Ethics are either considered cultural or highly personal. Your personal ethics may have come from an intensely religious background or no religion at all. Whether you believe that the moral principles underlying your beliefs or actions arise from an absolute standard or are determined by the situation, there is still a need to define those values relating to human conduct that ensure the peaceful and orderly conduct of the members of any society.
In the narrow field of genealogical research and publication, ethical considerations arise in the context of activities that impinge on privacy, copyright, plagiarism, and historicity. There are (or should be) ethical considerations when genealogists alter facts, documents or images to suit their personal view of the past.
Let me start with a series of hypotheticals. Beware, some of the following are trick questions.
You are a beginning genealogist and in searching online in one of the large online family tree programs, you find a near relative has done a considerable amount of work on your own lines. Do you copy the entire family tree or only parts of it?
Changing the facts a bit, suppose that one of your relatives sends you a copy of his or her "file" containing all of your relative's documentation and notes. Would it be unethical to copy the entire file online and put your own name on it and leave out where you got the information? How much of the file can you copy without disclosing where you got the information?
In documenting your genealogy file, you run across some documents that indicate, for the first time to your knowledge, that your mother had an illegitimate child before she met your father and they got married. Should you immediately put this information in your online family tree? Should you share this information with your siblings? What about putting the information up on Facebook?
Let's suppose you are doing some research into your great-grandparents' family life and discover that your great-grandfather did time in the Federal Prison for fraud and tax evasion. No one else in the family has discovered these facts yet. Do you write about it in a blog? Do you include the information in your family file at all? If you do record the information do you tell the larger community?
Another hypothetical. You are researching your family and you find a wonderful story about them your ancestors in a blog post. Do you just copy the whole story onto your own website or family tree and forget where it came from? How much of the story can you copy without telling where it came from?
How much, if any, information should you put online about living people?
You can see that I could on and on with hypothetical situations such as those above. The reason is simple, these types of situations practically permeate genealogy. I can also say from experience, that I know of a serious conflict concerning every one of the situations highlighted by the hypotheticals.
It not unusual for newly minted genealogists to approach the subject with a "copy everything for free" attitude. This is an extension of the recent phenomena of "if it is on the Internet, I can copy it" attitude. But fortunately, most genealogists have a sense of ethics. Although parts of the system are chaotic, genealogy as a whole observes some moderately strict ethics. I say moderately because there are no clearly defined parameters and genealogists as a whole are ethical but there are exceptions.
If I were to propose some ethical considerations for genealogists, I am afraid I would be much stricter in some areas and much laxer in others than the main stream majority. I would propose some very clear guidelines about copying the work of others urging all to stay within the guidelines set down by U.S. and International copyright law. But I have a very narrow view of privacy. I would not be overly protective of what most people consider private matters. On the other hand, I would be an extremist in the area of historicity. I feel there is no excuse for rewriting history to suit our own present feelings of correctness or simply to avoid offending people. History is history and it should be reported and recorded as completely accurately as possible.
One major difficultly, of course, is that using something like the copyright law to determine your ethics is a trap. The copyright law is arcane, inconsistent and in some cases contradictory. There are no clear standards for how much of a document can be copied for fair use, for example and there are also no clear guidelines for what is and what is not subject to copyright in many areas. In addition, some entities use the copyright law as a hammer to beat on their supposed competition or for other even less altruistic reasons.
All in all, there are serious inconsistencies in how "ethics" should be applied to the various areas of genealogical concern. Borrowing a statement from the medical community, first, do no harm. As much as possible decisions made in any of these areas should try to avoid conflict and hard feelings or even animosity. In some cases, genealogists may need more than the average folklore level of understanding of things such as the copyright law. In other instances they may also have to avoid publishing damaging information until the concerned parties have passed on to their eternal reward. But from my perspective, I think we do have an ethical duty to preserve history as completely and honestly as possible. In the course of doing research, if a member of the family makes a demand to alter the record to accommodate their particular view of the subject, then the researcher will have to decide which is more important, placating a relative or preserving the accurate historical record. I have already mentioned my position in that type of situation.
Since much of what we perceive as ethical is in fact culturally determined, I further suggest that we not be too fast in judging others' decisions based on our own set of morals. On the other hand, I do believe that there is a universal human morality and that when actions fall outside of what is universally accepted as good and moral, they are reprehensible and should be dealt with in the way the law of the country requires. We should, above all else, be examples in honoring the laws of the countries where we live. I will put off to another time, if ever, the discussion of what our responsibilities are if the law of the land is not ethically enforced or is immoral.