Legality and ethics
“There is a big difference between what we have the right to do and what is right.” – Hon. Justice Porter Stewart. Indeed, Justice Stewart could not have been any precise. The learned fellow was delineating the line that exists between legality and ethics. This distinction has often evaded the attention of society. Legality essentially covers what the law and the populace at large accepts and enables one to do. In the statement, legality is captured in what we have the right to do. Generally, people have the right to do anything in as far as the law does not expressly forbid it. The silence of the law is usually interpreted as consent. Consequently, people have vested rights and freedoms to do anything in as far the action does not negate the law.
However, this freedoms and rights must be exercised responsibly. This informs the reasoning of Justice Stewart in the last portion of the statement. What is right need not necessarily be expressed in any law. Right actions derive from the unwritten code of ethics. It would be ethical for businesses and people to practice the right rather than stick to what the law does not expressly forbid. It is noteworthy, that, in many cases, laws are formulated in retrospect in order to remedy an injustice or bar a wrong that was previously allowable. However, for ethics, at no time is any law formulated barring what was previously right. Businesses must, therefore, take the trouble to do what is right. The obligation to do right is founded on ethical grounds rather than legal grounds.
Finally, ethics ought to be embraced as an element of corporate social responsibility. The observation of what is right facilitates the maintenance of the conscience of society.
Jennings, M. M. (2010). Business: Its Legal, Ethical, and Global Environment. New York: Cengage Learning.