Moral, Ethical, Legal: What’s the difference?

Disclaimer: all examples that follow apply to the United States.  Different countries have different standards and legalities.

I recently realized that I started my series on business ethics in the wrong place.  It doesn’t help to throw a list of ethics violations at you before defining ethics in general.

Don’t close that internet window!  You might be thinking, Pft, I know what ethics are, thanks for nothing.  But hold the phone.

I thought most people knew, too.  Until in a long conversation related to these incidents, wherein several people used the words ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ as if they are perfect synonyms.  They’re not.

Just because something is immoral doesn’t mean it’s unethical.  And just because something is unethical doesn’t mean it’s illegal.  But, there are consequences to each.  Sometimes the consequences of an immoral action can be far worse than those of an illegal action.  Sometimes an unethical action can lead to professional ruin, but leave your personal life unscathed.

So, what makes something immoral, but not unethical?  What makes something illegal, but not necessarily immoral?  Why can you be arrested for some bad things and not others?

Essentially, what’s the difference between moral, ethical, and legal?

Spheres of influence.  I’ll break it down, then give some examples.  And there’s even a diagram.  Yes, a diagram.

Here we go.

Morality governs private, personal interactions.

Ethics governs professional interactions.

Law governs society as a whole, often dealing with interactions between total strangers.

There are things that fall under the governance of all three.  Let’s say someone kills his business partner.  Obviously that’s immoral, unethical, and illegal.  But, what if a married CEO has an affair with his next-door neighbor?  That qualifies as immoral (for most people.  We’ll get to that), but if the neighbor has nothing to do with him professionally, it’s not unethical.  And we all know it’s not illegal (as a general rule.  Some states have strange, antiquated, unenforceable laws.  But that’s beside the point).

Here’s a visual:

The lowest portion of the pyramid, in red, is morality.  More things tend to be covered by morality than either of the other two.  Just like more things tend to be unethical than illegal.  The gray center represents things that can be grouped under all headings.

I had a difficult time figuring out how to accurately represent the way these relate to one another.  I considered a Venn diagram, but the circles didn’t seem to overlap quite right.  Even this pyramid doesn’t apply universally–and that’s because morality, unlike the other two, is a largely personal and variant thing.  A diamond, or a smaller pyramid, might replace the rectangle for a lot of people.

Let’s go back to the adultery.  A fun subject for any writer, right?  Not so much fun in real life, depending on your morality.  For the majority of couples, fidelity is important–it’s something they’ve agreed upon.  But, some people agree to open marriages.  For them, finding extra partners is not immoral.

Morality governs personal interactions, and different social groups have differing moralities.  Groups tend to agree (consciously or subconsciously) on a set of rules for how they’ll behave around each other.

Similarly, the professional world has agreed on certain standards.  Business ethics are part of a subgroup that covers trade.  There are other types of professional interactions.  For example, those attending a parent-teacher conference are attending a professional meeting.  And their interactions are governed by ethics.  Both the parents and the teacher might have a tendency to use colorful (pardon the euphemism) language when they get upset.  But in a professional setting that language is typically inappropriate.  Especially when it comes to educators.

Things that are considered immoral have personal consequences.  Cheat on your spouse and you might get a divorce.  Similarly, things that are unethical have professional consequences.   If you cuss out your student’s parents… well.

Here’s an example from our field: plagiarism.  Plagiarism is not always copyright infringement, though copyright infringement is often plagiarism.  If you get someone to write your term paper for you, and you present it as your own work, you have not infringed on anyone’s rights.  But you have behaved unethically.  If you do this in school you can be expelled.  If you do this in a job you can be fired.  But no one will arrest you, or fine you.  It is unethical, but not illegal.

You’ll note that in my very especial diagram the gray portion does not include all of Law.  There are things that are illegal that someone might not consider immoral or unethical.

What?  Hu?  Why is there a law about it if no one thinks it’s wrong?

The speed limit is 65.  You’re doing 74.  You haven’t been drinking.  You’re on a straight-away and can see for miles.  Have you violated your morality?  I’m guessing, no.  Ethics?  Not unless driving is part of your profession.  Have you broken the law?  You betcha.

The speed limit is there in the interest of safety and fairness, whether we appreciate it or not.  As are many laws.

And I won’t waste your time listing the consequences to illegal actions.

Ok, hopefully I’ve cleared things up–by I may have muddied the waters.  I’m open to questions, comments, etc.

Later, all!


P.S.  Thanks for being patient with me over the last couple of weeks!

P.P. S.  Here’s a little something extra, assuming I haven’t confused you enough already.  Sometimes moral rules outweigh societal laws.  If you take your brother’s car for a joy ride and call him from the road to say you’ll bring it back the next day, he’ll probably be pissed.  But he probably won’t call the cops.   Say instead you take the car from a random guy who lives three blocks over.  Even if you call him and promise to bring it back the next day, I’m betting he’ll be on the phone with the authorities the second after he hangs up on you.  Crazy world, hu?

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4 thoughts on “Moral, Ethical, Legal: What’s the difference?

  1. Tom Wells says:

    I appreciate the distinction you have drawn for the differences in moral, ethical and legal implications on behavior. It has been noted lately that as morality and ethics are abandoned, the tendency then is to try to replace them with laws. The danger is that laws are far less flexible to changes in society and circumstances. Replacing morals and ethics with laws sets the stage for making people more of a slave to the inflexible laws and those who enforce them than they had ever felt under the morals and ethics many people today wish to abandon.

    • I think all three have their place–giving too much weight to the top of the pyramid would indeed lead to a very oppressive environment. Laws tend to cover things that the majority of people agree on (and change frequently because the major opinion is fluid). If you start trying to apply laws that an overwhelming majority can’t agree on, you end up with major societal problems, and as a result, social movements (take any period in history and you’ll find major contentions between group morality and law).

      I find it all fascinating, and very important to understand.

      • And, I’m not so sure morality and ethics are being abandoned, so much as changing (morality more so than ethics), and those who have a very strict sense of morality want to halt that change by enforcing moral and ethical standards with laws. But, again, it’s personal groups that enforce the “rules” and consequences of morality, and professions that enforce the same with ethics. There are so many sub-groups that it would be impossible to incorporate everyone’s opinions into laws that govern everything.

        And when a government tries, you end up with something very totalitarian. Where the rules are agreeable to only a small, elite portion of society.

  2. William says:

    thanks alot and i guess you’re right about most people get confused with moral and ethics, am from the solomon islands and the two concepts are far more vital in my country’s current situation. lest to say; culture change by means of western influences has imparted upon us, the current generation. There are moral expectations in terms of cultural values, however they are not appropriate now. For example,the issue of compensation,most people here in the solomon islands use abuse the use of compensation by using it as a means of source of income. Thus, the true meaning of compensation no longer exist. Most elders know that it is unethical to abuse the true value of culture, however,due the fact that the standard of living here is very expensive,most individuals are really into it now.

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