Difference Between Law And Ethics

The nature of law and ethics is such that they are inextricably intertwined, but it is important to recognise that while their rationales and objectives may overlap, they often differ significantly. Laws are a set of rules and regulations enforced by the government or authorities while ethics are morals and principles adapted by society from the environment. Failure to follow laws can result in penalties and punishment while ethics do not attract penalties and punishment.

Law and ethics have largely been blended into common standards of professional conduct. Often, professional conduct that constitutes a breach of ethics also constitutes a violation of law, and visa versa. 

What is Ethics?

Ethics is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with human conduct, more specifically the behaviour of individuals in society. Ethics examines the rational justification for our moral judgments; it studies what is morally right or wrong, just or unjust.

Ethics deals with such questions at all levels. Its subject consists of the fundamental issues of practical decision making, and its major concerns include the nature of ultimate value and the standards by which human actions can be judged right or wrong.

Ethics is often used in connection with the activities of organizations and with professional codes of conduct: for example, medical and business ethics, which are often formalized in terms of exhaustive sets of rules or guidelines stating how employees are expected to behave in their workplaces (such as in respect of a duty of care or confidentiality that health-care workers owe to their patients; or the medical ethical principles of beneficence, non-maleficence, respect for autonomy, and justice).

Also Read: Difference Between State And Government

Other Definitions of Ethics In The World of Business

“‘Ethics’ is the discipline that examines one’s moral standard or moral standards of society. It asks how those standards apply to our life and whether these standards are reasonable or unreasonable — that is, whether these are supported by good reason or poor one.” — Manuel G. Velasquez

“Ethics refer to a set of moral principles which should play a very significant role in guiding the conduct of managers and employees in the operation of any enterprise.” — Dale S. Beach

“Ethics is that discipline which deals with what is good and bad and also deal with moral duty and obligation. Ethics are set of moral principles or values.” — Carol Buchholtz

“Ethics is a conception of right and wrong conduct. Ethics tell us when our behaviour is moral and when it is moral. Ethics deal with fundamental human relationship how we think and behave towards others and how we want them to think and behave towards us.” — Post, Frederick, and Lawlrence

“Ethics are formalised principles derived from social value. These are moral principle which originate from social value and represent rules for moral behaviour and conduct of individuals or groups thereof carrying on business.” — Webster’s Directory.

Characteristics of Ethics

  • Ethics is a set of moral standards and values acceptable in a society. It is relevant in the context of a society only.
  • Ethics guides human conduct or behaviour. If any member of the society behaves contrary to the norms and customs, society disapproves it.
  • Ethical principles are universal in nature. These prescribe obligations and virtues for everybody in a society.
  • Ethical standards differ from society to society. What is considered ethical behaviour in one society might be considered unethical in another.
  • Ethics is normative or prescriptive in nature. It deals not with what is but what ought to be. 
  • Ethical norms might not be legally binding. But these are more powerful than law because these have the sanction of society.
  • Ethics relates to the behaviour of individuals and groups. The ethical norms do not apply to the behaviour of animals, birds, and insects.
  • Ethics are not hard and fast rules. They are an expression of a society’s attitudes and beliefs.
  • There exist no sharp boundaries between ethical and non-ethical. Therefore, people often face ethical dilemmas wherein a clear cut choice is very difficult.
  • Ethics aims at perfection in human conduct. It guides law makers in framing proper laws to regulate the behaviour of all citizens. 
  • The concepts of equity and justice are implicit in ethics. Fair and equitable treatment to all is its primary aim.

Also Read: Difference Between Morality And Ethics

What is Law?

The word ‘Law’ has been derived from the Teutonic word ‘Lag, which means ‘definite’. On this basis Law can be defined as a definite rule of conduct and human relations. It also means a uniform rule of conduct which is applicable equally to all the people of the State. Law prescribes and regulates general conditions of human activity in the state.

In other words, law is a set of rules that are created and are enforceable by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior, with its precise definition a matter of longstanding debate. It has been variously described as a science and the art of justice. Without law our society would be chaotic, uncivilized mess and anarchy would reign supreme. The role that law has in society is that it creates a norm of conducts.

Each law is a formulated will of the state. It is backed by the sovereign power of the State. It is a command of the State (sovereign) backed by its coercive power. Every violation of law is punished by the State. It is through its laws that he State carries out its all functions.

Other definitions of law

It is very difficult to define the term law. Many Jurists attempted to define the term law. For the Purpose of clarity, some of the definitions given by Jurists in different Periods are categorized as follows.

According to salmond “the law may be defined as the body of principles recognized and applied by the state in the administration of justice.

Black’s Law Dictionary says that law is “a body of rules of action or conduct prescribed by controlling authority, and having binding legal force. That which must be obeyed and followed by citizens subject to sanctions or legal consequence is a law.”

A law is a rule or set of rules for good behaviour which is considered right and important by the majority of people for moral, religious, or emotional reasons— Web Dictionary.

Definition of law is a rule of conduct developed by the government or society over a certain territory— Githu Muigai.

Law is a rule or set of rules that are set up by an authority or the society itself and are applied on a community or territory— Willy Mutunga.

“A Law is a general rule of external behaviour enforced by a sovereign political authority.” —Holland.

 “Law is the command of the sovereign.” “It is the command of the superior to an inferior and force is the sanction behind Law.” —Austin.

Functions of Law

In a nation, the law can serve to:

  • Keep the peace
  • Maintain the status quo
  • Preserve individual rights
  • Protect minorities against majorities
  • Promote social justice and;
  • Provide for orderly social change. Some legal systems serve these purposes better than others.

Nature/Features of Law

  • Law is said to be a body of specific rules regarding human conduct which have been promulgated by political authority.
  • Law is a general rule of human behaviour in the state. It applies to all people of the state.
  • Law creates binding and authoritative values or decisions or rules for all the people of state.
  • Law is definite and it is the formulated will of the State. It is a rule made and implemented by the state.
  • Law creates binding and authoritative values or decisions or rules for all the people of state.
  • Punishments are also prescribed by Law.
  • Law is stable and consistent in nature.
  • Law must be known and understood for it to be effective.
  • It is the expression of the will of the people and is generally written down to give it definiteness.
  • Law affects more or less socio-economic, political and cultural activities.
  • The purpose of Law is to provide peace, protection, and security to the people and to ensure conditions for their all round development. 

Law vs Ethics: Key Difference

DescriptionLaw is a set of rules and regulations which direct and govern the behavior of an individual in the society.  Ethics is the moral principle which governs, controls or influence the behavior and actions of an individual.  
PurposeLaw is created with an intent to maintain social order and peace in the society and provide protection to all the citizens.  Ethics are made to help people to decide what is right or wrong and how to act.  
CreationLaws are made with ethics are the guiding principle.  Ethics comes from within a person’s moral values.  
BreachViolation of law is not punishable with imprisonment or fine or both.  There is no punishment for the violation of ethics.  
EnforcementLaws are enforced by government or structured authority and agencies.  Enforcement of ethics is a personal initiative that entails making an appropriate judgment of what is wrong from what is right.  
NatureLaw is objective and assertive.    Ethics is flexible and subjective.  
ExistenceLaw is generally written text.  Ethics exists in an unwritten form.  
ApplicabilityLaw is restrictive an only applicable to a given state or country.  Ethics is universal in nature, that is, it is applicable anywhere and anytime.  
ScopeLaw governs the society as a whole.  Ethics governs individual and some professional conduct.  
Alternative DescriptionLaw can be described as ‘’the morality of duty’’ because it provides boundaries of actions.    Ethics can be described as ‘’the morality of aspiration’’ because it tells people what to do and to embody the ideals they strive to achieve. 

Key Takeaways

  • Laws are a set of rules and regulations enforced by the government or authorities while ethics are morals and principles adapted by society from the environment.
  • Failure to follow laws can result in penalties and punishment while ethics do not attract penalties and punishment.
  • Laws are made by lawyers and legislature whereas ethics by religious leaders, philosophers and elders in the family.
  • Laws are a must to be followed while ethics are values to be considered to be a positive attitude to follow.
  • Ethics are prone to changes due to new inventions, ideas and information whereas laws can be changed by authorities based on demand and need for maintaining certain conditions in the society.
  • Laws are made from ethics as a guiding principle while ethics are moral values of oneself or society
  • Laws tend to be the same in a country while ethics tend to vary from one city to another.
  • Religion tends to have a direct impact on ethics while it may or may not have an impact on laws.
  • Laws are in a written document whereas ethics are not written
  • The court is responsible to decide which law has been broken whereas society judge someone based on ethical issues.
  • Laws create a legal binding while ethics do not have any binding whatsoever.