Ethics is a branch of philosophy that aims to answer the basic question, “What should I do?”
It’s a process of reflection in which people’s decisions are shaped by their values, principles, and purpose rather than unthinking habits, social conventions or self-interest.
Our values, principles, and purpose are what gives us a sense of what’s good, right and meaningful in our lives and serve as a reference point for all the possible courses of action we could choose.
On this definition, an ethical decision is one made based on reflection about the things we think are important and that is consistent with those beliefs.
While each person is able to reflect and discover their own sense of what’s good, right and meaningful, the course of human history has seen different groups unify around different sets of values, purposes and principles.
Christians, consequentialists, Buddhists, Stoics and the rest all provide different answers to that question, “What should I do?” Each of these answers is a ‘morality’.
Many people find morality extremely useful. Not everyone has the time and training to reflect on the kind of life they want to live, considering all the different combinations of values, principles, and purposes.
It’s helpful for them to have a coherent, consistent account that has been refined through history and can be applied in their day to day lives.
Many people also inherit their morality from their family, community or culture – it’s rare for somebody to ‘shop around’ for the morality that most closely fits their personal beliefs.
Usually, the process is unconscious. There’s a challenge here: if we inherit a ready-made answer to the question of how we should live, it’s possible to apply it to our lives without ever assessing whether the answer is satisfactory or not.
We might live our whole lives under a moral system which, if we’d had the chance to think about, we would have rejected in part or in full.
The law is different. It’s not a morality in the strict sense of the word because, at least in democratic nations, it tries to create a private space where individuals can live according to their own ethical beliefs or morality.
Instead, the law tries to create a basic, enforceable standard behavior necessary in order for a community to succeed and in which all people are treated equally.
Because of this, the law is narrower in focus than ethics or morality.
There are some matters the law will be agnostic on but which ethics and morality have a lot to say.
For example, the law will be useless to you if you’re trying to decide whether to tell your competitor their new client has a reputation for not paying their invoices, but our ideas about what’s good and right will still guide our judgement here.
There is a temptation to see the law and ethics as the same – so long as we’re fulfilling our legal obligations we can consider ourselves ‘ethical’.
This is mistaken on two fronts.
First, the law outlines a basic standard of behaviour necessary for our social institutions to keep functioning. For example, it protects basic consumer rights. However, in certain situations, the right thing to do in solving a dispute with a customer might require us to go beyond our legal obligations.
Secondly, there may be times when obeying the law would require us to act against our ethics or morality.
A doctor might be obligated to perform a procedure they believe is unethical or a public servant might believe it’s their duty to leak classified information to the press. Some philosophers have argued that a person’s conscience is more binding on them than any law, which suggests to the letter of the law won’t be an adequate substitute for ethical reflection.
Did you know that you can never be ethical and moral and follow the law at the same time? The idea that we can have all three elements together is a hope that human society dreams.
If you are ethical you can abide by the law. If you are Moral you can be ethical. Also, if you are moral you can abide by the law. But you can never be all of three together.
Morality governs private, personal interactions. Ethics governs professional interactions. Law governs society as a whole, often dealing with interactions between total strangers.
Some people talk about their personal ethics, others talk about a set of morals and everyone in a society is governed by the same set of laws. If the law conflicts with our personal values or a moral system, we have to act – but to do so we need to be able to tell the difference between them.
Ethics and morals relate to “right” and “wrong” conduct. While they are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different: ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual's own principles regarding right and wrong.
Morals and Law differ because the law demands an absolute subjection to its rules and commands. Law has enforcing authority derived from the state. It is heteronymous (being imposed upon men upon the outer life of men). Law regulates men’s relations with others and with society.
Morality demands that men should act from a sense of ethical duty. Morality has no such enforcing authority from the state. It is autonomous (coming from the inner life of men). It governs the inner life of men.
If the promissory note is time-barred, then the legal duty of the debtor turns into moral duty.
Of course, moral duty is not enforceable before the court of law. It is also accompanied by a corresponding right. But right is not enforceable before the court of law.
There is no such organization for the enforcement of morals. Moral rules do not admit even in principle admit of change by legislation. Moral disputes can be solved by the mediation of caste elders, village elders, etc. Morality applies to every human act.
The morality also applies to all persons.
But it depends from person to person, from religion to religion, society to society. It is his/her pleasure to follow or not. But morals sometimes can be converted into law. Example: donation to charity institution is a moral principle. The income-tax recognized and exempts certain percentage of income-tax towards donation from the total income.
Ethics and Law - Ethics are rules of conduct. Laws are rules developed by governments in order to provide balance in society and protection to its citizens. Ethics comes from people’s awareness of what is right and wrong. Laws are enforced by governments to its people. Ethics are moral codes which every person must conform to. Laws are codifications of ethics meant to regulate society. Ethics does not carry any punishment to anyone who violates it. The law will punish anyone who happens to violate it. Ethics comes from within a person’s moral values. Laws are made with ethics as a guiding principle.
It is clear that one cannot be Ethical, Moral, and follow the law. In today society following the law affects the morality of people. Being ethical makes you look like you are against someone or something. What do you do? It is not to please anyone but make sure you are ok with the what you will follow. Choose wisely because only two go side by side.
Ethics is a set of standards, or a code, or value system, worked out from human reason and experience, by which free human actions are determined as ultimately right or wrong, good or evil.
If acting agrees with these standards, it is ethical, otherwise unethical. Law is a code of conduct which the authority in power prescribes for society. It basically differs from ethics in its option to use force if and when necessary and by the fact that it is backed by power. Laws are, by and large, fair and moral. But it is not easy to accept that laws can be the foundations of ethics, or even that laws can ensure ethical behavior.There are many situations in life, where just following the law does not make one ethical.
For example, if a wealthy man intends to splash thousands of Ghana Cedis on the anniversary of his dog whiles his neighbor has no money to buy food and is being ejected from his home, there is no law to prohibit the wealthy man from doing so. If he decides not to, it is because of the dictates of his conscience, not because of the dictates of the law.
His conscience, ethical value system and principles forbid him to rejoice when someone else nearby is in sorrow. The law has no role to play in such a situation. Moreover, not all laws have a moral choice. There are many laws which do not involve any ethicality questions - for example, we are required to walk on the left hand side of the road. This is done to ensure traffic control and the traffic discipline, but a question of ethics is not involved here.
Again, all moral and ethical actions do not involve the law. For example, it is ethical to love and respect your parents, but there is no law for it, except when they are deliberately mistreated by their children. Law represents the minimum standards
of behavior expected from people.
Merely following the law, does not make one ethical. Another aspect of the legal system is that it prohibits us of certain actions. It also spells out the negative consequences of our not following the law - that is legal punishment. However, ethical behavior encourages us
to do certain things and explains the benefits, i.e., the positive aspects of these ethical behaviour. For example, the law tells us not to steal, not to kill, but ethics tells us to do good, speak the truth, help others in distress. Thus there is a positive
aspect inherent in ethical behaviour, whereas the law is more concerned about the negative behavior. Yet another aspect of the law is that ethics precedes the action, the law follows it.
Ethics tells us what we should strive to develop in ourselves (high moral standards), on the other hand, the law tends to be more concerned with the consequences of the negative action - what punishment would follow, who is guilty and how shall justice be done. Moreover, the law is a universally accepted, published document, whereas ethics do not yet have a universally accepted, consistent and published concept - it is abstract, culture specific and left to the individual for interpretation and action.
Some Laws have nothing to do with morality because they do not involve serious matters. These include parking laws, dress codes and other laws covering similar matters.
Our moral standards are sometimes incorporated into the law, when enough of us feel that a moral standard should be enforced by the pressures of a legal system.
In contrast, laws are sometimes criticized and eliminated when it becomes clear that they blatantly violate our moral standards. Morality, therefore, has shaped and influenced many of the laws we have.
Most ethicists agree that all citizens have a moral obligation to obey the law so long as the law does not require clearly unjust behavior. This means that, in most cases, it is immoral to break the law.
Tragically, the obligation to obey the law can create terrible conflicts when the law requires something that the individual person believes is immoral. In such cases, a person will be faced with a conflict between the obligation to obey the law and the obligation to obey his or her conscience. In summary;
1. An action can be illegal, but morally right. For e.g. A public officer, who is under the oath of secrecy, revealing certain sensitive information and documents which would serve the greater good of society to journalists.
2. An action that is legal can be morally wrong. For example, it may have been perfectly legal for the chairman of a profitable company to lay off 125 workers and use three-quarters of the money saved to boost his pay and that of the company’s other top managers, but the morality of his doing so is open to debate.
3. All legal provisions may not be ethical and some are, at best, debatable.
4. All ethical actions are not governed by laws.
5. Not all laws have a moral choice.
6. Laws are specific concepts, ethics is abstract.
7. Laws represent the minimum standards of human behavior; ethical behavior
goes much beyond the legal expectations.
8. Ethics has a positive aspect, whereas the law is more concerned about negative behavior.
9. Ethics precedes action, the law follows it.
10. The law is universally accepted within its jurisdiction and is enforceable, whereas ethics is not always universally accepted and is not enforceable by force or
11. Law prescribes punishments for illegal acts, whereas ethics do not clearly prescribe specific punishments for an unethical act, since the outcome of an unethical act is not always clear.
**In conclusion, laws provide the human society with the minimum standards of behavior, but laws do not duplicate the value system of the society.
Laws are not a replica of the ethical system, nor are laws an expression of the moral standards of the society.
Laws merely provide us with the guidelines of behavior for a disciplined, peaceful and safe society. Law and ethics combine to define how individuals choose to interact with one another.**
ALBERT OWUSU TAGOE