Examine the relationship between laws and ethics? Are they ever in contradiction? Are laws enough to promote ethical behaviour? Explain with examples. (250 W/ 15 M)

Mentor’s Comment:

A question on laws and ethics has been a recurrent theme in all previous year papers. This is a basic question to test your conceptual clarity on the theme.


Model Answer:

Laws and ethics both serve similar purposes of guiding human conduct so as to make it conducive to civilized social existence. They enforce a sense of right and wrong.

Laws refer to the set of codified norms which are enforced by the state. They act as external obligations. On the other hand, ethics refer to the set of norms which guide our internal compass and judgements.

Both are derived from certain common sources like religion, community values, cultural context, sense of justice, etc. However, ethics can also be a result of one’s own evolution, personal experiences, personal choices, etc.

While laws apply uniformly to all, ethics can vary from person to person and they change more frequently than laws.

In case of a breach of law, the state is within its right to punish. Hence, they work as a medium of retributive justice. On the other hand, ethics are not enforceable.

The relationship between laws and ethics is a complex one.

  1. Many laws are representative of ethics of the time and have been shaped by what is considered ethical. Eg. The idea that everyone is equal before law is derived from the value that human are born equal.
  2. At the same time, laws have shaped ethics. They have been used to counter regressive doctrines. Eg. When Sati was abolished, it was not an unethical practice and derived its legitimacy from religion. But appropriate laws eventually forced to stop the unethical practices.
  3. Some actions are ethical, but illegal and some actions are legal, but unethical. Eg. lying to a friend might be unethical but its not necessarily illegal. In many countries, any speech against the government is punishable by law but its ethical for citizens to express their grievances.

From the above we can say that laws alone are not enough to promote ethical behaviour. The reasons being:

  1. Laws can never be so exhaustive to cover each and every scenario possible. Hence, there will always be scope for discretion. In such scenarios, ethical behaviour should come from within.
  2. There are many scenarios where laws cannot exist. E.g. we cannot have strict laws to scrutinize every small act of corruption.
  3. Even with laws, some unethical practices continue to exist. E.g. laws for violence against women have existed for ages. But that hasn’t caused such acts to end.

It is true that if a society was ethical, then we would not require laws acting as external checks. But such is a hypothetical scenario. Laws and ethics have their own unique position. Both are equally important and go hand in hand.


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