Do Laws Set the Standard For Ethics?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

“Do Laws Set the Standard For Ethics?” may be a simple question, but the answer is complicated. They do and they don’t set the standard. 

Laws set the MINIMUM standard for ethical behavior. This is the level that I call the punishment threshold. If your behavior drops below this level, you will be fined, sanctioned, sent to jail, or otherwise punished. The reason there are punishments when laws are violated is because they are considered the rock bottom of what we should be able to expect from people. Obviously, we don’t want everyone behaving at this level. 

Ethical values set the OPTIMAL standard for ethical behavior. They define the desired behaviors – what we want people to do. Applying ethical values requires a broad understanding of our responsibilities and a willingness to take responsibility for our role in the workplace and society. 

No one should use “following laws” as a measure of their good citizenship. It’s ethical values that are the true measure of leaders and organizations.

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