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Law and Ethics

The Relationships between Law and Ethics

By: Oluwaseun P. Adeola


The issue of the relationships between law and ethics is a long –standing one in the sphere of philosophy and law. Indeed there are evidences to show that there are convergences between law and ethics. From time immemorial, today ‘s society is also a testimony to attest to the fact that we as humans live in the complexities and pluralism of cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, individual believes and perceptions of the environment in which we are domiciled. More so, one can imagine chaos, rowdiness, unruliness, entropy, anarchy, tyranny, dictatorship and all sort of abuses to pervade the land in the absence of the instruments to inform us all about which acts are wrong and which are not.

However, most crucial of the instruments capable of ensuring societal harmony, socio-political integration, and respect for human dignity, relative peace and economic prosperity is the major concern of this essay. And these potent instruments are law and ethics. I will discuss the subsisting relationships between the interwoven and mind-widening concepts of law and ethics and the way the society we live today is affected by them.


Law: First, in order to comprehensively discuss the relationship between law and ethics, I believe it is, however, pertinent to concisely ditch out what they mean.

Law has been defined by L.B Curzon as the written and unwritten body of rules largely derived from custom and formal enactment which are recognized as binding among those parsons who constitute a community or state, so that they will be imposed upon and enforce among those persons by appropriate sanctions. (p.209). it can be deduced from the definition of L.B Curzon that people within a sovereign geographical enclave, through legitimate government, impose set of rules upon themselves which must be strictly adhered to. And failure to live, act and /or transact business on the basis of the recognized law will result into appropriate punishments.

Suffice to say, laws are not just suggestions and expectations but are requirements to behave in the stipulated ways. As it is believed that government makes the enactment and rules they also see to ensuring that people live within the dictates of the law. They achieve this by using, for example, the police force to enforce the recognized law of the land.

Moreover, for the proper understanding of the term law, I will briefly discuss the essential characteristics of law as outlined by Susan M. Anstead.

  • Consistent – it will be somewhat difficult for people to adhere to requirements that are contradictory. A requirement is no law when it not consistent
  • Universal – The requirements must be applicable to everyone with similar characteristics facing the same set of circumstances.
  • Published – for a requirement to be accessible to people, it must be published in writing in the form that everyone can have access to it.

Accepted – laws have to be generally and utterly obeyed.

  • Enforced – Members of society must be compelled to obey the law in the case they refuse l to choose to do so voluntarily.

Traffic law is an example of what an operational law is in our society today and it encapsulates the five characteristics aforementioned.

To maintain orderliness on the roads and smooth running of the transport industry, government enacts the traffic law which every member of a society must abide by. However, any contravention of the law will attract fines and /or prosecution. Therefore, one can see that the importance of law cannot be over emphasized.

Ethics is a word coined from the ancient Greek word"ethikos", meaning "arising from habit". Ethics, a principal branch of philosophy is the study of value or quality. It encompasses the analysis of concepts such as right, wrong, good, evil, justice and responsibility. Ethics as a concept helps members of a society to know what to do and what is not to be done or acceptable. And that was what Oliver Holmes meant when he said the right of someone to swing his or her fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.

More importantly, ethics doesn’t just make people know what is acceptable but further enlightens us to understand that we have responsibility to the upliftment and well being of others. I couldn’t say it better than Albert Schweitzer when he submitted that ‘A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help’.

I believe the central point of ethics is living the good life, life that is worth living or satisfying. One member of a society evaluates another based on his or her acts. The society considers the good acts as the ones that cause and promote greatest good and the bad acts as the ones that obstruct good happenings. For instance, in a society where abortion is not condoned, people who engage in abortion will be seen by other members of the society as not-too-good people and they will try as much as possible to dissociate from among them.


Of a truth, relationship subsists between law and ethics and both concepts do overlap. In the one hand, behaviors and issues that are not ethical are also not legal. On the other hand, they are two parallel lines. In an instance, what is illegal maybe considered ethical and in another instance, what is considered legal might be unethical. For example, it is not illegal to lie to a friend but many people believe it is not ethic. In the same vein, beating the speed limit on the road is illegal and I am sure, not many people will disagree that it is unethical to over speed. To further complicate the concept of ethics is to say that what is ethical for a group of people maybe be considered unethical for another group in the same society. And that is the essence of the government in that they presumably make and amend law in tune with what the majority of the people consider to be ethical. Therefore, one might be tempted to say, considering the business world, that law and ethics is absolutely not the same thing.

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Emphatically, legal principle and ethical values are closely interwoven, but ethical duties exceed legal requirements. However, there are instances where the law makes ethical values compulsory. Three good examples of how law is applied to ethics are the following:

1. Employment law

2. European regulations

3. Codes and ethics

Businesses that establish a set of ethical principles and ensure that policies and decisions are made in accordance with the set ethical guidelines are usually having little or no legal imbroglio with the governments, customers and employees.


So many laws have been made to shield employees against what society perceives as unethical behavior in the workplace within Europe. These laws are administered by the European Union. This law is a reflection of the ethical standards of majority of the society. An example is the anti- discrimination (Directive 2000/78/EC) under the EU employment law. It states the following:

Directive 2000/78/EC establishes a general framework for equal treatment in employment an occupation, which forbids discrimination based on religion, belief, disability, age and sexual orientation. The principle of equal treatment means that there shall be no direct or indirect discrimination on any of the grounds outlined above. In order to guarantee compliance with the principle of equal treatment in relation to persons with disabilities, reasonable accommodation shall be provided. This means that employers have to take appropriate measures to enable a person with a disability to participate in employment or to undergo training.

Without doubts, most people will agree that it would not be ethical to refuse a disabled applicant employment or promotion only on the basis of that disability, most especially when that disability would not affect t performance at work. The EU law makers have reacted and have made law to make it illegal for any business to discriminate against applicant based on the issues such as sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion and belief. In the time past when no law prohibits discrimination and obnoxious treatments of employees, employers can go scot free in the arena of law but the society never condoned it. In essence, the promulgation and enactment of the EU employment law is a clear reflection of public outcry concerning the unethical behaviors of employers. And that, in itself, exhibits the relationship between ethics and law.

Therefore, in our society today, it is both unethical and illegal to discriminate under any grounds as mentioned above. The business world is positively affected by this in that employees are now treated much better by employers than it has ever been. In turn, employers get good images from the public.


Organizations, firms, interest groups and associations usually establish what they call codes of ethics. Sometimes, these codes are formally written in black and whites and in some cases, it’s meant to be understood by all members. The importance and essence of these codes is to guide and influence actions and decisions in the organizations or associations. However, it doesn’t mean that the state authority will enforce it upon members or prosecutes violators. The codes of ethics are designed and established to be enforced internally. It then follows that when the ethical codes are violated, offenders maybe suspended, disciplined or retrenched.

Comparatively, one can agree that the almost same way a traffic offender (violation of traffic law) is prosecuted by the state authority by a way of paying fines or serving a jail term; is the same way an employee who violates the organizational codes of ethics is disciplined or fired. Concretely, law and ethics, though may be applied differently, perform the same function. Members of the public try not to break the law, in order to be good citizens, employees endeavor not to violate ethics to keep the job.

A good example of ethical code is the United Nations Principles of Medical Ethics established in December 18, 1982. They came up with six principles, one of which states the following: Health personnel, particularly physicians, charged with the medical care of prisoners and detainees, have a duty to provide them with protection of their physical and mental health and treatment of disease of the same quality and standard as is afforded to those who are not imprisoned or detained.

Another contemporary example is the American Medical Association (AMA) ethical codes which were adopted in June 17, 2001 by the AMA’S house of delegate. AMA came up with nine compressive ethical principles which were primarily established to benefit patients. In fact, it was categorically stated in the preamble of the ethical principles that the Principles adopted by AMA are not laws, but standards of conduct which define the essentials of honorable behavior for the physician. That is just to corroborate the point made earlier that ethics are supposed to be internally enforced.

It is, however, noteworthy to state that when employees or members of a given association live by the principles of an adopted code of ethics, they don’t only show- case good image of the company to the outside world, they also enjoy a high level of satisfaction and contentment within themselves.


There are some behaviors, believes and activities that may be permitted in the eye of law, but which are not ethical. Some businesses or organizations usually establish comprehensive ethical standards to which employees or members are compelled to adhere strictly to.

An example is the dressing code. The corporate dressing code would normally, as one would expect, be outlined and stipulated during the induction period. Employees would be told what dressing code is acceptable and what dressing code is a taboo. The dressing code would probably be a reflection of what the majority of the society considers to be an Ideal manner an individual is expected to dress.

A likely example of what a dressing code of a company might be is the following:

1. No man should wear earrings.

2. No woman’s shoulder should be exposed.

3. Long skirts and trousers are expected at all times.

4. No short skirts are allowed in any condition

A close look at the requirements above will simply reveal that nothing in the list is illegal. It is just part of the policy of the company which must be live by. Therefore, the behavior of anyone in the company violating the dressing code would be termed as unethical.

Moreover, some companies and organizations have incurred enormous losses, and suffer brand waning because of the failure to engage in activities that is perceived ethical by the society or the markets they serve. Another relationship between law and ethics is that while the government will not punish companies for engaging in unethical activities, the cost of such unethical acts could be exorbitant. Therefore, it is smart and prudent on the part of companies and firms to do business in line with the requirements of the law and also endeavor to conduct business transactions in such an ethical way such as would be approved by the public or the target markets. In essence, a company wanting to stay afloat would not only do what the law requires but engage in ethical activities such that would help boost the company’s goodwill and brand equity.

One example of how companies’ conduct their businesses unethically are when they go oversees say, to Asia or Africa. There are many Americans’ and European companies in Asia and Africa making huge profits.

Most of these companies pay their workers relatively, substandard salaries and wages. What the companies do is to make sure that they pay the minimum wage requirement of the country the business is established. Legally, they are free because they pay what the law of the land requires. Contrarily, the western public sees such companies as unethical, reason being that they (western public) believe that employees that are equally hard working in the developing world also deserve some measure of good life as obtainable in the developed world. However, sensitive companies are beginning to adjust and address the issue in a professional way that would help maintain or possibly improve their public image.


Ostensibly, it can be said unarguably that there is indeed relationships between ethics and law. The onus now rest on managers to examine both what is legal and what they and the society as a whole consider or perceive as ethical too. It is pertinent to also note that managers should put into consideration what their customers will and will not condone.

News abounds of stories of unethical behaviors and activities by companies. But one can assume that no company takes pleasure in being dragged to court because of breaching the law or its name being dragged to the earth because of engaging in unethical behaviors such as the ones mentioned above.

Surely, there are no amounts of formulated policies and law that will be as good and potent enough to satisfy everyone, but establishing of ethical codes potentially can afford us all a framework for ethical behaviors. And that will permit customers to evaluate and decide the types of companies they would transact business with.

Conclusively, I would say, issues and areas where law is silent or permits, ethics come in and raise the standard to a level where everyone, producers and consumers alike, feel safe and contented.


Springer Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (March, 2000)

Springer Netherlands Volume 3, Number 1(online)

Date viewed online: 28.02.2010.

Lb Curzon A dictionary of law, second edition

MacDonald &Evans ltd.

Susan M. Anstead Law v. Ethics in management (July 6, 1999)

Date viewed online: 20.02.2010

Date viewed online: 19.02.2010

Oliver W. Holmes Ethics Quotes

Date viewed online: 19.02.20


fredrick raphael on May 22, 2015:

thanx,4 your explanations now i'm sure wiz ethics & law.

Rachel Nyega on June 18, 2013:

ElaboraTion was so helpfully to me. Congraturation for well done job

Gene on March 12, 2013:

Yes, the Anstead article is cited by this author in his references.

carren on September 06, 2012:

thanks for all the info..this is what i really need on my helps me a lot .. Godbless

goodluck4ever on May 10, 2012:

Of course you have my permision

munirahmadmughal on May 10, 2012:

Beautiful and clear. I am quoting a passage from this hub in my article to SSRN on the subject of A comparative study between Western and Islamic Law with your kind permission.

on April 19, 2011:


thevoice from carthage ill on March 23, 2010:

great read is very detailed

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