Difference Between Legal and Ethical (With Table)

A human being is not just a living being who is breathing, eating and reproducing, but they are more than that. They think, have values, have etiquettes etc. A person is not only an individual but also a part of community or society due to which they are adherent to some authority.

Law is a set of rules that are created to give people their rights and to protect those rights. Government sets laws for people to regulate their behaviour.

Legal vs Ethical

The difference between legal and ethical is that not abiding by one is punishable and not for the other one. Legal and ethical have a lot of differences, although sometimes they are used interchangeably but they are different terms.

One moral value of a person can be or cannot be the value of another person, because that totally depends on their process of thinking.

Values are not always been taught sometimes as children people get what they see, for example if a child saw her father killing people or indulged in burglary to earn a living then the child will not fear to kill someone for him it will be normal and correct.


Comparison Table Between Legal and Ethical (in Tabular Form)

Parameters of ComparisonLegalEthical
BasisBased on lawBased on principles
Effect of non adherenceNot adhering is punishable.Not adhering is not punishable.
Scope of choiceLawfully mandatoryVoluntary
FormHave written recordsTotally abstract form.
Impact seen onGenerally seen in larger spheres or on irregular basis.Seen in smaller spheres as well.


What is Legal?

Something is legal when the activity or procedure is done by abiding law, the person has to be adherent to law. Those laws should be governmental.

Legal aspect is necessary for proper functioning of society, as it provides rights to people and provides clauses for protection of those rights which is even more necessary. 

The term ‘legal’  is derived from law. The origin of the word ‘legal’ can be traced from Anglo-french word ‘legalis’. It was 1562 when ‘legal’ term was used. 

Legal process or  act includes governmental notions before enacting or concluding. For example if someone wants to buy property then they have to legally buy it. By the term ‘legal’ here means paperwork. It is important to make a written record while buying any property.

‘Legal’ is an adjective and noun used to describe anything that concerns law. There are other related forms of ‘legal’ like : post – legal, pseudo- legal, quasi-legal, pre-legal, etc..

Anything being legal is directly associated with procedure, equipment, practices, languages, cultures and other concepts pertaining to the system of governmental law.

Legal aspects are more objective. They are not confined to an individual rather it affects the whole society.

Non adherence to law is termed as ‘illegal’. Being illegal or doing something illegal can put the person behind bars or fine can be charged.


What is Ethical?

Being ethical is totally an individual’s choice. Ethical acts or behavior is based on principles and values of people. It is more about being right or wrong in terms of character.

Ethical standard is an abstract form in nature. It is a code of conduct for society agreed by society but it is not governmental.

The ethical standard is primarily based on individuals then on a societal level. Nobody can enforce ethics on someone, rather it comes from introspection.

Ethical is an adjective and noun used in association with ethics. It’s origin can be traced from Middle english ‘etik’ and in latin ‘eticus’. It was formally adopted in 1588.

An example of ethical standards; when an accident happens on the road, ethically other people should help the needy but sometimes people tend to ignore the scenario. Which is not ethical. Although, nobody can punish or ask fine for such ignorance but morally incorrect.

Ethical values are the ability to differentiate between right and wrong, if the person fails to differentiate or choose another path (probably the wrong path) then that is called unethical.

Main Differences Between Legal and Ethical

  1. Legal is based on law on contrary ethical standards are based on moral values.
  2. Doing something which is not legal (illegal) is punishable on the other hand, not being ethical (unethical) is not punishable.
  3. There are written records of what is legal and what is not, whereas ethical standards are an abstract form.
  4. In legal acts adherence to law is mandatory while in ethical acts it is voluntary.
  5. Ethical acts can be seen on a daily basis in smaller spheres as well (even in children), but legal acts are not seen in everyday life.



Legal and ethical both aspects are mandatory for functioning of proper society. Generally when a person is ethically correct it is expected that they will be legally correct as well.

Both of these terms are interconnected, like if a person is legally doing something then it is ethical. Ethics are taught in abstract form whereas legal things have written form.

Ethical and legal have moral aspects and lawful aspects respectively. They are interconnected but cannot be used interchangeably.


  1. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1509/jppm.
  2. https://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/medicalschool/education/degree_programs/MDProgram/clinicalcore/peri-operativecare/Documents/Legal%20and%20Ethical%20Myths.pdf
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