Legal! Ethical? Moral?

In many of the leadership classes I’ve conducted, I’ve often asked participants the question “What’s the difference between legal and ethical?” More often than not, I get blank stares or frowns accompanied by stammers, most of which seemed to attempt to assert that the legal aspect of things ought to emerge paramount. So I ask questions such as “Is prostitution legal?”, to which, surprisingly, fewer than half seemed to think. After assuring the class that prostitution is indeed legal in Singapore, I then proceed to ask “Is prostitution then ethical or moral?” Many of the males said yes, far more than the women in the class, generally speaking. Similar answers were given when a similar question was asked of abortion. Having set participants on that train of thought, we would then proceed to deal with case studies involving ethical dilemmas and other similar situations. If those discussions resulted in some degree of soul-searching by the class, I felt very satisfied, since that was all I could accomplish given time and framework constraints.

So. What of it? What is the relationship between morals, ethics and laws? My observation so far is that many would consider the relationship to be like the diagram below. Briefly, morals has to do with one’s own perceptions and convictions about what is right and wrong personally, and this perception is of course projected onto the world at large. Ethics has more to do with what a professional body or community deems to be right and wrong behaviours. Law is what any nation state decides to be acceptable or “legal” and what is unacceptable or “illegal”. There are overlaps, but the three are distinct. Thus, if I believe that entertaining business prospects to a lavish dinner is morally right because I have the company’s interests at heart, but the company’s code of ethics specifically prohibits this, then I may believe that I am morally right in so doing but could be called up for disciplinary action for acting unethically in the eyes of the company. Similarly, I might think that being fined for not picking up litter around where I happen to be at the time is immoral, but that would not stand in a court of law if the law says that I must clear litter which I happen to observe around me whether that said litter was caused by me or not.

I understand the thinking behind such diagrams and such thinking is of course derived from the concept that Man, left to himself, would devolve to immorality in the broadest sense and not to a higher degree of morality. That is why laws are necessary in the first place. Laws are designed to prevent you from stealing what rightfully belongs to me and prevent me from killing you as a result of such theft. That’s a rather miserable way to live, I think. My suggestion would be in the diagram below. A high degree of personal morality is the larger set, and ethics and laws are the subsets. When this mindset is adopted, then action would be to express my higher morality within the constraints set by ethical rules of conduct and national laws. At the same time, I would work to grow those ethics and laws until they fit with what I see as my higher standards of morality.

Do you see the picture? Why are numerous laws enacted? Selfishness. Using the law to bend other people’s behaviour so that I benefit the most from such change and subsequent establishment of such behaviour. However, when ethics and laws are grown so that they fit my higher standards of morality, then fewer and fewer laws are necessary. In Kubilai Khan’s empire, there were reductions in the list of capital offences with the passage of time, and in some years zero executions were recorded. In short, if our morals, ethics and laws were based on “Love thy God and love thy neighbour”, or, if you prefer, “Do unto others what you would others do unto you, and do unto them the way they want”, then there would be only one circle with all three of morals, ethics and laws coexisting in harmony with each other. A dream? Surely. But certainly a worthy dream. Do we not all say that we are working towards it?

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