The role of ethics in accounting

Prof. Samanthi Senaratneby Prof. Samanthi Senaratne

Samanthi Senaratne is Professor in Accounting and the present Head of the Department of Accounting at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. She holds a Bachelors Degree in Accounting with a first class, an MBA and a PhD specialising in finance. She is prolific researcher and has published widely in the areas of corporate governance, corporate social responsibility reporting and accounting education. She engages in teaching in the areas of financial reporting and accounting theory at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Introduction

The ethics of a business is currently a high profile issue owing to sensational corporate scandals that had taken place in many countries causing extensive damages to the economy and society. These corporate scandals question the morality of businessmen in general and accountants in particular. It is argued that the accountants have been the main contributors to the decline in ethical standards of a business. International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) in its research report titled as ‘Rebuilding public confidence in financial reporting – an international perspective’ (2003) issued in the aftermath of the collapse of Enron and WorldCom in 2002 concluding that financial scandals experienced in the recent times were symptoms of deeper problems and identified that improvement of ethical standards, adequacy of financial management, reporting mechanisms, audit quality and strengthening of governance regimes as means to improve public confidence in financial reporting. The accounting profession has a responsibility towards these areas, whose deficiencies have led to corporate scandals and collapses. Hence, today, ethical conduct of accounting professionals has become a topical issue. In this context, this paper focuses on the following aspects: the concept of ethics, various theoretical perspectives which guide ethical judgment and ethics and professional practice.

The concept of ethics

The definition of ethics is shaped by personal, societal and professional values, all of which are difficult to specify. Some stress the importance of society’s interests and others stress the interests of the individual. These conflicting viewpoints have dominated the discussion of ethics for a long time and may remain in the future as well. Thus, the term ‘ethics’ will have to be defined in this context. 

The word ‘ethics’ is derived from the Greek word ‘ethos’ (character) and Latin word ‘moras’ (customs).  Taken together these two words define how individuals choose to interact with one another. Thus, ethics is about choices. It signifies how people act in order to make the ‘right’ choice and produce ‘good’ behaviour. It encompasses the examination of principles, values and norms, the consideration of available choices to make the right decision and the strength of character to act in accordance with the decision. Hence, ethics, as a practical discipline, demands the acquisition of moral knowledge and the skills to properly apply such knowledge to the problems of daily life.

Philosophical theories of ethics

Decision making based on intuition or personal feeling does not always lead to the right course of action. Therefore, ethical decision making requires a criterion to ensure good judgment. The philosophical theories of ethics provide different and distinct criteria for good, right or moral judgment.

Three prominent philosophical theories of ethics are utilitarianism, rights and justice. They are normative theories of ethics, which provide a principle or standard on how a person ought to behave towards others by considering the right and wrong of an action. These normative theories are divided into two broad classifications, consequential and non-consequential. Consequential theories define ‘good’ in terms of its consequences, and a best known example is theory of utilitarianism. In contrast, non-consequential theories define ‘good’ not by its consequences but by its intrinsic value and the best known examples are the rights and justice theories. These theories are described below. 

(a) The theory of utilitarianism

According to this theory, the ethical alternative is the one that maximises good consequences over bad consequences. Jeremy Bentham, who is considered as the father of utilitarian ethics, defines utilitarianism as the greatest happiness principle (the principle of utility), which measures good and bad consequences in terms of happiness and pain. He wrote as follows in his book ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’:

"Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think."

The terms ‘happiness’ and ‘pain’ have broad meaning and encompass all aspects of human welfare, including pleasure and sadness, health and sickness, satisfaction and disappointment, positive and negative emotions, achievement and failure and knowledge and ignorance. Applying the utilitarian principle is a procedural process involving five steps: (1) Define the problem; (2) Identify the stakeholders affected by the problem; (3) List the alternative courses of action for resolving the problem; (4) Identify and calculate the short- and long- term costs and benefits (pain and happiness) for each alternative course of action and (5) Select the course of action that yields greatest sum of benefits over costs for the greatest number of people. Thus, ethical conduct by accountants based on this theory leads to consideration of all possible consequences of a decision for all parties affected by it.

This theory takes a pragmatic and common sense approach to ethics. Actions are right to the extent that they benefit people (i.e. actions, which produce more benefit than harm are right and those that do not are wrong). Thus, the cognitive process required for utilitarian decision making appears similar to the cost-benefit analysis that is normally applied in business decisions. However, there are important distinctions between the two concepts in relation to the nature of consequences, the measurability of the consequences and stakeholder analysis.

(b) The theory of rights

The theory of rights stems from the belief that people have an inherent worth as human beings that must be respected. Therefore, according to this theory, a good decision is one that respects the rights of others. Conversely, a decision is wrong to the extent that it violates another person’s rights. In general, the rights can be divided into two categories: (1) natural rights (rights that exist independently of any legal structure) and (2) Legal rights and contractual rights (rights that are created by social agreement). The natural rights are commonly known as human rights or constitutional rights.

Among many natural rights, the right to the truth is important to the function of accounting. The users of financial statements have the right to truthful and accurate financial information when making choices on alternative investment strategies. This right imposes a moral obligation on the accountant and the reporting entity to prepare and issue, true and fair financial statements. On the other hand, legal and contractual rights are important in the accountant-employer and the accountant-client relationships. These contractual relationships mean that employers and clients have a legal right to expect professional and competent service from the accountants. In turn, the accountants have a corresponding legal duty to perform their tasks to the best of their ability within the constraints of their expertise.

(c) The theory of justice

Understanding this theory requires understanding various notions of justice. Generally, justice is described as fairness, which refers to the correlation between contribution and reward. However, fairness alone cannot define the term justice. There are also other forms of justice, which include equality (assumes that all people have equal worth), procedural justice (concerns with due process) and compensatory justice (addressed the loss from a wrongful act). However, a comprehensive theory incorporating these various domains of justice has yet to be developed. Thus, the focus of this paper is on the theory of justice, which is based on the principle of distributive justice. It focuses on how fairly one’s decisions distribute benefits and burdens among members of the group. Unjust distribution of benefits and burdens is an unjust act and an unjust act is a morally wrong act.  Hence, under this theory, an ethical decision is one that produces the fairest overall distribution of benefits and burdens.

Ethics and professional practice

It is extremely important for accounting professionals to be ethical in their practices due to the very nature of their profession. The nature of accountants’ work puts them in a special position of trust in relation to their clients, employers and general public, who rely on their professional judgment and guidance in making decisions. These decisions in turn affect the resource allocation process of an economy. The accountants are relied upon because of their professional statues and ethical standards. Thus, the key to maintaining confidence of clients and the public is professional and ethical conduct.

Ensuring highest ethical standards is important to a ‘public accountant’ (one who renders professional services such as assurance and taxation service to clients for a fee) as well as to an ‘accountant in business’ (one who is employed in a private or public sector organisation for a salary). Both ‘public accountants’ and ‘accountants in business’ are in a fiduciary relationship, former with the client and latter with the employer. In such a relationship, they have the responsibility to ensure that their duties are performed in conformity with the ethical values of honesty, integrity, objectivity, due care, confidentiality, and the commitment to the public interest before one’s own. Thus, accountants, as professionals, are expected to maintain a level of ethical conduct that goes beyond society’s laws. This has made the professional accounting bodies to develop a code of professional conduct, which sets rules or standards that define right from wrong to ensure that members’ behaviour complies with perceived public expectations of ethical standards. These rules have been developed based on the ‘principles of professional conduct’, which form the basis for professional ethics. 

However, accountants’ involvement with large corporate scandals in recent times reflects that they have not complied with the expected ethical standards. It is often argued that accountants’ focus too much on technical issues and lack ethical sensitivity to recognise ethical dilemmas involved with their work, which would ultimately lead to making wrong decisions. Thus, accountants should be trained to be sensitive to identify the moral dimension of seemingly technical issues. This emphasises the need to include ethics education as a core component of professional accounting education to prepare the accounting professionals to face various ethical dilemmas that they face in carrying out their duties. The ‘Framework for International Education Standards for Professional Accountants’ (2009) published by International Accounting Education Standards Board (IAESB) of IFAC identifies that the overall objective of accounting education should be to develop competent professional accountants, who possess the necessary (a) professional knowledge, (b) professional skills, and (c) professional values, ethics, and attitudes. In this respect, the International Education Standard (IES) 4 - Professional Values, Ethics and Attitudes of IAESB recommends that a programme of professional accounting education should provide potential professional accountants with a framework of professional values, ethics and attitudes to exercise professional judgment and act in an ethical manner that is in the best interest of society and the profession. However, IES 4 requires professional accounting bodies to distinguish between teaching students about professional values, ethics and attitudes and developing ethical behaviour. Developing professional values, ethics and attitudes should begin early in the education of a professional accountant and should be re-emphasised throughout the career. Thus, developing an ethical behaviour is part of life-long learning of a professional accountant.

Conclusion

This paper deals with the concept of ethics and its implications on role of accounting professionals. Ethics has become a key area of concern in accounting at present owing to the series of corporate scandals that had taken place in the world questioning the credibility of the accounting profession. These scandals have placed in doubt the effectiveness of contemporary accounting, auditing and corporate governance practices, for which accounting profession is responsible for. Thus, recognition of the accounting profession is closely linked with the maintenance of highest ethical standards. Hence, competence in ethics has become an essential component of being a professional accountant.  

This paper has been prepared based on the following sources:
Dellaportas, S., Gibson, K., Alagiah, R., Hutchinson, M., Leung, P. and Homrigh, D.V. (2005), Ethics, Governance and Accountability: a Professional Perspective, John Wiley & Sons, Australia.
Gaffikin, M. (2008), Accounting Theory: Research, Regulation and Accounting Practice, Pearson Education, Australia.