Skip to content

The Difference Between Ethics and Integrity


The Difference Between Ethics and Integrity

It shouldn’t be a grey area, but is.

It shouldn’t be something we need to write about, but it is.

What it should be is something we all have ingrained into our psyche. Something that’s instinctive, and which governs our behaviour without question.

But it isn’t.

As we look around us and see the corruption in so many organisations and governments both at home and globally, it begs the question:

What has happened to integrity?

And what would it feel like to live in a world without it?

Before even attempting to answer that question, it’s important to distinguish between integrity and its softer cousin, ethics.

When we talk about ethics, we refer to something largely external. The official rules, regulations and organisational codes of conduct that have been created with the intention of giving people a moral framework in which to operate.

Ethics is not something we choose.

It is something we have imposed on us by others.

Ethics is actually quite like tax.

We know we have to pay tax, but we don’t like doing it. So, we constantly look for loopholes and workarounds; ways to get away with whatever we can – while still technically staying within the rules.

If you’re less accountant-minded and more sports mad, you might prefer a rugby analogy:

What can we get away with in the scrum when the ref’s not looking?

A little eye gouging here, a casual bite of the ear there…

If he didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.

Ethics is something you can fake.

Integrity simply isn’t.

So, What Is Integrity?

Integrity is internal. It’s our personal choice of how we want to behave – personally and professionally.

It’s what sits right with us – in our gut, our conscience, and our heart – and allows us to sleep at night.

Integrity is being honest, having strong moral principles, and doing the right thing.

It’s what we do when no one is looking.

But here’s the fundamental problem:

Most people no longer act with integrity.

The appeal – and ease – of getting away with what we can, while we can, has seduced us to the point that what was previously unthinkable is now something we think about all the time.

The unacceptable is not only now acceptable, but also the norm.

People try to justify it, saying, “Well, the world is so competitive, to get ahead, or even just to keep my head above water, I have no choice but to behave this way.”

In other words, why be honest when honesty doesn’t pay?

Allow me to answer that…

Because when integrity fails, society fails.

When our moral compass points permanently south, it creates a societal burden that gets heavier and heavier to bear.

Where once a person’s word was their bond, we now spend countless hours and even more money trying to get people to keep their promises and do the right thing. Audits, internal controls, inspections, police checks…all aimed at trying to inspire and motivate honest behaviour.

Why do we need this carrot and stick approach? Why do we feel we need a reward for behaving like a decent human being?

And it’s NOT enough to take smug comfort from the fact that we’re not actually the ones being dishonest.

If we see others behaving without integrity, but we stand by and do nothing, we are complicit in the dishonesty.

“All that’s needed for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.”

Edmund Burke

What Does Integrity Look Like When It’s On?

Integrity isn’t just something you can take on and off like a jacket. It’s not a sparkly accessory you can show off when you’re looking to impress.

Integrity means living out your kindness, honesty, responsibility, and trustworthiness in an intentional and consistent manner.

It’s not a difficult thing to understand – but it seems incredibly hard to action.

The truth is, we have gone soft on the issue of integrity. We’re too weak, or too scared, to stand up to those who threaten it.

Yet we waste no time complaining about the lack of societal morals. We moan about corruption to anyone who will listen, and we blame dishonesty for everything that’s wrong with our country and our world.

So, what you going to do about it?

Integrity is more about values than it is about personal gain, and that’s where most of the problem lies.

If there’s no “what’s in it for me?” there’s no interest.

Well, here’s what’s in it for you:

  • Community and corporate cohesion – Corruption creates resentment due to lost opportunities. Integrity creates unity and harmony.
  • Innovation and inspiration – when resources can be channelled into entrepreneurial development, instead of into fighting corruption, growth happens.
  • Strong leadership – when our leaders are transparent and accountable, communities thrive.
  • Community empowerment and enrichment – transparent, honest governance ensures resources are well utilised and everyone has equal access to education, healthcare and security.

The time to talk is past.

The time to act is now.