From Bureau of Economic Geology, The University of Texas at Austin (
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AAPG Distinguished Ethics Lecture Tour, 2005–2006

The “I” in BusIness EthIcs

Scott W. Tinker
AAPG 2005 Distinguished Ethics Lecturer


Accusations of business ethics violations seem to dominate headlines. Were these companies unguided by ethics policies? Quite the contrary—but they were seemingly unguided by ethical leadership. Although leaders influence the financial, strategic, and political aspects of a company, perhaps nowhere is the impact of leadership felt more strongly than in the ethics arena. Ethical companies depend on ethical leaders.

Some ethical situations are straightforward and can be guided by rules, laws, and policies. However, many situations are “neither wholly right nor wholly wrong” and introduce difficult dilemmas having justifiable alternatives and significant consequences. The business ethics gray zone is made more complicated by the complex global condition in which laws vary by country and ethics vary by culture.

Is it possible to frame an approach for ethical decision making in a world where no society, culture, or religion owns the ethical high ground? Laws and rules result from historical precedence and as such serve as well-founded guidelines for business decision making. But laws and rules should not be used to provide protective legal cover for corporations to do the wrong thing.

Corporations do not make ethical decisions; individuals do. Can an approach that targets the individual achieve results that exceed the ethical capacity of the organization? Several case examples provide a framework to explore ethical decision making, with a focus on a few basic tenets of individual interaction—honor your promises; consider the spirit of the law; recognize the situational context; reflect before deciding; compromise within personal limits; accept responsibility; and follow the Golden Rule.