Business Ethics Insight: The Difference Between What Is Legal and What Is Ethical

Any organization concerned with its reputation and with building sustainable trust with internal and external stakeholders, must recognize that legalistic arguments about what one has a right to do undermines credibility. The lens of judgment is made from ethical principles – what’s right, fair and responsible — not justifications  based on legality rather than morality.

An ethical people and companies often do more than they are required to do and less than they are allowed to do. The law tell us what we can’t do (i.e., prohibitions) and, sometimes what

we must do (i.e., mandates); it does not answer the bigger question what should we do.

When you see a politician, celebrity or business executive defend questionable conduct by insisting “I broke no laws” does it increase or decrease your willingness to trust that person? I become more skeptical when I hear justifications based on rights rather than what is right.

Every situation has an ethical dimension in the sense that everything we say and do (and don’t do) can and will be judged in the terms of moral considerations: was it honest, fair, respectful, responsible.