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Why do Ethical People Go Beyond the Law in Decision-Making?

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 what is known as ethical legalism. This is not so. The laws set minimum standards of ethical behavior. Ethical people go beyond the laws. Although ethical people always try to be law-abiding, 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.

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. The following items are characteristics of ethics:

  • Ethics involves learning what is right and wrong, and then doing the right thing.

  • Most ethical decisions have extended consequences.

  • Most ethical decisions have multiple alternatives.

  • Most ethical decisions have mixed outcomes.

  • Most ethical decisions have uncertain consequences.

  • Most ethical decisions have personal implications.

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.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881), the noted English novelist, debater, and 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. Just think about a Ponzi scheme such as the one engaged in by Bernie Madoff, whereby he duped others to invest with him by promising huge returns that, unbeknownst to each individual investor, would come from additional investments of scammed investors and not true returns.

Conflicts and dilemmas create particular challenges for ethical decision-making. When the facts are unclear and the legal issues uncertain or stakeholder interests conflict, an ethical person should decide what to do on the basis of well-established standards of ethical behavior. This is where moral philosophies come into play, such as do not violate the rights of others or comply with the rules unless a valid ethical consideration to do otherwise exists.

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.

Sometimes people believe that the ends justify the means. In ethics it all depends on one’s motives for acting. If one’s goals are good and noble, and the means we use to achieve them are also good and noble, then the ends do justify the means. However, if one views the concept as an excuse to achieve one’s goals through any means necessary, no matter how immoral, illegal, or offensive to others the means may be, then that person is attempting to justify the wrongdoing by pointing to a good outcome regardless of ethical considerations such as how one’s actions affect others. Nothing could be further from the truth. The process you follow to decide on a course of action is more important than achieving the end goal. If this were not true from a moral point of view, then we could rationalize all kinds of actions in the name of achieving a desired goal, even if that goal does harm to others while satisfying our personal needs and desires.

Turning from personal behavior to business situations, a relationship exists between law and ethics. In some instances, law and ethics overlap and what is perceived as unethical is also illegal. In other situations, they do not overlap. In some cases, what is perceived as unethical is still legal, and in others, what is illegal is perceived as ethical. A behavior may be perceived as ethical to one person or group but might not be perceived as ethical by another. Further complicating this dichotomy of behavior, laws may have been legislated, effectively stating the government’s position, and presumably the majority opinion, on the behavior.

As a result, in today’s diverse business environment, one must consider that law and ethics are not necessarily the same thing. This is where cultural values and legal compliance on a global level might lead to a different mix between what is legal and what is ethical as could be the case with the legal/ethical acceptance of facilitating (“grease”) payments. In the U.S., they are legal under the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act (FCPA). In the UK, they are illegal under the UK Bribery Act. The ethical question is should a U.S. company make a [bribe] payment to grease the wheels because it’s legal regardless of whether it is right or wrong to pay someone off to do something they should do anyway?

Ethical people often do less than is permitted by the law and more than is required. A useful perspective is to ask these questions:

  • What does the law require of me?

  • What do ethical standards of behavior demand of me?

  • How should I act to conform to both?

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 8, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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