Your daughter is dying but you can’t afford the medicine. It’s available in most pharmacies but you don’t have any money. Do you try and steal it? Or do you watch your daughter die in pain and poverty?
I first learnt about this dilemma in psychology class in college. It raises the question: Would you break the law to save the life of someone you love?
It’s a question that illustrates the conflict between the legal and the ethical. Some other examples?
There are regulatory loopholes that corporations can exploit to avoid or lessen taxes. They can use offshore accounts, tax havens, shell companies and many more tricks to avoid paying tax. But should they? What they do is legal. But is it ethical?
Slavery was outlawed in America just 150 years ago. Before that, it was legal. But was it ethical? Certainly not.
Here in the UK, businesses can take on apprentices and pay them £2.50 an hour. Which equals £100 a week for a full time position. These apprentices end up with the same responsibilities and duties as regular employees. But they’re paid just £2.50 an hour. Which is almost £6 below the current UK living wage estimate.
It’s a legal practice. But is it ethical?
Businesses can also use zero-hour contracts. These are fantastic for an employee. When there’s enough trade, they have an army of workers to call upon. But when there isn’t, their are minimal overheads to maintain.
Zero hour contracts are legal, but are they ethical?
There’s many more examples. But the dilemma is, how do you answer these questions? How do you decide what is ethical and what isn’t? I don’t know about the former, but there’s a heuristic we can use to answer the latter question:
If legality is the only justification of an action, it’s probably not ethical.