The importance of moral courage: more than just a principle?

London cityscape and skyline
By Norman Murray CA

22 March 2017

Moral courage is important when putting ethics into action but how should this be recognised in the ICAS Code of Ethics?  

In November 2015, ICAS launched its business ethics initiative, The Power of One, calling on every CA to place ethical leadership at the heart of their professional responsibilities. 

ICAS established the Ethics Board to add further prominence to the issue of business ethics and undertook to take a strong leadership role in the advancement and application of ethics.

In conjunction with the launch of The Power of One, ICAS reviewed the five fundamental ethics principles contained within the ICAS Code of Ethics (the Code). These principles are:

  • Integrity: to be straightforward and honest in all professional and business relationships.
  • Objectivity: to not allow bias, conflict of interest, or undue influence of others to override professional or business judgements.
  • Professional competence and due care: to maintain professional knowledge and skill at the level required to ensure that a client or employer receives competent, professional services based on current developments in practice, legislation and techniques, and act diligently and in accordance with applicable technical and professional standards.
  • Confidentiality: to respect the confidentiality of information acquired as a result of professional and business relationships and, therefore, not disclose any such information to third parties without proper and specific authority, unless there is a legal or professional right or duty to disclose, nor use the information for the personal advantage of the professional accountant or third parties.
  • Professional behaviour: to comply with relevant laws and regulations, and avoid any action that discredits the profession.

The Code is largely based on the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants (IESBA) Code of Ethics, which provides the foundation for most professional accounting bodies worldwide.  

Proposals for change

The conclusions of the ICAS review were set out in a discussion paper, The Five Fundamental Ethics Principles: Time for Evaluation? This discussion paper sets out some proposed amendments to the current principles, including:

  • the introduction of a new, separate principle of “moral courage”;
  • a greater focus on personal responsibility, ethical leadership and public interest responsibilities within the existing principles;
  • highlighting the need for “ethical judgements”; and
  • the adoption of a proposal by IESBA relating to the principle of professional behaviour.

The focus on moral courage was the most significant of these.

The courage to act morally

In recent years, unethical behaviour has often been at the root of scandals involving both individuals and corporations. Michael Woodford, former CEO at Olympus, hit the headlines when he demonstrated moral courage, blowing the whistle on unethical practices at the company.

However, many CAs face pressures and difficult professional decisions on a daily basis. The consequences of an inappropriate decision are potentially ruinous, not only for the individual, but also for their organisation. 

In many situations, doing the right thing may not be easy; CAs need courage to act morally.

For accountants, ethical or moral courage is required to counter the fears that they face, such as damage to their reputation and livelihood. 

The additional principle of moral courage aims to recognise that it can be difficult to stand up against others and take an ethical stance, and it requires an inner resolve to do so.

Responses and conclusion

The discussion paper prompted responses from several large UK accountancy firms, professional bodies, a regulator and individuals.

There was support for the concept of moral courage, although most respondents did not support its introduction as an additional fundamental ethics principle.

One professional body described moral courage as “an enabler”, and noted that the need for it applies across all existing principles. One accountancy firm who responded to the paper noted that moral courage was an integral part of the existing framework, and they would support it receiving more prominence.

ICAS wishes to thank all of the respondents to the discussion paper for their valuable input. On the basis of the feedback received, it is not intended to unilaterally add a new fundamental ethics principle of moral courage to the ICAS Code of Ethics.

However, it is envisaged that the concept of moral courage will be introduced into the ICAS Code of Ethics in order to reflect the ICAS belief that moral courage is an underpinning qualitative characteristic required of a CA.

Consideration is currently being given as to where this content should most appropriately be included.

Read the full version of this article in the February 2017 edition of CA magazine.


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  • The Power of One

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