Ethics is a code of honor that individuals live by. What defines ethical from unethical behavior can be formed in early childhood and carry through to adulthood. The factors that define ethical behaviors are diverse, but all factors unite when a person makes a final decision on how to act. While the reasons are diverse, they are not difficult to understand.

Social Norms

Local customs can define the ethical behavior of those living within that culture. What is considered normal in one culture can be completely unnatural in another; what is ethical in one culture can be unethical in another. Professor Prabhu Guptara, speaking to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts Commerce and Manufactures in Britain, says that different cultures have ethical differences. A 2008 Boston Youth Survey study, for example, discovered that immigrant children are non-violent, but quickly adopt the social norms of aggression in the United States.

Religious Beliefs

Many believe in life after death. Most religions have a common theme of judgment in the afterlife. In the afterlife, many believe good deeds during natural life are rewarded and bad deeds can be punished. In defining good deeds, religions have developed moral codes to live by, such as the Ten Commandments, which forbid theft, killing and other unethical behaviors. How devoutly a person adheres to these moral codes is a factor defining overall ethical behavior.


An adult's upbringing also determines ethical behavior. In general, adults who were brought up in loving, non-abusive households display socially appropriate ethical behavior. Conversely, adults who were brought up in abusive, dysfunctional families tend to display unethical behavior. Prevent Child Abuse America, in an extensive 2008 study, found that 42 percent of abused children were arrested for crimes when they became adults.

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Laws, and a person abiding by them, influence ethical behavior. Fear of prosecution and punishment is a great deterrent, and as such, many do not break the law. In the United States, ethical behavior is defined by law, such as not stealing or not causing property damage. The level of punishment is roughly tied to the level of crime. A person knows that, for example, if he is caught shoplifting, he could go to jail. This deters him from shoplifting.