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What Is Ethics Law?

By Sherry Davis Zander
Updated May 16, 2024
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In its most basic sense, ethics law is a series of laws and codes that set the boundaries of acceptable moral conduct for people and businesses within a given society. Ethical considerations often play into a variety of different laws, and may influence things like sentencing and punishment guidelines, too. Some of the most common ethics-oriented laws pertain to science, particularly research involving human and live animal subjects; business operations and financial transactions usually also come under scrutiny in the name of ethics, as do many government operations. How these laws are framed and enforced can vary a lot, though. In most cases there isn’t a singular ethics law. More often, these sorts of cautions and regulations penetrate other larger codes, and ethical considerations are usually only a part of any standard. Enforcement usually also varies tremendously depending on location. Some countries and jurisdictions are particularly strict with respect to morality concerns, whereas others, though they may have tough laws on the books, are notoriously lax when it comes to enforcement.

Understanding Ethics Generally

The word ethics generally relates to a morality, philosophy, set of principles, or code of conduct considered by a society to be moral behavior. Ethics also influences much of the way laws are both crafted and enforced, but its fingerprints aren’t always obvious. For instance, murder usually is viewed as criminal both because it violates the written law, but also because it seems somehow morally offensive to take the life of another. The code of criminal laws in most places isn’t strictly an ethics law because it usually encompasses much more than morality; but, at the same time, to say that morality doesn’t factor in would be to draw an incomplete picture.

In Science

One of the most common intersections of ethics and the larger law has been in relation to scientific research, particularly where human subjects are concerned. Issues of animal testing also usually fall under this category. Lawmakers typically work with pretty specific ethical expectations when setting the legal boundaries for what can and cannot be done. Laws governing ethical practices in science have have been expanded in recent years to cover human cloning and stem cell research, which many find objectionable on moral grounds. A number of countries, including the United States, prohibit most forms of these practices. Other countries around the world participate much more freely, thought. The disparity is one example of how the ethical views of different societies can diverge.

Business and Financial Applications

Questions of acceptable conduct also have a well-known role in most aspects of corporate law. It’s typically the case that laws that govern corporations are framed within the standard civil code, but ethical implications are often quite obvious. Businesses and government entities are constantly dealing with ethical issues as societal norms evolve. Some ethics violations are obvious, while others must come under review for a determination. It is usually critical that ethical issues are addressed when discovered in order to maintain a framework of order before it can turn into chaos.

Some business ethics issues include accurate reporting of expenditures, accurate reporting of time, and protecting trade secrets. Stealing trade secrets is a federal violation in the U.S., for instance, as well as in many other places, and is punishable by law. Just because something is unethical doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s illegal, though. The line is often somewhat ambiguous, but in most cases an action isn’t criminal unless it breaks a defined law.

For instance, intentionally inflating the reporting of time and expenditures is usually considered unethical, but in most contexts isn’t something that the law punishes. They are considered company ethics violations. The law would criminalize to the stealing of trade secrets in most cases, but not to the inflated company time reporting and expenses. Most businesses usually provide ethics training for new employees to ensure corporate ethics are honored. Applied ethics ensures that laws pertaining to ethics are not violated. It usually is considered critical to have an ethics policy in place to maintain the safety and well-being of any government or corporate entity.

Government Accountability

Government officials and those who hold positions of public leadership are also usually bound by enforceable ethical codes. There are many reasons for this, but avoiding corruption and maintaining freedom of action are usually quite important. For example, U.S. officials are allowed a certain monetary value for gifts donated to them from lobbying groups, and they typically have to report each gift. There are strict requirements regarding campaign contributions to U.S. government officials, as well. In addition, government officials in nearly every country have to abide by certain requirements to help protect their government's sensitive information.

For Legal Professionals

Where lawyers are concerned, the term “ethics law” sometimes has a nuanced meaning: the legal field usually has a specific set of ethical codes by which practitioners are bound and, in many cases, may also be tested on. Most law students take legal ethics courses that cover things like attorney-client relationships and the importance of truth telling in investigations and court proceedings. The bar exams of most jurisdictions also have specific ethics sections that cover exactly this sort of conduct. Practicing attorneys usually have to take a certain number of courses each year in professional ethics, too, typically as part of something known as “continuing legal education,” or CLE.

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Discussion Comments
By Armas1313 — On Feb 13, 2011

Ethics and the law go hand in hand. Usually, people are only interested in making a buck or in getting ahead, even at the expense of their fellow man. The law places helpful limitations which allow for an equal opportunity for everyone, and levels the playing field, while still fostering competition.

By Renegade — On Feb 12, 2011

@JavaGhoul

With the work of environmentalists and people concerned about the state of industry's effect on planet earth, business ethics may soon be required to "go deeper" than mere adherence to laws. This may take the form of laws, however, which require that businesses avoid pollution at any cost. It is to be hoped that industries in the third world, especially China, will continue to recognize violations of natural gas emissions laws.

By JavaGhoul — On Feb 11, 2011

Ethics refers to treatment of workers and interaction of various businesses in terms of secrets and trust. If trust is violated, this can result in legal trouble. Businesses under a specific government know what is and isn't allowed in their code of law, and are able to successfully navigate the legal system to get what they want. Oftentimes, ethics doesn't go much deeper than that in the workplace.

By BioNerd — On Feb 10, 2011

Companies need to recognize that there is more to work than money. This will help them to make way for family life and allowing workers to make the necessary investment in their children and in the future. When parents are denied time at home, marriages and families can fragment, resulting in a bad society. This is a good business ethic, in my opinion.

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