What Is the Relationship Between Ethics and the Law?

The main aim of this paper is not only to understand the relationship between ethics and the law, but also to find the difference between these two notions. Moreover, it is necessary to answer the question whether an action could be unethical, but not illegal.

Thus, let’s begin our discussion from the question: What is the difference between legal regulations and the dictates of ethics? First of all it is necessary to mention that the law addressed to the citizen, while ethics – to the man. The first (law) is formed in the depths of the state authority; the second (ethics) is a product of man’s inner world. El-Ayouty & Ford (2000) stated that the law establishes the procedure, while the ethics is designed to resolve inner conflicts with human conscience. Continuing to distinguish differences between the law and ethics we see that the law protects the robbed, while the task of ethics is to free the robber from own illegal inclinations. In such a way the law commands to repay material debt, the ethics tells a person to do own moral duty. In short, the law is a product of social relations, performing socially useful functions, considering the individual in terms of the collective. Ethics, in its turn, is a purely personal feeling, a feeling of personal obligation; it even observes common problems through the prism of individual approach.

Summarizing the above stated facts about the law and ethics it is possible to say that despite of all existed differences, they both ”“ the law and ethics – are not single factors separated from each other. On the contrary, they relate to each other, like fire and coal enveloped with it. Soper (2002) said that ethics is the ideological foundation which the law is based on, while law is a concrete outer garment of abstract principles of ethics. This garment is standard and equal for all people – rich and poor, saints and sinners, because the law, in the eyes of the legislator, is the minimum moral cover, which is required of every citizen, and which he needs.

Answering the question whether an action could be unethical, but not illegal we should say that it could. Let’s take the medical profession, for example. According to Breen, Plueckhahn and Cordner (1997), it is a well-known fact that medical professionals often write different articles for medical journals in support of certain popular medications or medical devices. But, this ex facte, positive research and informative work has its other dark side. Different researches showed that medical professionals receive money for these articles about certain drugs from pharmaceutical companies. Thus, we see that it is legal to express own opinion about contemporary medical devices and drugs, but it is unethical to receive money for this, because medical professional is a person who should think about patient’s health, but not about own profit. It is not illegal, but unethical from medical professionals’ side to receive payments from pharmaceutical companies which request and encourage their colleagues to prescribe certain drugs.

All in all, we have discussed relations between the law and ethics and define major differences between them. Concluding this paper we can state that there are many cases when an action could be unethical, but not illegal and into the acknowledgment of this fact there was provided an example in previous paragraph.

Breen, K., Plueckhahn, V. and Cordner, S. (1997). Ethics, Law, and Medical Practice. Allen & Unwin.
El-Ayouty, Y. & Ford, K. (2000). Government Ethics and Law Enforcement: Toward Global Guidelines. Praeger Publishers.
Soper, P. (2002). The Ethics of Deference: Learning from Law’s Morals. Cambridge University Press.


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