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The Distinction between ‘Legal’ and ‘Ethical’ Behavior

The Distinction between ‘Legal’ and ‘Ethical’ Behavior

Over the years MRSC has received numerous questions asking whether certain actions are legal or ethical – and the way the questions are asked indicates that there is often confusion over the use of the words ‘legal’ and ‘ethical’. The distinction is important.

Actions are ‘legal’ if they do not violate the laws or codes of the local government, state, or federal government. Actions are ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ (I will treat the words as synonymous in this article) if they meet an individual’s personal code of conduct, which may be based on a particular social, religious, or other group norms. Unfortunately, the word ‘ethics’ is often used more broadly — for example, when a ‘code of ethics’ is officially adopted in the state statutes (see, for example, chapter 42.23. RCW) or by a local government as the local code of ethics. A formally adopted code of ethics is a legal requirement; when you violate a state or local government code of ethics there are specific consequences.

So why all this fuss over words? Well, some people are of the view that if you comply with the law, which sets the minimum standards for our society, that is all that is required. And that is fine if their goal is to only meet the minimum standards accepted for our society in order to not face criminal or civil penalties.

Most people, however, aspire to more — and that is where morality and ethics (in its broader sense) come into play. Individually none of us are required to help our neighbors, the homeless, a lost child, or an injured pedestrian in the street — but we all hope that most of our neighbors will assist us and others in ways beyond the minimum requirements set by law.

Treating others with respect, whether in our social groups or at the workplace, is the basic glue that keeps groups working positively to resolve problems. Though we may disagree with others on various issues, we should take the time to listen to opposing views and to understand why someone else might have a different perspective. Did you spot the word “should” in that last sentence? Modern democracies do not legislate that we treat each other with respect, they can only point the way and legislate regarding the minimum ‘legal’ requirements.

I started my first draft of this article prior to the recent wave of publicity and allegations regarding a serious lack of respect for women, which in many cases constituted illegal conduct. The many descriptions that have been provided in the media point to a serious problem, and one that will not be righted when we all behave ‘legally’ toward each other. There’s more. We need to examine our conduct to see if we are respecting others in the many ways that we interact.

Ultimately the issue comes down to who we feel is worthy of respect. Do we extend basic respect to all people — men and women, those of a different race or religion, or holding different political views, etc. — or do we draw the line short of that? The tapestry of our society is being torn by a lack of willingness to really listen to each other.

That gets us back to local government here in our communities and my New Year’s wish for 2018: That all of us accord respect to each other. Particularly, that all those who serve on local government legislative bodies or boards make an effort to really listen to the other members and try to understand the worthwhile aspects of others’ views. During discussions, instead of constantly thinking of how you can rebut or argue against another person’s views, take the time to listen carefully and find common ground. We serve our communities best when policy decisions incorporate a broad range of perspectives.

Questions? Comments?

If you have questions about this or any other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have comments about this blog post or other topics you would like us to write about, please email me

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Jim Doherty

About Jim Doherty

Jim had over 24 years of experience researching and responding to varied legal questions at MRSC. He had special expertise in transmission pipeline planning issues, as well as the issues surrounding medical and recreational marijuana. He is now retired.