Ethics vs. the Law: What’s the Difference?

Many people think that ethics and the law are one and the same, but evidence shows us it’s a lot more complicated. Let’s look at their differences in more detail.

Apr 28, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

differences between ethics and law


Ethics and the law: just how different are they? While we all know ethics to be our moral compass, or that which allows us to differentiate between right and wrong, the law might seem like its natural companion. But given that the law is a structured set of rules put in place by the ruling government, its place next to ethics can be a little slippery. In this article we take a closer look at what ethics and the law actually are, before delving deeper into some of their fundamental differences and similarities.


What Is the Law?

lady justice
Lady Justice


The law is a set of rules put in place in order to protect citizens’ rights. These laws are created by legislatures, or elected government officials, and, although the fundamental criminal acts are often the same, they can vary from one country to another. Laws are usually broken down into two key categories: criminal law and civil law. We might think of criminal law as the worst kind of crime, those which actually inflict some kind of harm or damage onto society, like murder, robbery, violence or vandalism. Meanwhile civil law is about settling disputes between individuals, like divorce or the division of assets. 


What Are Ethics?

thinker musee rodin
Le Penseur (The Thinker) by Auguste Rodin in the garden of Musée Rodin, Paris, via Wikimedia Commons.


Ethics are our internal moral code which allows us to internally judge right from wrong. We can break ethics into two key categories: personal ethics, and professional ethics. Personal ethics encourage us to think about character traits such as respect, honesty, integrity and kindness to our fellow man. Meanwhile, professional ethics relate to our role in a professional business context, like being responsible with money, respecting people’s privacy, and working in the best interests of a client or colleague. The two types of ethics do sometimes overlap, but sometimes you can get away with more in your personal life than you would in a professional situation. For example, while a small, white lie might be ok among friends, in the wrong job it could potentially cost you your career.


Key Differences:

Death Beauty Justice Raquib Shaw
Death, Beauty and Justice IV by Raquib Shaw, 2007, via Christie’s.

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  1. One of the most fundamental differences between ethics and the law is how they are created. While ethics are built up by society over time, and learned from one generation to the next, laws are defined by a ruling government, and can therefore change over time. 


2. Another key difference is enforcement. No one actually enforces us to behave in ethical ways – instead it is ingrained from our family, education or social circumstances how to behave in morally just ways. Meanwhile the law is enforced upon us, and we know its rules must be followed. 


3. Leading on from the point above, there are often no sanctions for behaving in many unethical ways, like selling faulty products, taking credit for someone else’s work or starting a smear campaign against a friend. By contrast, breaking the law leads to direct punishment from a higher power. 


4. We can also look at the scope of each – ethics, one could argue, have a much wider scope, relating to human behavior in a broad context, and informing even the smallest decisions we make on a day to day basis, like cutting corners to save time, or even skipping the queue. 


Key Similarities:

san francisco pride 2018
Photograph of the 2018 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade by Samuel Wantman.


  1. Both ethics and the law are ways of defining how to behave in society, and aimed at making life better for everyone.


2. Each are aimed at modifying human behavior in order to promote decent, upstanding people across all of society. Sometimes the two intersect, eg. stealing is both ethically wrong and punishable by a court of law.


3. Sometimes ethics and the law can both be used to resolve disagreements or conflicts. For example, in a business dispute, each side may hire a legal team to help consolidate the ethical standards of both parties, and even draw up a legally binding document in order that they remain in place.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.