to design good, ethical technology such as AI.