Law, Morals and Ethics

Morals and ethics are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably because they are based on values regarding human conduct. However, there are some subtle differences. Morals are deeply held personal beliefs about what constitutes right or wrong behavior. Such beliefs stem from a variety of sources, including religion, family customs, culture, and past experiences. Ethics goes further than a simple pronouncement of moral judgment and involves thoughtful analysis, commonly at a philosophical level. Ethics evaluates human behavior in light of specific ethical principles and looks at the impact of such behavior on individuals and society as a whole. Stated more simply, when one is behaving ethically, one is concerned with the big picture as well as the immediate situation.

Although a behavior may be deemed unethical by some individuals, it is not necessarily illegal. Conversely, a behavior that has been designated as illegal is not necessarily considered unethical by all. All cultures have beliefs about what is considered right and wrong behavior. Actions that are considered most harmful or offensive by the majority may be designated as illegal. Individuals who commit such acts, if caught, will be subject to some form of fine or punishment.

For example, in the United States, killing another person for personal gain or other selfish reasons is considered by most people to be morally and ethically wrong. Therefore, the act of murder has been legally designated a crime. Penalties for those convicted of murder are quite severe. Yet killing another individual in self-defense or as part of a government sanctioned military action is deemed acceptable, in some cases perhaps even honorable.

However, people do not always agree about what constitutes right or wrong behavior. In such cases, there is usually not enough agreement to support legislation making such behavior illegal. For example, consensual sex between unmarried adults is legal in the United States. Some people believe this is wrong, yet others do not.When there is lack of agreement, formation of laws to prohibit such behaviors is unlikely. In some cases, rules may be enacted to regulate, rather than prohibit, specific acts. Such regulation generally specifies where, when, and by whom such acts may be performed.
For example, therapeutic abortion has been legal since the 1973 Roe v.Wade Supreme Court ruling. However, there are specific rules that regulate where such procedures may be performed and by whom. Although abortion is deemed immoral or unethical by some, such beliefs are  not sufficient to make the act illegal. An act only becomes illegal when specific action, such as the passage of a law by a governing body, makes it so.

On the other hand, some people might argue that some acts, though illegal, are not morally or ethically wrong. For example, the legal age to buy and consume alcohol varies between states and countries. An 18-year-old who buys or drinks alcohol in one place might be breaking the law, while the same person could travel a few miles over the border to a different state or country and legally commit the same act. Even so, some might argue that even though the issue of legality changed from one place to the other, the issue of morality did not. Some individuals believe that drinking alcohol is wrong regardless of the individual’s physical location or age. Others would disagree.