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This article is written by Parth Verma, a student of the School of Law, Christ University, Bengaluru. This article seeks to explain the concept of laws and ethics among people all over the world, along with the differences that exist among them.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


In our everyday lives, we observe various rules and regulations that we are bound to follow. From following the traffic rules to filing taxes in a suitable manner, there are several rules that play a vital role in any society. These are the rules generally formulated by any authoritative body. However, at the helm of these rules are certain socially acceptable practices. Such practices essentially shape these rules. These were followed by the members of society for a very long period of time and were used to regulate the behaviour of people at a time when there were no formal rules. These practices, known as ethics, are then incorporated into the laws of the country due to their general acceptability among people. For several reasons, all ethics are not capable of becoming laws. This article aims to find the basic differences between laws and ethics to determine their overall relationship and changes that should be made to strengthen them.

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Difference between law and ethics

Laws and ethics, despite being interrelated in various aspects, have quite many differences between them. These differences are as follows.



‘Law’ is a term as well as a concept that is not capable of being defined in a singular sense due to its broad scope. Over the years, different philosophers proposed various aspects of law, all of which were correct in their own sense but failed to provide a single definition of it. As a result, various schools and theories of law exist to this date, proposed by several thinkers such as Emmanuel Kant, Plato, Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, etc. 

Analyzing its definition from a broader point of view, a law can be defined as a set of rules and regulations that are used for regulating human behaviour. This definition covers the major aspects of the law. However, the law has various other aspects and features which can’t be covered in a single statement. The things that are common in each thinker’s opinion about the law are that the violation of these laws tends to cause some punishment or penalty, for example, imprisonment or payment of compensation. These laws also can’t be created by any individual and should be made a formal authority in the country. As a result, Austin defined the law as a ‘command of the sovereign’ wherein the government or the authority is not subjected to any influence from external sources. These laws, however, can’t be made in complete isolation from the needs and expectations of the people living in that country. Hence, the law also needs to take into consideration society and the norms that are being followed by citizens. 


The term ethics has been derived from a Greek term known as ‘ethos’ which means a custom or a character. It focuses on the moral aspects of society along with the moral behaviour of individuals. Ethics essentially refers to the basic values that an individual should have as a member of society. These ethics are not codified or uniform across the regions, as different communities might have different values and ethics, which are then passed on from one generation to the other through word of mouth. In each and every field, ethics are of the utmost importance to ensure that there is no chaos. For example, legal ethics are to be followed by professionals working in the legal field in current times. Society has its own ethics and norms that are to be practiced by its members in their day-to-day lives. Most people are also bound by their own religion or dharma to follow and maintain certain ethical standards for living in the religious community.

With respect to the relationship of ethics with law, ethics are the informal laws of any community. Though there is no obligation on any person to follow the ethics nor are these enforceable by the state, any person is expected to practice certain ethics. 

An example of ethics is paying respect to our elders in India or being honest in our work. These are not protected in the form of laws but enjoy general applicability in society to live in harmony and co-existence. Hence, ethics are also very important for any nation to thrive. As ethics essentially aims to distinguish between right and wrong, which is also the underlying premise of law, as a result, ethics and law are very closely related as a result.



Laws are made by the state, which includes the lawmakers of the country. These might include legislators. Apart from the lawmakers, the entire Parliament, including Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, and the President, is involved in the procedure of lawmaking that is also highly formal in nature. This is the position of the law in current times. However, laws have originated from the writings and commentaries of various jurists and legal thinkers, which led to the establishment of various schools of law. The various schools of law are as follows:

Natural School

According to the Natural School of Jurisprudence, laws aren’t made by human beings. They only discover and apply these laws. It is some external force, such as God, who makes these laws. The rights provided to human beings are inherent by virtue of human nature. It means that each and every human being is to be provided with certain basic rights that can’t be taken away from them under any circumstances. Further, it is also based on the fact that the law is discovered and interpreted by human beings due to their better reasoning capacity than all the other creatures on earth. The main propounders of this school were Aristotle, Emmanuel Kant, etc.

Positive School

Under the Positive School of Law, the laws are made by the person who is empowered to do the same. In other words, the law is the command of the sovereign. The laws should be strictly separated from morals and religion. The laws made by the state are positive in nature, which means that each and every individual should aim at upholding the rights of others. If they fail to do so, they might be subjected to sanctions or penalties. Hence, as per this school, sanction or enforcement is the very essence of the law. The main proponents of this school are Jeremy Bentham, Austin, etc.

Sociological School

The Sociological School of Jurisprudence focuses on the functional aspect of law, which is the effective administration of justice. As per this school, the law is the body of principles that are recognized and enforced by the various tribunals for the administration of justice. People obey the laws not because of the fear of punishment but to meet their needs. The sanctions imposed for not following the law are not the force but the awareness of the people. The main propounders of this school were Roscoe Pound and Montesquieu. This is one of the very last schools of jurisprudence. 

Historical School

According to this school, the laws have partly been derived from the social habits of the people and partly from the different experiences of the people in their lives. The laws already exist in this world and are known by the people. These laws then develop gradually along with the silent growth of customs and unformulated public opinion. It was also stated that the law develops like a language over the years. It develops various new terms and jargon that are then used in common parlance. The main proponent of this school was Savigny.

Realist School

As per this school of jurisprudence, the laws are made by the judges. In other words, the role of judges in giving decisions in the courts is vital as they set the precedents that will be followed by future courts. The focus is more on the judicial precedents and the laws are made on the basis of what the judges in the courts decide. Laying down a uniform set of laws would help in regulating human behaviour, but at the same time, certainty of law is a myth. The predictability and the usage of the laws depend on the varying facts and circumstances of each case. The main propounders of this school were Gray and Cardozo.

Philosophical School

This school of jurisprudence is very unique in the way that it doesn’t concern itself with what the existing laws are or what previous laws were. The thinkers aim to develop such ideas of justice to provide for an ideal legal system for all. The thinkers of this school have considered the law to be composed of various abstractions. The laws are generally removed from their objectivity when they are required to be very definite and precise to be applicable universally. The main propounders of this school were Hugo Grotius, Jean Jacques Rosseau, etc.

These were some of the writings of different thinkers that laid down the origin or the foundation of the present laws. Hence, these are at the foundation or provide the origin of laws.


All ethics or ethical standards are a byproduct of all societal norms and traditions that have been followed by people for many years. Certain customary practices laid down the general behaviour to be followed by the members of society, which eventually took the shape of ethics.

In other words, ethics and values for any community are stated by the members of the community itself. There is no intervention by the state. These can also be made by legal thinkers, philosophers, etc., belonging to a common sect. Ethics or values aren’t laid down in a written form in any community. These are rather passed on among the people through word of mouth and are propounded by either family members, religious leaders, or philosophers belonging to that particular region or community. Further, these ethics are not codified or available in a single source. This is because people living in different regions, as well as belonging to different communities, have varying belief systems, owing to which their customs and ethical values would also be different.



All the laws are made in the country to apply to all the people. No other individual or entity is allowed to make the laws. This helps in ensuring uniformity of rules in the country that are to be followed by all. No section of society can claim to have different laws. This helps in ensuring equality in the country and, at the same time, ensures that there is a common set of laws applicable to all. In other words, they have a uniform impact on all citizens and institutions across the entire nation. This provides clarity to citizens and also removes the scope for any misuse or ambiguity due to the existing legal provisions. 


Ethics can’t be made applicable to the people of an entire country. The main reason behind it is that different people follow different customary practices that might be unique to their own community or group. As a result, these practices might even be conflicting at times. For example, bigamy is allowed among a group of Hindus in Goa, whereas the same is prohibited among other sects of Hindus. This clearly shows that there can’t be any uniformity among the ethics of different communities. However, within a single community or group, there is a higher possibility that people will follow the same ethical values and standards. 

Role of Religion


Religions might play a significant role in the formulation of codified laws for any given country. Examples of the same can be observed for all religions in India, such as the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872, and the Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act, 1939. In this way, certain important aspects of various religions are accommodated in the form of laws that are going to be binding on the citizens. Hence, religion impacts the law, and at the same time, laws also impact any religion.

However, the laws aim to ensure that no religion is given any preference over another. Further, no specific religion is allowed to have any influence over the laws of a nation. Its primary purpose is to ensure secularism, or ‘Dharmnirpekshta’, which has been stated in the preamble of the Indian Constitution. As per secularism, religion and law should be kept separate from each other, and the state shouldn’t promote any particular religion or prefer it over others.


Most ethical values are determined by society or any group on the basis of religion. The religion being followed by a particular community determines the ethics and traditions that it needs to follow. As a result, the ethical values stated under one religion might be in conflict with those of some other religion. It becomes very difficult to separate religion from the ethical values of a given community. Religion, to a large extent, influences the practices people belonging to a given community or group resort to.



Laws can be both flexible as well as rigid at the same time. With the changing needs of society, the laws are required to be changed to accommodate the new ideas and the vision of the people. The laws should be kept flexible in such situations.

At the same time, bringing amendments to the laws is not very easy as it involves a complex procedure. However, the laws should neither be very dynamic nor very rigid. If the laws became very dynamic, they could be easily changed and there would be no stability. On the other hand, if they are too rigid, it would be difficult to change them and accommodate the changes in society. This could eventually lead to a revolution to bring about a change in the system, thereby hampering the peace and stability of the land.

Hence, laws are flexible to a certain extent, but a considerable amount of effort would be required on the part of lawmakers to use this essential feature of the law.


Ethics is far more rigid in comparison to laws because these are followed by the people in a given community since time immemorial and without any stoppages. Bringing about a change in ethics would require changing the outlook of the entire community that has held a certain belief for centuries. This is very hard to achieve and might even lead to protests and revolts by the community at times, thereby disrupting public order. 



The law has certain objectives that it aims to achieve. These objectives are as follows:

Administration of justice

The primary objective of any law is to administer justice in such a manner that it is fair to all. By laying down the acts which are unlawful and the punishment for doing such acts, the state ensures that fair justice is provided to the aggrieved person. This justice is administered through sanctions or punishments, which essentially involve either imprisonment or the payment of compensation to the injured party. At the same time, by giving punishment to the wrongdoer, the law creates a deterrent impact on all other people in the country and seeks to restore the condition of the injured.

Ensuring peace and stability

Another objective of any law is to ensure that there is stability in society, with different communities living in peace. This would ensure a stable social and public order, which would become the foundation for the development of a nation.

Enhances social, political, and economic development

The laws aim at enhancing the political, social, as well as economic activities of any country. However, the qualification to achieve the same is that the laws shouldn’t be arbitrary and should rather focus on the rights of all in a country. 

In all those nations where the laws are made to fulfill the personal desires of the leader or the whims and fancies of the government in utter disregard for the people, such as in North Korea, all activities will eventually suffer. Their economy is on a continuous decline, with people dying due to starvation. There is no voting process as the dictator has the sole authority till he dies, as given in their Constitution. The laws hence can have a significant impact on the country’s position in all respects in the entire world.


The objective of ethics, on the other hand, is to make people aware of the difference between right and wrong so that they become good citizens and protect the moral rights of others. These provide a template for people of the basic conduct and nature they should have in society. From respect for the elderly to talking politely, the ethical standards aim to continuously improve to facilitate the process of societal inclusion and development. In this way, ethics aims to reform the entire society. The meaning of morality is continuously changing, and what might have been moral for citizens 50 years ago might no longer be considered moral. Changes in ethical values could also act as an instrument of social change. An example of this is the abolition of sati. When the entire Hindu community accepted this practice as immoral, it was removed despite its being in practice for many centuries. 

Punishments and penalties


For the breach of any law, a person could be penalized in the form of some fine or compensation. The wrongdoer can also be punished through imprisonment for a certain period of time. In other words, a person could be penalized if he/she doesn’t act in accordance with the laws of the country.


No punishment or penalty could be inflicted upon a person if he/she doesn’t follow the ethical standards laid down in any society. Ethics only lays down certain acts that a good individual is expected to perform in a society that are not enforceable by the state. 



The laws are legally enforceable by the state upon the citizens. In other words, a person is bound to follow the laws without fail. If they breach the laws, appropriate legal action could be initiated against them, either by the aggrieved party or by the state. 


Ethics are not enforceable or binding on any person. No person can be compelled to follow any particular tradition or engage in required ethical conduct. Following certain ethics is a matter of choice for a particular individual, and the state can’t force any person to necessarily follow them.

Examples and classifications


The laws can be divided into various categories based on different criteria. On the basis of region, the law can be divided into international law and municipal law. While international law consists of statutes and covenants that are applicable to all countries at the global level, municipal laws refer to the domestic laws of a given country. In the event of a conflict among them, the municipal laws will always prevail.

They could also be categorized on the basis of dealing with individuals. These could be divided into public law (focusing on public rights) and private law (rights of a private individual). There are also many branches of law, such as common law (uncodified) and civil law (codified). These are some major classifications of the law. An example of a legal provision is the Indian Penal Code, 1860


Ethics can be divided into four major categories. These are as follows:

  1. Normative ethics: This form of ethics is concerned with determining how one ought to act in a moral sense in a collective group or a community. Instead of focusing on the current trend of morality in society, it aims to delve deeper into how people should and must morally interact with others.
  2. Personal ethics: It refers to the ethics that an individual needs to follow while interacting with others in society. An example of ethical conduct is obeying and respecting our parents. It also consists of honesty, integrity, and selflessness while interacting with others in a social setting.
  3. Social ethics: It refers to the ethics that aim to reflect upon the morals and ethics of the social structure and the social systems in a given region. It not only focuses on achieving individual interests but also works towards the attainment of group interests.
  4. Professional ethics: It refers to the ethics that aim to determine the ethics and behaviour of an individual in the business environment. An example of the same is taking responsibility for any business-related task and at the same time, being accountable for it.

Overview of difference between laws and ethics

MeaningThese are a set of rules and regulations to administer justice and regulate human behaviour in society.Ethics refers to all the acceptable customs and practices that have been in place since time immemorial.
OriginLaws are made by the legislators or the lawmakers in a country, and Parliament plays an active role in the entire process.Ethics are a byproduct of society. These are formulated by religious leaders or family members in society.
Role of religionReligion has no role to play in the formulation of laws.Ethics can be decided on the basis of the religion of the people in a particular region.
UniformityLaws are uniform across the entire country, and all people are bound to follow them.Ethics vary from region to region depending on the beliefs of different people living in different areas.
FlexibilityLaws are more flexible than ethics as they can be changed on the basis of the demands of people.Because of the rigid mindsets of the people in a community, ethics are very difficult to change.
ObjectiveThe objective of laws is to create a civil society with proper social order and peace.Ethics aim to make people distinguish between right and wrong and protect the moral rights of others.
PunishmentA person can be punished for committing any wrongful act, such as the payment of fines or imprisonment.A person can’t be punished for not following the ethical standards as they are not legally binding.
EnforceabilityLaws are enforceable by the state upon the citizens of the country.Ethics are not enforceable on the part of the state, and individuals are not legally bound to follow them.
ExamplesAn example of law are the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.An example of ethics is respecting and obeying our parents.

Views of various scholars on law and ethics

John Rawls

In his book, ‘The Theory of Justice’, John Rawls focused on achieving equality in society and treating every person with absolute fairness. The purpose of any law should be to provide people with the best possible benefits, even the less advantaged members of society. Hence, his theory directly focused on equality in society through fairness and cooperation among members of society regardless of their race, religion, gender, caste, etc. It means that his views on ethics and laws were directly entwined with each other and he didn’t identify any direct distinction between laws and ethics. He was a staunch opponent of utilitarianism, believing that it could lead to an unstable society and would generate disagreement among people.

HLA Hart

According to him, laws and ethics are highly intertwined with each other. They can’t be separated from each other under most circumstances. The laws are made on the basis of the ethics that the people follow in a given region, and hence these should be subjected to moral scrutiny. Social morality and ethical standards that people follow in any given society eventually influence the law, either abruptly or through concerted action by people. Morality is at the core of each and every legal system and is extremely close to any given law. However, he at the same time explicitly stated that morality is not always a necessary condition for making any law valid. 


There are various differences between ethics and laws. Still, it becomes very difficult to separate them in society as they ensure effective public order and peace among their members. There are several ethics that should be removed or changed with the help of laws, and in a similar manner, ethics can also act as an instrument to bring about a change in society. There is a need to balance the use of ethics in laws so that the old traditions and ethical standards are respected and, at the same time, they have a uniform impact on all citizens. It is only then that the laws would keep public order under control and people would also be satisfied.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

How are ethics reflected in law?

Ethics are an integral part of the law. These ethics and societal values provide a strong foundation for any law made in a country.

Are ethics legally binding?

Unlike laws, ethics are not legally binding on any individual. It’s not compulsory for a person to follow certain ethics and they are only ‘expected’ to follow those being members of society.

How do laws bring about change in society?

Laws can act as strong forces to bring about changes in society. Formulation of new laws can help in curbing regressive or exploitative practices to ensure justice and public order in society. Basic moral rights are at the helm of all laws, thereby giving rise to legal rights.


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