What Is the Difference Between Legal and Ethical Issues?

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The difference is the law controls what people can and cannot do while ethics are moral standards that differentiate wrong from right.

Legal and ethical issues arise frequently, and are commonly encountered in certain fields such as medicine, healthcare and politics. In some instances, legal regulations prohibit people from carrying out certain tasks, such as administering life-saving support, that are considered morally permissible actions.

The Core of Legal and Ethical Issues While ethical issues are based on the difference between right and wrong, legal issues are based on laws. Many laws are created with ethical issues in mind in order to protect individual rights and freedoms. On the other hand, there are laws that can be used in unethical ways.

Most laws generate positive responses, as their intent to protect and promote the safety and well-being of the public is virtually indisputable. Other laws, however, generate disagreement among citizens, particularly over sensitive issues such as end-of-life care and medical treatment for certain conditions. While legal and moral issues sometimes coexist in harmony, they can also raise questions and generate conflicting opinions.

One example is resuscitation. Providing medical treatment or failing to do so is a controversy concerning law and ethics. An elderly patient in a nursing home might have a statement in his or her will allowing the refusal of resuscitation in certain situations. If the patient suddenly collapses, many people would consider the act of resuscitating the individual to be the morally correct course of action, while law prohibits such actions.

When Legality and Ethics Collide Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical. For example, a medical company called Turing Pharmaceuticals increased the cost of a drug by 5,000 percent in order to increase its profits, according to CNN Money. It was legal to do so, but the ethics of increasing the costs of a medication people depend on is dubious. As well, some argue that just because alcohol is legal doesn’t make it ethically right to consume it. These differences in opinion are based on a person’s upbringing, belief systems and experiences.

To help ordinary citizens navigate the road between what’s legal and ethical, there are organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU campaigns on behalf of people and groups to achieve justice, particularly when ethics are violated in name of the law, according to the organization. For example, the ACLU and as well as state organizations such as the New York Civil Liberties Union have used the courts to fight laws they say are unethical and in violation of citizens’ rights.

Legal and Ethical Issues in Scientific Research There are laws and rules of ethics in place to address the process of scientific research. These laws and guidelines are strictly enforced, particularly when the research studies involve human subjects. Whenever someone conducts research, it’s necessary to follow all the laws to ensure the human subjects’ safety and well being, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As well, many of these laws are based on basic ethical considerations. In these cases, violating laws is also violating ethical guidelines, which in turn devalues the research.