This module is a resource for lecturers  


Key issues


Law and ethics are clearly related, as they both reflect values and guide behaviour, but they are not the same thing. On occasion, law seems to allow unethical, harmful behaviour, while on other occasions flawed laws can raise the question of whether people should comply with them at all. Integrity poses further issues; it is a worthwhile goal, but can it realistically be achieved? The main goal of this Module is to equip students with the ideas they need to critically evaluate issues arising from the interplay of integrity, ethics and law.

As used in this Module, ethics is understood to be a system of principles that guide how people make decisions and lead their lives. In contrast to ethics, integrity is understood as a consistent application of ethical principles, particularly honesty. These concepts are discussed extensively in Module 1 of the present module series, which lecturers are advised to review in preparation for this Module. In Module 1 (Integrity and Ethics: Introduction and Conceptual Framework), ethics is defined as "the attempt to arrive at an understanding of the nature of human values, of how we ought to live, and of what constitutes right conduct" (Norman, 1998, p. 1). Module 1 refers to integrity as "consistency between beliefs, decisions and actions, and continued adherence to values and principles" (Malan, 2007, p. 278). Different from integrity and ethics, law is a system of rules recognized by society and enforced via sanctions of some sort.

This Module moves through three conceptual shifts. First, the Module explores academic understandings of the three main concepts and how they are different from each other. "Ethics" are principles that guide behaviour, while "integrity" suggests that we should carry out ethical principles in our daily lives and activities, rather than espousing an ideal and then doing something contradictory. Discussions of integrity frequently raise the issue of honesty because if someone advocates an ideal that he or she does not uphold, this can be viewed as a kind of dishonesty. "Law" asserts and upholds certain values, such as life and the protection of rights and property, but compared to ethics, legal rules normally establish lower expectations for behaviour. For example, ethics might require someone to help a stranger in need, but the law would normally not require that. Both ethics and law require us to refrain from wrongfully killing another person, but while breaching an ethical rule might result in criticism and rejection (Shavell, 2001), breaching a legal rule brings about more severe sanctions such as civil or criminal fines, prison, and even death in some countries. Because violation of the law entails significantly more severe sanctions then ethical rules, only behaviour considered by society to be truly hurtful or wrong is made illegal.

A controversial aspect of the conflict between ethics and law is the idea that people can choose not to follow a law that they fundamentally disagree with on ethical grounds. Laws underpinning the apartheid era in South African could be one example.  Another type of law which some people strongly feel is unethical is the legal prohibition of euthanasia (Singer, 1993; BBC, 2014). In such cases, people may choose to engage in civil disobedience, asserting that it is acceptable and perhaps even required in some situations for people to break unjust laws. An example of civil disobedience would be U.S. civil rights workers in the 1960s sitting in public spaces they were excluded from, because at that time some U.S. states legally segregated public facilities by race. Should we comply with what we consider an unjust or unethical law in order to avoid a lawless society? Or is it justified to not only criticize but also refuse to obey such a law, in order to be consistent with one's ethical principles?

Another difficult example of the conflict between ethics and law is when the law seems to allow unethical conduct that is extremely harmful. A longstanding example of this in some countries is the refusal of the law to punish an adult who does not come to the aid of a drowning child, whom they could have saved, but chose not to. Ethically the adult is required to help the child, but the law is reluctant to impose a duty to rescue someone else. Imposing a duty to rescue someone is viewed as oppressive, because it would order someone to take positive action as opposed to merely imposing a duty to refrain from injuring others. This position follows from Locke's and Kant's approach to law, which is at the basis of many legal systems: Law should protect people's rights from being infringed, so as long as people do not infringe on the rights of others, they should be free to act as they want. Some jurisdictions consider a rule requiring people to rescue each other as impractical because it would be difficult to enforce. The law will punish someone in this situation if they have a duty to take care of the child, such as a parent or caregiver, because in those circumstances the relationship between the adult and the child justifies imposition of law's severe sanctions. Legal rules vary from country to country, and some countries do have a legal duty to rescue, but there is a constant tension between what the law requires and what ethical principles suggest.

In the first segment of this Module, students consider some of these examples of ethics, integrity and law, which go beyond definitions and are useful in stressing the distinctions between the three concepts. In particular, examples of public behaviour of persons or institutions that act in accordance with (or contrary to) ethics, integrity, or law will deepen student understanding of the respective concepts. Public behaviour, for example by public officials or employees of companies, provides some distance for students from the more challenging and emotional personal issues of integrity and ethics, and offers a good conceptual starting point. International examples may be relevant as well, but the connection between integrity, ethics and law may be clearer with local examples that students are more familiar with.

In the second segment of this Module, students move from conceptual understandings of ethics, integrity and law to the application of these concepts in a case study. Case studies are more complicated than examples and more representative of the complexity students will encounter in the world. Consider the following example from academia, one of the suggested exercises of the Module:

An undergraduate course required for graduation has a reputation for being extremely hard to pass, much harder than similar courses. When posting materials to the class website, the teacher accidently posts a test with answers indicated at the end. The teacher notices the error immediately and deletes the test, but before she does so a student downloads the test. The website does not allow the teacher to see whether the test was downloaded, and because she deleted the test with the answers so quickly, the teacher later uploads the same test without the answers and requires students to take the test. The Student Code of Ethics prohibits students from taking a test when there is reason for them to believe they have confidential information regarding the answers to a test they are not supposed to have. Violations of the Student Code of Ethics are punishable.

The task in the case study is to consider the relevant issues of integrity, ethics and law. In this case study, what options do the teacher and the student have, and what should they do and why? Some of the issues raised in this case study include the teacher's error in posting the wrong version of the test online. If the teacher was not 100% sure that the test version with the answers was not seen by students, should she have discarded that test and created a new test, even if that would be more work? If the teacher makes these kinds of errors, why can't students take advantage of them? One reason for the student not to use the test version with the answers is that there is dishonesty involved. The student implies when taking the test that he or she does not already have the set of answers; it seems like this is true because if the student tried to take the test but told the teacher he or she had the test version with the answers, the student would not be allowed to proceed. Another reason for the student not to use the test version with the answers is that it would be unfair to other students if one student had an advantage other students did not have. The test is based on the assumption that students have the same kind of opportunity to study and do well, and that the test results will reflect that knowledge and effort. If the test answers are known to a student in advance, the test is not a fair evaluation of all students and the results are invalid. Using the test version with the answers is also prohibited by the Student Code of Ethics, which as a set of written rules of required behaviour with sanctions can be considered a kind of law. The case study, however, suggests that the student might get away with using the test version with the answers, assuming that other people do not find out and report the student. If someone can get away with illegal or unethical behaviour, does that make unethical behaviour acceptable? Yet another complicating factor raised in the case study is that the course is much harder to pass than other courses, which seems unfair to students. Does one bad action justify another? If the course is unfairly hard to pass, does that justify a student's dishonest use of the test version with the answers? How about the use of other unethical means to pass the unfairly difficult test? Finally, if the student does use the test version with the answers, how might that effect the student? Will it lead them to be cynical in the future, or value ethical rules less? If the student is asked whether they ever committed educational misconduct in a future job application, will they have to lie to cover that up?

The case studies in this Module raise issues of ethics, integrity and law which are difficult to answer, but a final conceptual shift is still waiting for students, when they apply the concepts of ethics, integrity and law to themselves and problems that they or persons they know face. Now instead of telling other, hypothetical people what to do, students are required to consider issues intertwined with their family and friends, or their own lives and life goals. Discussion of personal examples raises challenging issues, because analysis is greatly complicated by values, emotional attachment, and limited perspectives. This last portion of the Module however has the potential to be a very satisfying discussion which connects classroom discussion with the reality of students' lives. The goal of having students consider more personal examples is to help students internalize how ethics, integrity and law apply to them, together with some strategies of how to resolve conflicts among the concepts in their own lives.

The foregoing discussions of integrity, ethics and law raise questions of why people should be ethical, have integrity or follow the law, but they should also raise questions about why adhering to these concepts might be difficult in real life. Cognitive dissonance, a psychological concept developed initially by Leon Festinger in the 1950s, suggests that people are uncomfortable when they hold two conflicting thoughts in their mind at the same time, for example, when their ethics and their behaviour do not align (Festinger, 1957). Dissonance increases if the subject is important, the conflict is strong, or we cannot explain the conflict to ourselves in some way.

However cognitive dissonance only means that people are uncomfortable in some way when they are faced with conflicts within themselves; for example, if their ethics and behaviour are not consistent. The idea of cognitive dissonance does not suggest how people will resolve this uncomfortable feeling. People can resolve cognitive dissonance by making their behaviour conform to standards of integrity and ethics, but they can also use a very different strategy - change or lower their ethical standards, or change their perception that they have done something wrong to the perception that they have not done anything wrong.

Social factors can also inhibit or promote integrity and ethics, and David Luban reviews scholarship from social science which suggests that integrity is much harder to sustain in a group because there is a diffusion of responsibility (Luban, 2003). Luban notes that situations can create pressure and temptation, but that some people invariably overcome those pressures, even in experiments structured to increase pressures to the breaking point. Luban argues that the pathway to real integrity and consistency between ethics and behaviour is not via a narrow-minded inflexibility, but rather life learning in which occasionally moral positions are genuinely rethought or discarded. Among Luban's recommendations, particularly when the potential for a lack of integrity seems to be a clear possibility, is to decide in advance what line will not be crossed, and to quit the activity when that line is crossed. Students can debate whether these ideas are of any assistance, in the context of their own examples and the case studies suggested by the Module.



  • BBC (2014). Anti-euthanasia arguments .
  • Festinger, Leon (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, Illinois: Row and Peterson.
  • Luban, David (2003). Integrity: its causes and cures. Fordham Law Review, vol. 72, pp. 279-310
  • Norman, Richard (1998). The Moral Philosophers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Shavell, Steven (2001). Law versus morality as regulators of conduct. Harvard Law School John M. Olin Center for Law, Economics and Business Discussion Paper Series. Paper 340.
  • Singer, Peter (1993). Taking Life: Humans. Excerpted from  Practical Ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 175-217.
  • Malan, Daniel (2007). Integrity. In The A to Z of Corporate Social Responsibility. Wayne Visser and others, eds. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
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