Law and Ethics:
The Different Systems
Throughout this book, I will be drawing comparisons between the legal system and systems of ethics, so it is important to understand the ways they are similar and the important differences between them. The two systems are often confused, the most common and dangerous confusion producing the excuse that as long as I follow the law, I cannot be accused of being unethical.
Law and ethics are both normative systems prescribing guidelines on how people ought to live their lives. And because people are not always legal or ethical in their behavior, both systems face the problem of excuses or defenses offered when a person is charged with having violated a standard of behavior.
The two systems have a great degree of overlap. Many of our controlling norms are both legal and ethical. While law and ethics are in general mutually supportive, the overlap is far from complete, so the systems can conflict. This raises the oldest of all problems for political and legal theory--how one should resolve such a conflict between law and morality. When there is such a conflict, one might believe the legal rule unjust and choose to disobey it. Conversely, one could conclude that even if the law calls for conduct violating the actor's personal ethics, he still has to comply because of the overriding importance of fidelity to the law. The argument supporting this latter position is that if social and political stability is desirable, everybody needs to obey a valid law whether he agrees with it or not. 1
Serious conflicts between law and ethics are not common in ordinary life, and that set of issues is not particularly relevant to the problem of ex-