Ethics and Law: Definition, Relationship, Differences and Conflict (GS4)

Ethics and Law:

Ethics is a set of moral principles. It is derived from the Greek word “Ethos” meaning the character or habit.

Law is an Ordinance of reason created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to achieve the common good i.e. Law is based on facts. This law is generally enacted by the legislature & is enforced by the state.

This Law has a moral basis, as per Thomas Hobbes: it’s for stability, order greatest good to greatest no of people as well as common good.

There are also other types of Law:

  1. Rule of Law
  2. Natural Law
  3. Law of Nature
  4. Canon Law
  5. Law by religion – Theological Law

However, in general, when the term law is used it indicates the law made by the state. This law is enacted with an aim to ensure the common good to society. This law is enforced by the state even if people are unwilling but they have to follow the law.

Example: Law of demonitisation, GST, Traffic rules, RTI Law etc.

Relationship between Ethics & Law:

In general, Law is based on ethics. i.e. ethics is the foundation on which law stands. Because any law which is unethical/arbitrary society may not accept or there will be a sense of rejection.

In this way, law & ethics overlaps but they’re different.

Difference Between Ethics and Law:

1. based on facts, objective std. which can be relatively proven, enforced1. although based on estd.stds. but such std.are subjective viz std.of law & it’s not enforced.
2. It’s a legal sanction for the conduct of human 2. Its moral sanction for the conduct of human
3. It sets general stds. & largely static3. it may deal with specific situations & largely dynamic
4. state needs a law to government4. state needs ethics to get recognition for the enforcement of the law.

Conflict between Ethics and Law:

Since law is static based on facts & is enforced many a times it comes into conflict with ethics.

When can Ethics and Law conflict?

  1. Law may not be clear about a specific situation.
  2. Since society is dynamic due to changes, a past law or existing law becomes outdated but it’s not co-actively amended.
  3. Any ethical standard to get established, it takes time by the time it’s not established standard conflicts keep happening between ethics & law.
  4. Ethics deals with human competence which can be better than the legal competence of law enforcement agencies.
  5. Many times civil servants, law enforcement agencies have to act in situations when the law isn’t dear.
  6. Honesty can’t be legislative i.e. many ethical standards can’t be simply transformed into law & adherence to such standard varies from person to person that also becomes a source of conflict.

In case of conflict between ethics & law, it’s a situation that should guide the action although some established standard are:

  1. Right intention & purpose
  2. Application of wisdom
  3. Sincerity in action
  4. The consequence of action should be right.

Never the less, for civil servants, it’ll be a difficult choice as to when they act as per law it has legal protection but when they act without law they’ii have to ethically justify the action, which is very difficult & that’s why civil servants largely act as per law.

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