We've collected a fair amount of questions. In my opinion "ethics" in general is too subjective and distant from a "real" problem to be an answerable question; everyone has an opinion, but no one has an answer. Often the "real" problem has more to do with what's a smart thing to do or what looks good to others; I don't particularly feel that's a good definition of Ethics, and I'm not sure the dictionary definition of Ethics fits with anything answerable (constructively).

To what extent are ethics questions answerable and within our scope?

  • Also, are the questions that are tagged ethics, that aren't closed, really ethics questions?
    – Nicole
    Sep 24, 2012 at 1:21
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    @NickC good point...pretty much all of the open ones are about practical problems, the "ethics" bit (as I note) is mostly "will this come back to bite me?"
    – Rarity
    Oct 1, 2012 at 13:05
  • Err a lot of "ethics" problems do have a real answer - its just that a lot of SO type contributors are uncomfortable debating and dealing with the issues.
    – Neuro
    Oct 5, 2012 at 13:52
  • @Neuro care to elaborate on that? Debate isn't an answer. If there are answers that are rooted in some form of expertise or valuable experience not just "X is wrong and bad" that's fine. When you say "real answer" I'm not sure which you're referring to. Not constructive is not the same as "uncomfortable with the issue"
    – Rarity
    Oct 5, 2012 at 14:37

5 Answers 5


In many cases, the ethics questions seem to have more than one dimension to them. Take, for instance, the question Should I tell my employer I'm in school?

This person seemed to be asking about this from an ethical perspective, but I answered it from a logistical and strategic perspective instead, focusing on the possible consequences of each option rather than whether or not it's right or wrong.

As long as the questions have enough detail to where they can be answered from a strategic view or focusing on consequences, then I don't personally see a problem with the question.

To clarify what I mean by consequences, I mean will someone be harmed by action X or Y, not necessarily will the op be harmed or punished, although that could be included as well.

Something doesn't necessarily have to be illegal for there to be a consequence, especially if the action causes people to distrust you, hurts their business, or somehow influences someone else to do something harmful that they otherwise wouldn't.

Hope this helps!

  • And yet your answer there starts with "there's a very good chance ..." and that's the problem with ethical questions.
    – pdr
    Sep 25, 2012 at 10:11
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    Which is why, @pdr, that we can't just mindlessly blanket-close ethics questions. There may be more to them. The same could be true about any question that crosses over into the grey areas. Each must be evaluated on their own merits. If the question truly is NC, then we close as NC. Otherwise, we edit it into shape and move on.
    – jmort253
    Sep 25, 2012 at 14:55
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    And if the OP fails to point out those other dimensions, it benefits everyone else if there are answers that do address them.
    – user8365
    Nov 14, 2013 at 19:53

I don't think ethics is within our purview. Unfortunately, it depends on the ethics of two different people. One of those people we have access to, although in many cases we can assume they're looking for validation for a decision they want to make (and have thus ethically justified to themselves). But we don't have access to the other.

The problem here is that a wrong answer can have serious consequences for the person we're advising.

I have worked for companies where emailing in one morning and saying "I feel a bit rough, I'm going to work from home today" is considered unethical. It isn't at my current company. However, if you were to work here for about a year and leave, you'd never get offered another job here. A year wasn't unusual at my previous company.

My point being that it's not cultural (although that does have a bearing), it's not about which company is more progressive. Every company has different things they call unethical and I've been surprised many times in my career.

Again, if we give bad advice on these things, we could cause someone a serious problem. If I asked if it was ok to leave a company after a year, you might well say yes because, in most companies, it's not a bridge-burning issue. But it would cause a lot of ill-feeling that you didn't warn me about. Cause how could you?

  • 4
    The wrong answers on any Workplace SE questions can have serious consequences for the reader, not just the ethics questions. Therefore, I'm still not convinced these questions need to all be blanket closed. They should each be evaluated on their own merits. See Chad's answer. I think he makes a great point about how to tell the difference between NC and not on these. Hope this helps!
    – jmort253
    Sep 25, 2012 at 14:58
  • @jmort253: I would agree that there are other questions that applies to. My point is that ethics are always too localised for us to be able to answer safely.
    – pdr
    Sep 25, 2012 at 15:01
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    Maybe what would help is if you could define where you think the boundary might be? I think Chad got us off on a good start, and seeing the boundary might help make your point a little more clear to the naysayers. Not saying I disagree, just that we don't want to get people digging into questions saying, "oh, there's a small point about ethics in this really great strategical question, ETHIIICS! Vote To Close!"
    – jmort253
    Sep 25, 2012 at 15:09
  • I'm struggling to think of a question of the "Should I ...?", "Can I ...?", "Is it ok/ethical to ...?" ilk that I would consider on-topic. There may be something, but I can't think of it right now. But anything saying "When should I ...?", "How should I ...?", etc. is fine.
    – pdr
    Sep 25, 2012 at 15:18
  • I think those are some great keywords to focus on. We can also edit those out of some borderline questions and avoid closure altogether in some cases.
    – jmort253
    Sep 26, 2012 at 1:58
  • "I feel a bit rough, I'm going to work from home today" is considered unethical. I suspect it is considered unprofessional rather than unethical. Ethics is not about a localised problem it is the overall morality of the issue. The problems you are talking about are culture and professionalism issues. Oct 11, 2012 at 18:12

I think constructive questions about acting ethically in compliance of a policy or directive in the future should be on topic. These are real pitfalls of the workplace and we can provide good answers to help a person deal with them.

Questions asking us to judge the ethics of an action that has already taken place should be considered not constructive since the action can not be undone.

Questions asking us to judge the ethics of a policy should be closed because they are not constructive.

  • Just curious, I agree with what you say mostly, but what about someone asking about implementing a policy?
    – Matt Ridge
    Oct 17, 2012 at 16:29
  • @MattRidge - Can you provide an example? Oct 17, 2012 at 16:37
  • I'm not saying one exists so far, but we may want to use a Create-Policy-Ethics tag, instead of just an Ethics tag.
    – Matt Ridge
    Oct 17, 2012 at 17:38
  • @MattRidge - I am thinking that should be off topic so no need but can ask the question Oct 17, 2012 at 19:10

My original answer is already voted up so I did not want to add this part:

I think we should disallow the ethics tag. It is a meta tag, and since questions that are purely about ethics (especially ethics theory) are off topic here, I suggest we disallow the tag.

We could provide a warning to users that while questions about applied ethics in the workplace may be on topic it may be preferable to ask questions about ethics on the Philosophy SE.

  • 1
    Removing (or not) the tag is a separate discussion.
    – yannis
    Oct 12, 2012 at 7:06
  • @YannisRizos - Not really it can be the solution to this discussion. Oct 12, 2012 at 12:52
  • Chad, discussions don't need solutions ;} Anyway, it's a separate issue. We might decide that we like ethics questions, but not the tag itself, what then? As I've already said, when this discussion concludes, ask a separate question about removing the tag. It's a very simple process, really...
    – yannis
    Oct 12, 2012 at 12:57

Ethics are a very valid workplace issue. I can see there's a fear that questions with an ethical component might generate argument and noise rather than constructive debate, but that can be resolved through moderation.

Consider that part of the point of a professional code of ethics is to provide consistent and carefully considered answers to difficult moral questions without requiring the individual to conduct their own moral inquiry. Firstly, that surely gives us a model for our own approach to ethical issues; discuss them in practical workplace terms, rather than as articles of religious faith. Secondly, it indicates a serious problem if we ban ethical debate; do we exclude all discussion of ethical codes of conduct, despite their being a key element of some professions? Or do we include only questions regarding recognised professional codes (and then fight endless turf wars over inconsistencies and what should be recognised or not)?

If this truly becomes a problem issue, we can revisit it. I don't see a reason to exclude this area for now.

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