Ethics, Morals, and Legality

Learning Objectives

  • Define ethics.
  • Differentiate between ethics, morality, and legality.

Ethics and morals are often regarded as synonyms, but there is some distinction in how they are used.

Ethical Behavior

Ethics are a set of standards that govern the conduct of a person, especially a member of a profession. While ethical beliefs are held by individuals, they can also be reflected in the values, practices, and policies that shape the choices made by decision makers on behalf of their organizations. Professions and organizations regularly establish a “Code of Ethics” that serves to guide the behavior of members of the profession or organization. In the medical profession, for instance, doctors take an ethical oath to “do no harm.” The American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ code states “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.”

A man wearing a silly hat

Do you like my new hat?

We negotiate ethical dilemmas every day, though many can be resolved without a huge effort. When your friend shows up in a hideous hat and asks if you like it, you have to choose between telling the truth and hurting their feelings. Do you go for a response that avoids both lying and insulting your friend’s taste, such as “well, it’s very colorful”? Or is it more ethical to protect your friend from embarrassing themselves in public?

The most important thing is to be aware of the principles that inform your response, so that you can make the most ethical decision available. In this module, we’ll be learning about some of the key ethical principles in public communication.

To Watch: Lauren Gutierrez, Social Work Scrapbook

In this video blog, Lauren Gutierrez, LCSW, board certified supervisor, discusses ethical dilemmas and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics. For our purposes, the first two minutes are the most important in that they show how a professional code of ethics can help to resolve ethical dilemmas specific to a given field of work. If you’re interested in social work, however, you may want to watch the whole video!

You can view the transcript for “Ethical Dilemma / Steps for Social Workers” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

This YouTube video uses an editing technique that has become very common in recent advice, review, and opinion videos: all non-essential statements have been removed, including many transitions, and sentences are sometimes cut off before the speaker has reached an audible conclusion. This technique makes the video much shorter than it would be otherwise and focuses the viewer’s attention on the important parts, but to some viewers it may feel choppy or disconnected. Depending on the context, it can be a good editing technique for your own videos on YouTube, but it may not be appropriate for a video presentation in this class.


An ethical dilemma

Let’s say you were hired to gather and present data on the effectiveness of an after-school tutoring program. From what everyone says, the tutoring program seems to be doing great work and is very popular. The group organizing the program wants to have data to present to donors and foundations. After you gather and analyze your data, however, you find that the data doesn’t make a very convincing case for the program. The test numbers immediately after students finished tutoring look good, but six months out, students’ performance actually seems to go down. Also, the survey shows a small group of students who report a fairly negative experience with the program. It would be difficult to show the effectiveness of the program without “cherry picking” the data a bit—discarding some responses and ignoring the longer-term test data. It would really help this program if you could present a clear picture of strong positive results. Should you adjust the data a bit to showcase the success of the program?

Chances are, your response to this question was, “well, it depends.” The answers to ethical questions are rarely obvious, and often involve competing interests. When confronted with an ethical dilemma, you need to analyze the problem and decide which principles are at play. In this case study, we can see a potential conflict between a professional commitment (the desire to perform responsible statistical analysis) and a social commitment (the desire to see a good program succeed). The solution to an ethical dilemma might require choosing one side or another, but it might also require approaching the problem from a different direction altogether. In this case, there may be ways to communicate with the various stakeholders to support the program without manipulating the statistics unethically. Or perhaps it is possible to gather new data, or demonstrate the program’s value in a different way.

Ethics is also a branch of philosophy that asks the question, what is the right thing to do?[1] In this module, we’re concerned primarily with this philosophical understanding of ethics, because we will be considering the right and wrong—ethical and unethical—use of public communication.

Behaving ethically is not the same as following the law, since certain laws may not be ethical. Consider racist laws in the U.S. before the Civil War, or in apartheid South Africa, for examples of unethical (and immoral) laws.[2] Nor is ethical behavior just based in the expectations of society. There are times when society’s norms or expectations will contradict one’s own ethical standards.

Moral Behavior

Morals are concerned with, or come from, an unwritten code of behavior concerning what’s right or acceptable in a particular society. Traditionally, morals have been the special province of religion and cultural groups. Moral thinking often feels intuitive or “natural” because it has to do with the way we were raised or educated.

Legal Behavior

Legal behavior follows the dictates of laws, which are written down and interpreted by the courts. In decision-making, determining the legality of a course of action is facilitated by the existence of statutes, regulations, and codes. Unlike ethical considerations, there are established penalties for behaving in a way that conflicts with the law. However, as society evolves, what constitutes legal behavior also changes. For example, until recently, the possession or use of marijuana was illegal throughout the U.S. As a result of the legislation that legalized marijuana in several states, existing laws will need to be reinterpreted, and undoubtedly additional laws will be enacted to govern what was formerly illegal behavior. Whether or not an individual thinks it is ethical to use a potentially harmful substance, the fact is that the law now allows such behavior. Following the law is not the same as behaving ethically; many questions of ethics are not covered by the law and some laws may be unethical (or unjust).


Try It


  1. Note the switch there from the plural "ethics are" to the singular "ethics is." Ethics can be used both as singular and plural. When we're referring to the branch of philosophy, we use the singular. "Ethics is the philosophical study of principles relating to right and wrong conduct." (wiktionary).
  2. Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer. Issues in Ethics IIE V1 N1 (Fall 1987). Revised in 2010.