Laws set Minimal Standards of Behavior while Ethics set Higher Norms of Behavior. Many people make the mistake
of thinking following the law equates with being an ethical person. This is what is known as ethical legalism. This is
actually not so. The laws only set minimum standards of ethical behavior. While, ethical people go beyond the laws.
Although ethical people always try to be lawabiding, there may be instances where their sense of ethics tells them
it is best not to follow the law. These situations are rare and should be based on sound ethical reasons. For
example, workplace treatment of others may not violate employer-employee laws but still be unethical, such as
forms of cyber-bullying. Law is not the only source of guidance to regulate our behavior. It is only one way. There
can be other sources like conscience, traditional norms etc. More refined a person is, less dependent that person
will be on laws to guide them. Their source of morality will be internal. (Gandhi defied laws during independence
In philosophy, ethics defines what is good for the individual and for society and establishes the nature of duties that
people owe themselves and one another.
Though law often embodies ethical principles, law and ethics are far from co-extensive. The law does not prohibit
many acts that would be widely condemned as unethical. And the contrary is true as well. The law also prohibits
acts that some groups would perceive as ethical. For example, lying or betraying the confidence of a friend is not
illegal, but most people would consider it unethical. Yet, speeding is illegal, but many people do not have an ethical
conflict with exceeding the speed limit. Law is more than simply codifying ethical norms.
In a society, there may be competing notions of what is right and wrong thing to do. But, when state recognises it,
it gets the authority of law behind it. Force can be used to ensure that people fall in line with the legally sanctioned
values. In absence of legal codes also, there may be various sense of right and wrong which people uphold. State
legalizes some moral value only after it becomes acceptable to a large part of society. Also, in some cases, there
may be a progressive state and a relatively regressive society. For instance, in times of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, sati
system was deemed to be the right thing to be done to a widow. However, the British state at that time, acted
against it. Here also we see a gap between legal and moral.
Also, the nature of sanction behind legal and moral differ. For violation of law, state punishes. In case of ethics,
internal guilt, crisis of conscience, societal condemnation act as sanction.
Benjamin Disraeli, former Prime Minister, said, “When men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt,
laws are broken.” A person of goodwill honors and respects the rules and laws and is willing to go beyond them
when circumstances warrant. Ethical people do not need rules and laws to guide their actions. They always try to
do the right thing. On the other hand, the existence of specific laws prohibiting certain behaviors will not stop a
person who is unethical (e.g., does not care about others) from violating those laws. When the rules are unclear, an
ethical person looks beyond his / her own self-interest and evaluates the interests of the stakeholders potentially
affected by the action or decision. Ethical decision-making requires that a decision maker be willing, at least
sometimes, to take an action that may not be in his / her best interest. This is known as the moral point of view.
Hence, we conclude that there may or may not be overlap between legal and moral.