The conflict between law and ethics has been a subject of much debate and discussion since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers. Today, people often take for granted that ethics and law are intertwined. Actually, the two concepts are substantially different and have been at odds throughout history. To understand the conflict between law and ethics, one must first understand the differences between them.
Merriam-Webster defines law as "a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognized as binding or enforced by a controlling authority." Therefore, laws are neither abstract or relative. Laws do not bend to individual or cultural norms and values, and one cannot opt out of them on the basis of personal belief; they apply to all people despite any moral or ethical objections that may be raised.
Ethics, on the other hand, is subject to interpretation in light of personal and societal values. Professional ethicist Dr. Bruce Weinstein suggested that these five principles define the role of ethics: "Do no harm," "Make things better," "Be fair," and "Be compassionate." While various cultures implement these principles differently, Weinstein says that ethical standards around the world and across religions are based on these principles.
The conflict between law and ethics arises when we are faced with the choice of doing "what is legal" or "what is right." Many situations do not legally compel us to act in a certain way; no one is legally required to help an elderly woman who requests assistance loading groceries. To not do so, however, would be unethical. In a more extreme context, some laws may not only allow, but require unethical behavior. In these situations, the conflict is much more complex.
In the 2004 film "National Treasure," Nicolas Cage's character offered a toast to "high treason" in honor of America's founding fathers--men who "did what was considered wrong" by opposing British rule "in order to do what they knew was right." Similarly, the abolitionists of the 1800s often broke laws in opposition to slavery. In the civil rights era, leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. defied unethical laws that denied equal rights to black citizens.
Today, the debate rages on. Issues like abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage highlight the age old contention between law and ethics. Is abortion ethically justified just because it is legal? Is it ethically permissible to offer euthanasia to a suffering person who requests it, despite the illegality of euthanasia? Is gay marriage wrong just because laws say so? These are just a few examples of the many questions and conflicts surrounding law and ethics today.