Ethics and laws both play a significant role in organizations, especially within the health care field.
Ethics are a set of guidelines (some would say rules) about what should be. That is, how does one act in a given situation? When two valued entities come into conflict, which should be prioritized? Ethics typically are derived in abstract terms or as general rules and applied to specific situations. There are several schools of thought as far as ethics go, all have supporters, but all are flawed too.
Laws, in contrast, are the result of political process. Sometimes, laws are voted on by the public and therefore, stem from the will of the people. Others are imposed by authorities. Far too often, in America, laws are created in such a way as to benefit a politically powerful group or business.
Laws and ethics often conflict with each other. For example, in health care, a person may feel that it is ethically right to perscribe drugs that would allow a terminal patient to end his or her life. The laws, in every state except Oregon, say that this is wrong and punishable. Another example is that many people feel it is ethically wrong to provide expensive, elective surgical procedures to wealthy people when many poor have no health care coverage and suffer from preventable disease. Some would say that the law permits and ethically unjustifiable situation.
Here are some direct contrasts between law and ethics:
- When you violate a law, you are often punished. When you violate an ethical code you seldom are.
- It is expected that one uphold the laws of the land. To uphold a strong code of personal ethics is often seen as being exceptional, or going "above and beyond" the call of duty.
- One makes a choice to adopt an ethical system. One is obligated to obey the laws of your country.
- Laws often change over time. Some people feel that ethical principles do not change, though this point can be debated.
- Law is ultimately the final arbiter in society. There may be a clash of ethical ideas, but in the end people will typically follow the law. Many times, an ethical debate is ended when the legal system determines an outcome.
For some examples of the clash of laws and ethics inside the medical field, look to things like the access to birth control. Some groups feel that birth control is unethical and attempt to prevent it from being offered at medical care facilities under their control. In most states, the law agrees that this is acceptable, though there are restrictions.
Here is a news article which talks about an instance in which a Catholic hospital was ordered to make birth control available to its employees.
Another clash of laws and ethics is the end-of-live debate. Remember two years ago, when Terri Schiavo was on life support (google her name for lots of articles). Legally, her husband was permitted to remove life support, which would cause her to die. Many people felt this was unethical and so lauched a court battle to prevent it. Once again, the legal system was used to arbitrate an ethical dispute.
I hope this give you some ideas, let me know if I can add anything else.