Difference between Legal and Ethical

By: | Updated: Mar-11, 2024
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It’s a common occurrence that people use these words as if they mean the same thing. While these terms are closely related, many distinctive characteristics can be highlighted to determine what is legal and what is ethical.

Summary Table

Legal Ethical
Based on laws created and enforced by government Based on codes of conduct or morals observed by a certain population
Observance of laws is mandatory Observance of ethical standards is voluntary
Non-adherence is punishable Non-adherence is not usually punishable


regulated harvest of trees
The regulated harvest of trees is legal, but is considered by many as unethical.

An act is legal when it is done within the laws that govern a certain state, nation, or territory. The term “legal” itself is a term used to define anything that involves the law and the many concepts behind it. A legality of an act will always be based upon the rules and regulations created and enforced by a nation’s government for every citizen to live by and observe. As an example, it is legally required for employers to provide employees with certain protections.

Laws are created by a country’s judicial system to ensure that peace, social order, and justice is upheld in every corner of the its jurisdiction. Moreover, laws give protection to the general public and its interests. The laws of the land are usually based on moral values and ethical principles.

In ancient civilizations, laws were followed as written by their leaders. Modern societies have elected officials or politicians seated in congress or parliament who create and vote on laws. The courts and the police ensure these laws are enforced, and that people who break these laws are punished accordingly. Punishment may involve fines, penalties, or imprisonment.

An ethical act is based on a set of fundamental principles and concepts of desirable human character. These principles help guide a particular society in drawing the line between right and wrong, good and bad, and moral and immoral. Ethical standards, even if abstract in nature, are the codes of conduct people have generally adopted and agreed on. It is by these that people are shown how to act in certain situations.

Going against ethical standards does not necessarily merit punishment unless these are standards dictated by particular professional organizations to its members. This is where violations of the organization’s ethical standards can be met with sanctions that can differ in severity depending on the organization.

There are four basic types of ethical standards:

  • Compliance-based code of ethics: these are guidelines related to following specific procedures. In a business, a compliance-based code of ethics could be applied to hiring and firing employees, handling equipment, safety rules, and more.
  • Value-based code of ethics: these are usually a company’s core values, which may include respect, honesty, and responsibility.
  • Code of ethics in a professional group: professional groups within each industry usually have codes of ethics. Each member of the professional group is expected to follow these rules.
  • Personal ethics: are the core beliefs and standards that an individual has and practices. These ethics may be tied to a religious belief, but not always. Personal ethics can include keeping promises, prudence, punctuality, honesty, respecting others, etc.

Legal vs Ethical

So what’s the difference between legal and ethical? It’s an undeniable fact – many issues today are scrutinized to find out whether they are either legal or ethical. The relationship between these terms is quite apparent as many laws were created with ethical standards as the basis. Moreover, there are cases when a legal act is considered unethical, or an ethical act is considered unlawful.

An action is considered legal as long as it does not break any existing laws enforced in a certain jurisdiction. In contrast, an act is ethical if it does not disagree with any morals or codes of conduct perceived by society or an organization. A legal act applies to all members of the society where particular laws are implemented; thus, observing these laws is mandatory. Observing ethical standards is often voluntary as they are usually based on individual perception of what is right or wrong. In addition, laws are codified, typically contained in a country’s constitution. In contrast, ethical standards are often abstract with no written or legal basis.

Another difference between legal and ethical is that failing to follow legal standards may result in certain consequences. These consequences may include fines, jail time, restitution, penalties, etc.

On the other hand, ethical standards are voluntary and not punishable if not followed. Ethics help a person determine what’s right or wrong, so they understand how to act and behave with others.

What’s the Benefit of Understanding the Difference Between Legal and Ethical Standards?

It’s best to understand the concepts of “legal” and “ethical.” They can help a person behave in specific ways to maintain peace within a community or organization. They can help individuals adhere to guidelines meant to ensure safety and quality in their work.

Legal and ethical standards are necessary to avoid harm (physical, psychological, etc.), preserve privacy and confidentiality, and ensure everyone is treated equally.

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