Ethics, also referred to as morality, is a discipline that examines right and wrong. The study of ethics is also referred to as moral philosophy.
While ethical issues deal with what is morally right and morally wrong, the discipline neither defines nor depends upon what is legal or illegal. While legal statutes may be based upon a basic moral code, it is possible and often likely for actions to be illegal yet still ethically or morally acceptable, and vice versa. Let’s look at a couple examples:
Ethical, but not Legal
Elizabeth is a single mother. She has been out of work for several years in spite of concerted effort to get a job. After paying all the bills for the house, keeping the lights on, etc., she has no money left for food. She has exhausted every possibility from government assistance to help from family and friends. As a last resort, she steals food from a local store so she can feed her children.
This is an illegal act. Stealing is against the law. However, this is not an immoral act. Stealing, in this case, is an ethical act in an effort to feed children.
Legal, but not Ethical
Bill and Sally have been married for several years. Sally begins a sexual relationship with Andrew while still married to Bill. She keeps the relationship a secret. Sally is committing adultery. Adultery, defined as sexual relations between a married person and a person outside said marriage, is considered by many to be immoral.
While Sally’s actions are seen as a violation of a moral code, they are not against the law in the United States.