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Difference Between Illegal and Unethical

Illegal vs Unethical

In order to understand the difference between “illegal” and “unethical,” we will first have to consider “legal” and “ethical.” “Legal” means “recognized or made effective by a court of law as distinguished from a court of equity.” Ethics has much to do with the inner self. “Ethics” may be defined as “moral principles as of an individual.”
In an illegal act, the decision-making factor is the law agency. For an unethical act, the deciding agent is the man’s own conscience. An unethical deed may be against morality but not against the law. For example, a minister could refuse to speak to any public gathering unless he or she has been paid a large sum as a speakers’ fee. It is quite legal but unethical.

At an organizational scale it is essential to elucidate the difference between “law” and “ethics.” In an organization, laws are the set of rules that are put forward and enforced by the ruling governments to discipline the society. Here, “ethics” are the moral codes set by the organization on the basis of the culture of the society.
For instance, in the world of computers, a person can write or design a system which has negative consequences on the social system in the future. This can be unethical but not illegal till the program is designed and implemented and had caused the ill effect.

“Unethical” is what one or one’s culture and environment thinks to be wrong. An illegal deed is always unethical while an unethical action may or may not be illegal. The perception of ethics may differ in different conditions.
Each and every organization has a social responsibility to bear. It has to have some positive impact on society; it has to give back to society what it has taken in the form of welfare of the community. An unethical behavior would not consider this and would look for its own personal gains. Such an institution will not consider what their system is posing on the society be it good or bad or even worse. One such example would be of the mining companies. They do not attempt to address the inconvenience of the people that are displaced by their operations. Such an attitude is considered unethical. This may certainly not be labeled as illegal as the law has not made it mandatory for the company to relocate the people and ease their discomfort that has been caused by the mining operations.

An illegal behavior is detected easily as it deviates from specified and set rules and regulations by the governing bodies. Unethical behavior is a bit intricate to detect as there are no set rules for ethical behavior. Also, unethical behavior depends on the perception. A single act may be unethical for one and be totally honest for the other.


1.“Illegal” is an act against the law while “unethical” is against morality.
2.Illegal behavior is easy to detect; however, unethical behavior is tough to detect.
3.International laws are similar for all, but international ethics may differ for different regions and cultures.

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