Dr. Emiliano Hudtohan

Educator, Business Writer, Industry Expert and Entrepreneur

Legal but not necessarily ethical

Manila Standard Today

January 28, 2013

Chiarra King of Ateneo de Manila University invited me to speak on business ethics at the national conference of the Association of Legal Management on February 2, 2013. Knowing that my audience are students who will soon work with lawyers in a corporate milieu, I pondered upon on what is legal and what is ethical.

Ethics and Moral

On what is ethical, I recall the distinction made by Fr. Belita, CM who said that “ethics is a universal or philosophical system of principles and their application, whereas morality refers to standards or values of a social group, like a religious group, or simply as individual.”  Admittedly, he concedes an overlapping because “some would just interchange the two concepts.”

My take is that the generic ethical principle on determining what is right or wrong in practice requires the individual to makes use of her/his presence to the situation based on her/his nature (DNA) and nurture (external influences).  And a major influence, I believe, is cultural. Our 450 years of Christianity have molded the Filipino to interpret right or wrong in accordance with her/his religious upbringing.  In this sense, practical ethics is applied Catholic or Christian morality. A case in point is the struggle we experienced on the issue of RH bill.  The legality of this bill immediately touches the morality of all concerned. In another case, the right of a mining company to explore and exploit [make use of] mineral resources has created extreme reactions from the pro and con advocates of mining. Recently, the act of the senate president to give year-end gifts to fellow senators may have had legal basis but its propriety, ethically speaking, is being questioned.  These examples tell us that choosing or determining what is right or wrong puts the individual into a dilemma.  How does one then hold the two horns of the tamaraw to wrestle with the dilemma and come out with the right decision?

Years back, as I began teaching the course on business ethics and work-life balance at De La Salle MBA, I wrote an article on “The Leader as a Moral Agent.”  It was my version of Trevino, Hartman and Brown’s idea that a business executive must develop a reputation for ethical leadership.  I think today each one from all walks of life is called to “be good and do good.”  The divide between being and doing is easily seen when unethical and illegal business deal is made and a photo op is published under the heading of corporate social responsibility endeavor.  Can a grandiose donation of a philanthropist be considered ethical when the internal business practices of his company do not comply with legal standards?

Ethical Choice

In many precarious situations, we find ourselves in an ethical dilemma.  Atty. Julius Babista, former Dean of Student Affairs and business and law professor of Adamson University, in his report to my PhD in management class at the De La Salle Araneta University shared Rushworth Kidder’s dilemma paradigms. One must choose between truth and loyalty because it is right to stand on one’s truth and it is right to be loyal to a person. One must choose between individual interest and common good of many.  One must choose to think and plan short-term or long-term satisfaction. And one must stick to the principle of justice and enforce it or exercise the right to be merciful and charitable.

To make the right choice, Kidder offers some tests to determine if one’s behavior is ethical: 1. Obey the law test by complying with the law; 2. Front page test: See your self in a broadsheet or in digital media; 3. Mom test: What will your mother say? 4. Gut test: What does your ‘kutob’ say? 5. Golden rule test: What is good for me is good for them; and 6. Greatest good test: Follow the Rotarian type of common good.

Highly Evolved People

A dilemma requires Solomonic wisdom but it does not come easy because we are socially conditioned by our family upbringing, schooling and corporate culture.  But maybe if we allow our DNA to balance all the externalities that shaped us, Ken Wilber, Peter Senge, Brian Hall and Stephen Covey among many will be able to help us determine the right choice that comes from our DNA and from divine origin.  Then we can become what Neil Walsh calls  highly evolve beings (HEB). May I say, Filipinos are highly evolved people (HEP).  We forgive; we forget.  We laugh; we cry.  We live; we let live.  We receive; we give. We play; we pray. When we feel good and victorious we shout, “HEP. HEP. Hooray” let it be a celebration of our being highly evolved people, capable of living within a legal framework, making ethical decisions, and being conscious of transcendent nature.


The problem with universal principle in ethics is that when the principles are applied to a here-and-now situation, the decision maker makes a local interpretation according to her/his mode of interpretation.  My contention is that our 450 years of moral training under a dogmatic Church developed in us a code that triggers a knee-jerk interpretation of an ethical dilemma.  Immediately, the ethical [and legal] issue becomes a moral issue and the choice will be made in accordance with a recording from a ‘conscience’ voice of a religious authority.  To give a universal flavor to our interpretation of what is moral and legal, we need to reframe our ‘old’ interpretation and create a new science of ethical and moral hermeneutics.

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