Morality, Ethics, and Legality

Society as a whole doesn't sit back and contemplate philosophical issues of morality and ethics, and legality often becomes nothing more than a series of arbitrary rules. But all three are important to our lives as human beings. Leadership should be part of your greater life, and so should happen in accordance with them. The first two concepts — morality and ethics — get tossed around and treated as virtually identical. They are closely related, but there are some subtle differences that can make a lot of difference.


Morality refers to the underlying codes of right and wrong, but those are such slippery words. One group says that a given activity or belief is evil and another says there is nothing wrong with it. A sect in a given religion might spend its energy considering one behavior and ignore many others that its own religious books describe as problems.

It is troublesome for someone to decide on a moral code that dismisses the existence or worth of others. It is also one of the best arguments to support objective morality. Even if you ignore the concepts of right and wrong, you can appreciate that certain types of behavior cause social strife.

The difficulty with morality is the concept of relativity. What do you do when people claim the mantle of morality when their focus is inconsistent and slanted toward their personal neuroses? The only practical choice is to find a subset of rules that promotes behavior that doesn't injure others. A great example is the Golden Rule. Regardless of whether you like the formulation of doing unto others as you'd have them do unto you, or the subtly different not doing unto others what you'd have them not do unto you, it is a simple and largely workable code.


Ethics, on the other hand, is the study of the appropriateness of human action in light of morality. Often this will keep you out of the “how many angels dance on this pinhead” discussions and move from theory to practice. Interestingly, you quickly move from strictly philosophical or theological concepts and into issues that can even spill over from specific industries.

One such example is in the journalistic world. Reporters are forbidden from doing anything that would create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Another would be in certain provisions that keep government employees from immediately profiting from moving to the private sector by immediately lobbying their former colleagues. At one time in the United States, lawyers were prohibited from advertising their services, and the restriction was considered part of the profession's ethics.

A code of ethics can be inspired by morals or simply be the invention of some group. Whatever the case, it's a set of required and proscribed behaviors. In general, people within an organization, industry, or field of endeavor have more uniform codes of ethics than they do moral codes.


Law takes ethics and goes one step further. Instead of being satisfied with operating under a set of ethical guidelines, a body of laws suggests that society cannot always trust its citizens to act in an acceptable manner. To ensure compliance, people, through their representatives, agree to levy punishments that can run from fines and other sanctions to imprisonment. However, laws can quickly go beyond ethics as those who draft them try to ensure a whole range of behaviors for various reasons. Sometimes the law effectively duplicates others in existence or is a quick reaction by lawmakers to some perceived problem, even though the statute might do little or nothing when viewed objectively.

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