In my humble opinion (which is often wrong - not the humble part), unless you are taking photos to go into a newspaper or photos that are intended to prove a point (i.e. polar bears swimming and drowning in iceless water etc. - no need to debate the example I chose) there is no such thing as ethics.
Any line that anyone choses to stand on is simply aesthetics and preference. There is no absolute. Photography and art are supposed to be interpretations of reality. Now, if you tell me your photo is pure reality and it isn’t that’d be cheating. If you just ask me if I like it, the fact that it is a composite is not relevant.
The idea that great photos are created in the camera is a myth. True, some great photos are created in the camera alone. I won’t argue that. However, Adams was notorious for spending hours in the darkroom in order to push his negatives and prints to replicate what he saw, his interpretation of reality. Take a look at how dark half-dome is in some of his most well-known photos. Take a look at the cemetery stones glowing in moon rise. Then watch a few documentaries or read a few books about him (not by him) and see what people say about the time he spent in the darkroom on those photos alone. The idea that beauty is created when the shutter is pressed isn’t fair, nor is it reality.
Reflecting reality the way you see it is just that, reflecting reality. It isn’t reality in and of itself. We don’t have to get into a philosophical debate and start citing Kant. But art is, I assume, wildly recognized as reflecting. You can choose to reflect it anyway you want. Some may think that it is bad art, but it is still art.
I’m often reminded of one of my favorite long-running best-friend adversarial relationships. Wordsworth and Coleridge. Wordsworth represented that his poetry was written on the fly, that something struck him and this beautiful complicated language rolled out of his head and on to his page. He even started to name poems in a way to imply this “Lines composed a few miles above Tinturn Abbey”. Excuse my butchering of his title. Coleridge, suffering from addiction and a raft of other social problems tried so hard to replicate Wordsworth’s easy-going technique. He suffered so much trying to let the words just flow. Instead he suffered, he wrote for hours on end, locked himself away for months to get the right rhyme or pattern. He did write some of the best Romantic poetry ever written – Ancient Mariner, Kubla Kahn. But he suffered. Funny thing is Wordsworth was having him on. He worked just as hard. The poetry didn’t spill out of him, he agonized over it, just like Coleridge. Difference is he never let on.
Long way to say, I think that this type of mentality, that beauty just spills out, particularly when there are dozens of tools in photography, and there always has been, to manipulate the raw negative, is way-of-base.
If Adams, Man Ray and their buddies can manipulate an image to reflect the reality they wanted, then so be it. It’s their art. It’s still a photo.
I do think that photos will suffer when pushed to far. I do like your image, but if you look at the fur, it just doesn’t look at good in the manipulated version. It suffers from the electronic manipulation. Noise, degradation. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be art though.