University of Makeni Sustainable Enterprise – 2 Leadership and environmental ethics Ethical leadership

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Ethics and law

Many believe that the word ethical equates to lawful, and that by being lawful an organisation or activity is automatically ethical.

This is not so.

While many things that are unethical are also unlawful, ethics do not equate to law.

Many unethical things are entirely lawful (although some can only be tested when/if they get to court).

Moreover sometimes the law (of any land) can produce extremely unethical effects.

In fact while most unlawful actions will also tend to be unethical, certain situations can contain a strong ethical justification for breaking the law, or changing the law.

Notable examples are situations in which the law, or the way law is applied, is considered unethical ('wrong' is the typical description) by sufficient numbers of people to pressure the legal system to change. You can perhaps think of examples when this has happened, and such cases are examples of an ethical viewpoint being ultimately more powerful than the law.

Examples of this happening through (Western) history illustrate the tendency for ethical considerations to drive the law: women's suffrage (women's right to vote); the abolition of slavery; and modern human rights and equality legislation are examples of ethical pressures causing change in law.

The independence of nations and the break-up of colonial rule are further examples of ethical pressures overwhelming the force of law.

Unlawful acts are not always unethical. Ethical acts are not always lawful.

Lawful therefore does not equate to ethical, and unethical does not equate to unlawful.

Interestingly, the UK Consumer Protection Regulations effective on 26 May 2008 are a good example of unethical business practices becoming prohibited in law. For example it has always been unethical to mislead customers into buying products or services. Now it is illegal to do so (in respect of consumers - here are the implications of the regulations).


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